Saint Helena is a volcanic tropical island located in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) from the nearest major landmass, 2,500 miles (4,000 km) east of Rio de Janeiro and 1,210 mies (1,950 km) west of the Cunene River, which marks the border between Namibia and Angola in southwestern Africa. The island, one of the most remote islands in the world, was uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It is part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
Named after Saint Helena of Constantinople, the island measures about 10 by 5 miles (16 by 8 kilometers) and has a population of 4,534 (2016 census). The total area of 47 square miles (122 km²) is composed largely of rugged terrain of volcanic origin. The last volcanic eruptions occurred about 7 million years ago). Coastal areas are covered in volcanic rock and warmer and drier than the center. The highest point of the island is Diana’s Peak at 2,684 feet (818 meters). In 1996, it became the island’s first national park.
Much of the island is covered by New Zealand flax, a legacy of former industry, but there are some original trees augmented by plantations, including those of the Millennium Forest project, which was established in 2002 to replant part of the lost Great Wood and is now managed by the Saint Helena National Trust. The Millennium Forest is being planted with indigenous gumwood trees.
When the island was discovered, it was covered with unique indigenous vegetation, including a remarkable cabbage tree species. The island’s hinterland must have been a dense tropical forest but the coastal areas were probably also quite green. The modern landscape is very different, with widespread bare rock in the lower areas, although inland it is green, mainly due to introduced vegetation. There are no native land mammals, but cattle, cats, dogs, donkeys, goats, mice, rabbits, rats and sheep have been introduced, and native species have been adversely affected as a result. The dramatic change in landscape must be attributed to these introductions. As a result, the string tree (Acalypha rubrinervis) and the Saint Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica) are now extinct, and many of the other endemic plants are threatened with extinction.
There are several rocks and islets off the coast, including: Castle Rock, Speery Island, the Needle, Lower Black Rock, Upper Black Rock (South), Bird Island (Southwest), Black Rock, Thompson’s Valley Island, Peaked Island, Egg Island, Lady’s Chair, Lighter Rock (West), Long Ledge (Northwest), Shore Island, George Island, Rough Rock Island, Flat Rock (East), the Buoys, Sandy Bay Island, the Chimney, White Bird Island and Frightus Rock (Southeast), all of which are within one kilometer (0.62 miles) of the shore.
The national bird of Saint Helena is the Saint Helena plover, known locally as the wirebird, on account of its wire-like legs. It appears on the coat of arms of Saint Helena and on the flag.
St. Helena is associated with two other isolated islands in the southern Atlantic, also British territories: Ascension Island about 810 miles (1,300 km) due northwest in more equatorial waters and Tristan da Cunha, which is well outside the tropics 1,510 miles (2,430 km) to the south. The island is situated in the Western Hemisphere and has the same longitude as Cornwall in the United Kingdom. Despite its remote location, it is classified as being in West Africa by the United Nations.
It was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa for centuries. Napoleon was imprisoned there in exile by the British, as were Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo (for leading a Zulu army against British rule) and more than 5,000 Boers taken prisoner during the Second Boer War, including Piet Cronjé.
Between 1791 and 1833, Saint Helena became the site of a series of experiments in conservation, reforestation and attempts to boost rainfall artificially. This environmental intervention was closely linked to the conceptualization of the processes of environmental change and helped establish the roots of environmentalism.
Saint Helena is Britain’s second-oldest remaining overseas territory after Bermuda.
Most historical accounts state that St. Helena was discovered on May 21, 1502, by Galician navigator João da Nova sailing in the service of Portugal, and that he named it Santa Helena after Helena of Constantinople. Another theory holds that the island found by da Nova was actually Tristan da Cunha to the south and that Saint Helena was discovered by some of the ships attached to the squadron of the Estêvão da Gama expedition on July 30, 1503, as reported in the account of clerk Thomé Lopes.
A paper published in 2015 reviewed the discovery date and dismissed August 18 as too late for da Nova to make the discovery and then return to Lisbon by September 11, whether he sailed from Saint Helena or Tristan da Cunha. It demonstrates that May 21 is probably a Protestant rather than a Catholic or Orthodox feast day, and the date was first quoted in 1596 by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, who was probably mistaken because the island was discovered several decades before the Reformation and the start of Protestantism. The alternative discovery date of May 3 is suggested as being historically more credible; it is the Catholic feast day of the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena in Jerusalem, and cited by Odoardo Duarte Lopes and Sir Thomas Herbert.
The Portuguese found the island uninhabited, with an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock, fruit trees and vegetables, and built a chapel and one or two houses. They formed no permanent settlement, but the island was an important rendezvous point and source of food for ships travelling by Cape Route from Asia to Europe, and frequently sick mariners were left on the island to recover before taking passage on the next ship to call at the island.
Englishman Sir Francis Drake probably located the island on the final leg of his circumnavigation of the world (1577–1580). Further visits by other English explorers followed and, once Saint Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home.
In developing their Far East trade, the Dutch also began to frequent the island. The Portuguese and Spanish soon gave up regularly calling at the island, partly because they used ports along the West African coast, but also because of attacks on their shipping, the desecration of their chapel and religious icons, destruction of their livestock, and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors.
The Dutch Republic formally claimed Saint Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonized, or fortified it. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favor of their colony at the Cape of Good Hope.
In 1657, Oliver Cromwell granted the English East India Company a charter to govern Saint Helena and, the following year, the company decided to fortify the island and colonize it with planters. The first governor Captain John Dutton arrived in 1659, making Saint Helena one of Britain’s oldest colonies outside North America and the Caribbean. A fort and houses were built. After the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the East India Company received a royal charter giving it the sole right to fortify and colonize the island. The fort was renamed James Fort and the town Jamestown, in honor of the Duke of York, later James II of England.
Between January and May 1673, the Dutch East India Company forcibly took the island, before English reinforcements restored English East India Company control. The company experienced difficulty attracting new immigrants, and sentiments of unrest and rebellion arose among the inhabitants. Ecological problems of deforestation, soil erosion, vermin and drought led Governor Isaac Pyke in 1715 to suggest that the population be moved to Mauritius, but this was not acted upon and the company continued to subsidize the community because of the island’s strategic location. A census in 1723 recorded 1,110 people, including 610 slaves.
Eighteenth-century governors tried to tackle the island’s problems by planting trees, improving fortifications, eliminating corruption, building a hospital, tackling the neglect of crops and livestock, controlling the consumption of alcohol and introducing legal reforms. The island enjoyed a lengthy period of prosperity from about 1770. Captain James Cook visited the island in 1775 on the final leg of his second circumnavigation of the world. St. James’ Church was built in Jamestown in 1774, and Plantation House in 1791–1792; the latter has since been the official residence of the Governor.
Edmond Halley visited Saint Helena on leaving the University of Oxford in 1676 and set up an astronomical observatory with a 24-foot (7.3-meter) long aerial telescope, with the intention of studying stars from the Southern Hemisphere. The site of this telescope is near Saint Mathew’s Church in Hutt’s Gate in the Longwood district. The 2,230-foot (680-meter) high hill there is named for him and is called Halley’s Mount.
Throughout this period, Saint Helena was an important port of call of the East India Company. East Indiamen would stop there on the return leg of their voyages to British India and China. At Saint Helena, ships could replenish supplies of water and provisions and, during wartime, form convoys that would sail under the protection of vessels of the Royal Navy. Captain James Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour anchored and resupplied off the coast of Saint Helena in May 1771 on its return from the European discovery of the east coast of Australia and the rediscovery of New Zealand.
The importation of slaves was made illegal in 1792. Governor Robert Patton (1802–1807) recommended that the company import Chinese labor to supplement the rural workforce. The coolie laborers arrived in 1810, and their numbers reached 600 by 1818. Many were allowed to stay, and their descendants became integrated into the population. An 1814 census recorded 3,507 people on the island.
In 1815, the British government selected Saint Helena as the place of detention for Napoleon Bonaparte. He was taken to the island in October 1815. Napoleon stayed at the Briars pavilion on the grounds of the Balcombe family’s home until his permanent residence at Longwood House was completed in December 1815. Napoleon praised Saint Helena’s coffee during his exile on the island, and the product enjoyed a brief popularity in Paris in the years after his death. Napoleon died at Longwood House on May 5, 1821.
After Napoleon’s death, the thousands of temporary visitors were withdrawn and the East India Company resumed full control of Saint Helena. Between 1815 and 1830, the EIC made the packet schooner St Helena available to the government of the island, which made multiple trips per year between the island and the Cape, carrying passengers both ways and supplies of wine and provisions back to the island.
The importation of slaves to Saint Helena was banned in 1792, but the phased emancipation of over 800 resident slaves did not take place until 1827, which was still some six years before the British Parliament passed legislation to ban slavery in the colonies.
Under the provisions of the 1833 India Act, control of Saint Helena passed from the East India Company to the British Crown, and it became a crown colony. Subsequent administrative cost-cutting triggered a long-term population decline: those who could afford to do so tended to leave the island for better opportunities elsewhere. The latter half of the 19th century saw the advent of steamships not reliant on trade winds, as well as the diversion of Far East trade away from the traditional South Atlantic shipping lanes to a route via the Red Sea (which, prior to the building of the Suez Canal, involved a short overland section). So in the number of ships calling at the island fell from 1,100 in 1855 to only 288 in 1889.
In 1840, a British naval station established to suppress the African slave trade was based on the island, and between 1840 and 1849 over 15,000 freed slaves, known as “Liberated Africans”, were landed there.
In 1858, the French emperor Napoleon III successfully gained the possession, in the name of the French government, of Longwood House and the lands around it, the last residence of Napoleon I (who died there in 1821). It is still French property, administered by a French representative and under the authority of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On April 11, 1898, American Joshua Slocum, on his famous and epic solo round-the-world voyage, arrived at Jamestown. He departed on April 20, 1898, for the final leg of his circumnavigation, having been extended hospitality by the governor, His Excellency Sir R A Standale. He presented two lectures on his voyage, and was invited to Longwood by the French Consular agent.
In 1900 and 1901, over 6,000 Boer prisoners were held on the island, notably Piet Cronjé and his wife after their defeat at Battle of Paardeberg. The resulting population reached an all-time high of 9,850 in 1901.
A local industry manufacturing fiber from New Zealand flax was successfully re-established in 1907 and generated considerable income during the First World War. Ascension Island was made a dependency of Saint Helena in 1922, and Tristan da Cunha followed in 1938. During the Second World War, the United States built Wideawake Airport on Ascension in 1942, but no military use was made of Saint Helena.
During this period, the island enjoyed increased revenues from the sale of flax, with prices peaking in 1951. However, the industry declined because of transport costs and competition from synthetic fibers. The decision by the British Post Office to use synthetic fibers for its mailbags was a further blow, contributing to the closure of the island’s flax mills in 1965.
From 1958, the Union Castle shipping line gradually reduced its service calls to the island. Curnow Shipping, based in Avonmouth, replaced the Union-Castle Line mailship service in 1977, using the RMS St Helena.
The British Nationality Act 1981 reclassified Saint Helena and the other Crown colonies as British Dependent Territories. The islanders lost their right of abode in Britain. For the next 20 years, many could find only low-paid work with the island government, and the only available employment outside Saint Helena was on the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island. The Development and Economic Planning Department was formed in 1988 to contribute to raising the living standards of the people of Saint Helena.
In 1989, Prince Andrew launched the replacement RMS St Helena to serve the island; the vessel was specially built for the Cardiff–Cape Town route and features a mixed cargo/passenger layout.
The Saint Helena Constitution took effect in 1989 and provided that the island would be governed by a Governor, Commander-in-Chief, and an elected Executive and Legislative Council. In 2002, the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 granted full British citizenship to the islanders, and renamed the Dependent Territories (including Saint Helena) the British Overseas Territories. In 2009, Saint Helena and its two territories received equal status under a new constitution, and the British Overseas Territory was renamed Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
The UK government has spent £250 million in the construction of the island’s airport. This is aimed at helping the island become more self-sufficient, encouraging economic development while reducing dependence on British government aid. It is also expected to kick-start the tourism industry, with up to 30,000 visitors expected annually. As of August 2015, ticketing was postponed until an airline could be firmly designated. The first plane landed on September 15, 2015, with the first large passenger jet landing on April 18 of the following year, although the airport is not yet officially open due to concerns about wind shear.
The first stamp of St Helena was issued on January 1, 1856 (Scott #1). It was a 6-pence blue imperforate stamp portraying Queen Victoria. From 1863 to 1894, this stamp was issued in various colors, perforated and overprinted for each value from 1 penny to 5 shillings (Scott #2-39). A new set of Victorian key types was issued for the colony starting in 1890 (Scott #40-46).
The Victorian key types were replaced by a short-lived set of two King Edward VII key types in 1902 (Scott #48-49). In 1903, a new pictorial definitive set of six values was issued (Scott #50-55). Three stamps showed King Edward and the Government House, and three others showed the King and the wharf. In 1908, a set of four key types was issued (Scott #56-60). The values were additional values which were not included in the 1903 pictorial definitive (2½ pence, 4 pence, 6 pence and 10 shillings).
The 1912-1916 King George V definitives were similar to the 1903 definitive, the only difference being the King’s profile (Scott #61-70). However this time there were ten values in the set, ranging from ½ penny to 3 shillings. Between 1912 and 1913, 4 pence and 6 pence stamps (not included in the pictorial set) were issued in the form of a key type (Scott #71-74).
Between 1922 and 1927, a new definitive set was issued (Scott #79-99). It was similar to the 1912-16 pictorials, but instead of the Government House or the wharf, these stamps showed the badge of St. Helena — a three masted sailing ship near two large rocks. These values ranged from ½ penny to £1, and there are many varieties, such as the broken mainmast, the torn flag, and the cleft rock. In 1934, St. Helena’s first commemorative set was issued (Scott #101-110). This was a set of 10 values up to 10 shillings commemorating the centenary of British colonization (1834-1934). In 1935, the Crown Agents omnibus issue commemorating the Silver Jubilee of King George V was issued (Scott #111-114).
The first King George VI set was that of the 1937 Coronation (Scott #115-117). Between 1938 and 1949, a new definitive set was issued portraying King George VI and the badge of the Colony (Scott #118-127). However, the design was totally different from the 1922 badge set. All the commemorative sets issued in this reign were omnibus issues.
The first Queen Elizabeth issue was for the 1953 Coronation (Scott #139), followed by pictorial definitives issued one month later (Scott #140-152). Issues were mainly commemorative or omnibus. On October 12, 1961, four Tristan da Cunha stamps were overprinted ST. HELENA/Tristan Relief with a surcharge (Scott #B1-B4). Only 454 sets were sold, mainly to tourists from a visiting cruise liner. This set was withdrawn on October 19, and is the most expensive set of St. Helena. St. Helena issues commemorative stamps regularly and still takes part in Crown Agents omnibus issues.
Scott #118 was released on May 12, 1938, a ½-penny purple stamp showing the badge of the Colony, recess printed by Waterlow & Co. Ltd. on paper with a multi-script CA watermark, perforated 12½.