English: Jamestown, capital of Saint Helena, f...

Jamestown, capital of Saint Helena, from above (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 1200 miles off the southwest coast of Africa lies the tiny island of Saint Helena. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world, yet it has long played an important role as a stopover point for ships sailing to Europe from South Africa and Asia. The island of Saint Helena is perhaps most famous, however, as a place of exile for such dignitaries as Napoleon Bonaparte and Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo.

Today, Saint Helena is distinguished by being Britain’s second oldest colony. It makes up part of the British overseas territory that also includes the islands of Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island.

The island of Saint Helena was originally discovered by the Portuguese. Recognizing it as a strategic rendezvous point, the Portuguese furnished the uninhabited island with fruit trees, vegetables and herds of livestock, and built a small chapel and a couple of simple houses. While they chose not to form a permanent settlement, the island became a regular port of call for Portuguese ships.

When Sir Francis Drake located the island and realized that Portuguese ships regularly called there, English war ships began ambushing the heavily-laden Portuguese carracks. Obviously, this quickly discouraged the Spanish and Portuguese, and they soon reverted to new ports along the west coast of Africa.

The Dutch were developing their own trade routes at the time, and soon began frequenting the island. The Dutch officially claimed Saint Helena in 1633; however, nothing came of their claim, as they never colonized or fortified the island.

English: Copper engraving, 'A View of the Town...

‘A View of the Town and Island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to the English East India Company’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Saint Helena was largely abandoned, Oliver Cromwell scooped up the opportunity by granting the English East India Company a charter to govern the island. The Company moved quickly, fortifying the island and populating it with planters. In 1659, Captain John Dutton was made the first governor of the island, and the settlement was named Jamestown in honor of the Duke of York.

For a time, the Company faced severe challenges in attracting new immigrants. Ecological problems and social unrest nearly resulted in abandonment of the settlement; however, through continued subsidies, improved fortification, ecological initiatives, and legal reforms, the colony was soon back on track. By 1770, the island was enjoying considerable peace and prosperity, and by 1814, the population had reached 3,507.

In 1815, the British government took control of the island as Saint Helena had been selected as the holding place for Napoleon Bonaparte. While the Saint Helena was still technically under EIC possession, the island was strongly fortified with hundreds of British troops and guarded continuously by naval vessels.

After Napoleon’s death in 1821, control was once again given to the EIC; however, this transition was short-lived. The passing of the 1833 India Act brought Saint Helen back under the jurisdiction of the British Crown as a Crown Colony.

The government immediately implemented a number of cost-cutting measures which initiated a significant population decline. Many who could afford to do so chose to move abroad. The economy and population saw brief spikes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; however living standards were steadily in decline for many years.

In 1989, the British Overseas Territories Act provided the islanders with full and equal status under British law. Since that time, the government has invested significant resources in helping the island to once more reach a point of self-sufficiency and economic growth.

Today, the island has a population of around 4,250 residents. Most are of British origin, descended from planters and soldiers.

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Filed under: Relics of Empire

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