Tag: Ascension Island

Relics of Empire: Saint Helena

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.

Relics of Empire: Tristan da Cunha

Smack in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean sits “the remotest island in the world.” This tiny colony of Great Britain is comprised of six small islands: Tristan da Cunha (the main body), flanked by Inaccessible, Nightingale, Middle, Stoltenhoff, and Gough. All but Tristan and Gough are unoccupied; however, Gough boasts little more than a manned weather station.

The islands were discovered in 1506 by Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha. The explorer was on his way to the Cape of Good Hope when he happened upon the islands; however, rough weather and tempestuous seas prevented him from making a landing. Before moving on, he named the island after himself, calling it Illha de Tristão da Cunha. This was later Anglicized to the modern name Tristan da Cunha.

Settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on T...
Settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on Tristan da Cunha Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few others happened by the islands throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, though none stayed long. In 1810, the first settler arrived: an American named Jonathan Lambert, who claimed the islands as his own property and renamed them the Islands of Refreshment. Neither the name nor rule stuck for long, as Lambert died just two years later.

British rule of Tristan da Cunha began soon thereafter, when the United Kingdom formally annexed the islands. The move was a strategic military one, made primarily to keep the island out of the hands of enemy forces. The British government feared that the islands could be used as a rescue base from which the French could free Napoleon Bonaparte from imprisonment on Saint Helena. There were also concerns that the Americans might try use the base again as they had done in 1812.

Initially, Tristan was populated by military personnel; however, the British garrison was soon bolstered by a growing population of civilians and whalers. This minor population growth was short lived though, and as the Suez Canal improved shipping lines, the islands once again sank into isolation.

By 1938, the islands had been declared a dependency of Saint Helena. The population grew marginally throughout the 20th century; however, when Queen Mary’s Peak erupted in 1961, the entire population was forced to evacuate. A year later, the island was assessed, and since damage was minimal, most families returned.

English: Portrait of Tristan da Cunha settler ...
Portrait of Tristan da Cunha settler Jonathan Lambert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the islanders carry on in relative obscurity. On occasion, such as during the extratopical cyclone in 2001, they receive relief from the British government. Mostly though, the islanders of Tristan da Cunha are largely self-sufficient – especially since the islands were given a unique UK postal code, allowing them to order needed supplies online.

The island is ruled by the Queen, represented by the Governor of Saint Helena. The governor appoints an administrator on the island who takes advice from a local island council.

The population of Tristan da Cunha is 264. Most of these are descended from 15 original ancestors who arrived on the island between the 1800s and 1900s. There are only eight surnames on the island, and these speak to the heritage of the inhabitants: Glass and Patterson (Scottish), Hagan (Irish), Rogers and Swain (English), Green (Dutch), Lavarello and Repetto (Italian).


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