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St Helena

recent photo of boats in a harbour overlooked by mountains

© Andrew Pearson

Key facts

  • St Helena is a volcanic island situated in the South Atlantic Ocean. It lies 1,960 km from the south-west coast of Africa and 2,900 km east of South America. It is 17 km long and 10 km at its widest point.
  • St Helena became an English possession in 1659. It is now part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. 
  • The population of St Helena is about 4,500, 20% of whom live in its historic capital, Jamestown.
  • The St Helenians have a diverse ancestry. In addition to Europeans, they are descended from peoples of African, Indian Ocean, Chinese and Boer ethnicities. Local identity is strong, and St Helenians often refer to themselves as ‘Saints’.  
  • The St Helena Government is currently the main employer of the island’s residents. Fishing and agriculture are important economic activities but tourism is limited due to the isolation of St Helena. The airport is intended to improve access for Saints and visitors alike.
map showing the location of St Helena island, in the Atlantic between Africa and America

© Ben Jeffs

History

St Helena was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Portuguese, who named it in honour of Saint Helena of Constantinople, as it was her feast day. It was virtually uninhabited until 1659 when English settlers arrived after the English East India Company took charge and administered the island until it became a British Crown Colony in 1834.  

The last slaving voyage commissioned by the Company is believed to have been the Royal George in 1764-6.  Her Captain was given a consignment of commodities, including guns, gunpowder and cutlasses, which procured and enslaved more than 230 Africans from Cabinda (Angola). The ship delivered enslaved Africans to St Helena and Bencoolen (in modern Indonesia).

Located between Africa and South America, St Helena was an important shipping port between the 17th and 19th centuries. Ships called there for much-needed provisions, whilst sailors recuperated after their long voyages. 

The island was also used by the British as a place of imprisonment.  Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled there from 1815 until his death in 1821 and Dinuzulu, king of the Zulu nation from 1890 until 1897.  More than 5,000 Boer prisoners were held during the second Boer War between 1900 and 1902.

old illustration of St Helena

Image courtesy of The Maritime Gallery

St Helena logo

The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Government of St Helena, the Museum of St Helena and Dr Andrew Pearson. The Rupert's Valley archaeological project was funded by the UK Department for International Development.