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St. Helena

St. Helena Collection

History Archive - St. Helena Collection

ST HELENA, an island in the Atlantic in 15° 55? 26? S. lat. and 5° 42? 30? W. long. (Ladder Hill Observatory), lies 1140 miles from Africa, 1800 from America, 700 south-east of the island of Ascension (the nearest land), and 4000 from Great Britain, of which it has been a dependency since 1651. The area is about 45 square miles, the extreme length from south-west to north-east being 10 1/4 miles and the extreme breadth 8 1/4.

The island is a very ancient volcano, greatly changed by oceanic abrasion and atmospheric denudation. The northern rim of the great crater still forms the principal ridge, with the culminating summits of Diana’s Peak (2704 feet) and High Peak (2635); the southern rim has been altogether washed away, though its debris apparently keeps the sea shallow (from 20 to 50 fathoms) for some 2 miles south-east of Sandy Bay, which hypothetically forms the centre of the ring. From the crater wall outwards water-cut gorges stretch in all directions, widening as they approach the sea into valleys, some of which are 1000 feet deep, and measure one-eighth of a mile across at bottom and three-eighths across the top (Melliss).

Along the enclosing hill-sides caves have been formed by the washing out of the softer rocks. High Hill (2823 feet) and High Knoll (1903) are lateral cones. Many dykes and masses of basaltic rock seem to have been injected “subsequently to the last volcanic eruptions from the central crater.” Among the more remarkable instances are the Ass?s Ears and Lot?s Wife, picturesque pinnacles standing out on the south-east part of the crater ridge, and the Chimney on the coast to the south of Sandy Bay.

In the neighbourhood of Man and Horse (south-west corner of the island), throughout an area of about 40 acres, scarcely 50 square yards exist not crossed by a dyke. On the leeward side of St Helena the sea-face is generally formed by cliffs from 600 to 1000 feet high, and on the windward side these heights often increase to full 2000 feet, as at Holdfast Tom, Stone Top, and Old Joan Point. Limited deposits of calcareous sandstones and stalagmitic limestones occur at certain points, as on Sugar-Loaf Hill; they probably consist of particles of shells blown by the wind from some primeval beach, long since destroyed.

As regards its vegetation, St Helena is divided into three zones,—(1) the coast zone, extending inland for a mile to a mile and a half, formerly clothed with a luxuriant vegetation, but now “dry, barren, soilless, lichen-coated, and rocky,” with little save prickly pears, wire grass, and Mesembryanthemum; (2) the middle zone (400- 1800 feet), extending about three-quarters of a mile inland, not so rocky, with shallower valleys and grassier slopes, the English broom and gorse, brambles, willows, poplars, Scotch pines, &c., being the prevailing forms; and (3) the central zone, about 3 miles long and 2 wide, the last refuge for the most part of that marvellous flora which has been for generations the admiration and sorrow of the botanist. According to Mr W. B. Helmsley (who has summarized all that is known on the matter in his report on the botany of the Atlantic Islands),[1] the certainly indigenous species of plants are 65, the probably indigenous 24, and the doubtfully indigenous 5; total 94. Of the 38 flowering plants 20 are shrubs or small trees. With the exception of Scirpus nodosus, all the 38 are peculiar to the island; and the same is true of 12 of the 27 vascular cryptogams (a remarkable proportion). Since the flora began to be studied, two species—Melhania melanoxylon and Acalypha rubra—are known to have become extinct; and at least two others have probably shared the same fate—Heliotropium pennifolium and Demazeria obliterata. Melhania melanoxylon, or “native ebony,” once abounded in parts of the island now barren; but the local legislation decided that goats were of more value than ebony. Its beautiful congener Melhania erythroxylon (“redwood”) was still tolerably plentiful in 1810, but is now reduced to a few specimens. Very rare, too, has become Pelargonium cotyledonis, called “Old Father Live-for-ever,” from its retaining vitality for months without soil or water. Commidendron robustum (“gum wood”), a tree about 20 feet high, once the most abundant in the island, was represented in 1868 by about 1300 or 1400 examples; and Commidendron rugosum (“scrubwood”) is confined to somewhat limited regions. Both these plants are characterized by a daisy- or aster-like blossom, which looks very strange on a tree. In general the affinities of the indigenous flora of St Helena were described by Sir Joseph Hooker as African, but Mr Bentham points out that the important element of the Compositæ shows, at least in its older forms, a connexion rather with South America. The exotic flora introduced from all parts of the world gives the island almost the aspect of a botanic garden. The oak, thoroughly naturalized, grows alongside of the bamboo and banana. As contributing largely to the general physiognomy of the vegetation must be mentioned—the common English gorse; Rubus pinnatus, probably introduced from Africa about 1775; Hypochæris radicata, which above 1500 feet forms the dandelion of the country; the beautiful but aggressive Buddleia madagascariensis; Physalis peruviana; the common castor-oil plant; and the pride of India. The peepul is the principal shade tree in Jamestown, and in Jamestown valley the date-palm grows freely. Orange and lemon trees, once common, are now scarce. The attempt (1869–71) to introduce cinchona cultivation failed. Potatoes are probably the staple production of the St Helena farmers, and as many as three crops per annum are sometimes obtained.

The fauna of St Helena is only second in interest to its flora. Besides domestic animals the only land mammals are rabbits, rats, and mice, the rats being especially abundant and building their nests in the highest trees. Probably the only endemic land bird is the wire bird, Ægialitis sanctæ helenæ; the averdevat, Java sparrow, cardinal, ground-dove, partridge (possibly the Indian chukar), pheasant, and guinea-fowl are all common. The pea-fowl, at one time not uncommon in a wild state, is long since exterminated. Though fresh water abounds in the island in the form of springs, rivulets, and streams, there are no freshwater fish, beetles, or shells. Of sixty-five species of sea-fish caught off the island seventeen are peculiar to St Helena; economically the more important kinds are gurnard, eel, cod, mackerel, tunny, bullseye, cavalley, flounder, hog-fish, mullet, and skulpin. Mr Wollaston, in Coleoptera Sanctæ Helenæ, 1877, shows that out of a total list of 203 species of beetles 129 are probably aboriginal and 128 peculiar to the island,—an individuality perhaps unequalled in the world. More than two-thirds are weevils and a vast majority wood-borers, a fact which bears out the tradition of forests having once covered the island. The Hemiptera and the land-shells also show a strong residuum of peculiar genera and species. A South-American white ant (Termes tenuis, Hagen.), introduced from a slave-ship in 1840, soon became a real plague at Jamestown, where a considerable portion of the public library fell a prey to its voracity. The honey-bee, which throve for some time after its introduction, again died out. (Comp. Wallace, Island Life.)

The population of St Helena was 6444 in 1871 and 5059 (2617 males, 2442 females) in 1881; it consists of Government officials, of old-established residents (“yamstalks”) of somewhat composite origin, European and Asiatic, and of the descendants of Negroes landed from the West African slave-ships subsequent to 1840. The only town Jamestown (3000 inhabitants) lies in a deep valley on the north-west coast, and there is a village in the neighbouring Rupert’s Valley. Ladder Hill, the seat of the garrison, is so called from the almost precipitous ladder-like wooden stair by which its height of 600 feet can be scaled. Longwood, where Napoleon died in 1821, is a farmhouse in an elevated plain (2000 feet high), about 3 miles inland from Jamestown.

St Helena was discovered by the Portuguese navigator João da Nova on the 21st of May 1501. The island received its first known inhabitant in 1513 in the person of Fernandez Lopez, a Portuguese of good family, who preferred being marooned to returning to Europe after the barbarous mutilation to which he had been subjected for some misdemeanour. Cavendish (1588), Kendall (1591), and Lancaster (1593) were the earliest English visitors. The Dutch, who had for some time been in possession of the island, withdrew in 1651, but on two occasions (1665 and 1673) managed to expel the forces of the English East India Company, which had at once seized the abandoned prize. The company, having procured a second charter of possession on 16th December 1673, remained the governing authority till 22d April 1834, when St Helena passed into the hands of the British crown. In 1832 it had purchased the freedom of the slaves (614) for £28,062. As a port of call the island continued to prosper till the opening of the Suez Canal, which, by altering the route to the East Indies, deprived the people of their means of subsistence. The revenue has decreased from £13,931 in 1874 to £10,421 in 1884, the expenditure from £14,521 to £10,806, the value of imports from £53,874 to £41,816, and of exports from £4006 to £1436. Halley the astronomer in 1676 left his name to Halley’s Mount; and Maskelyne and Waddington visited the island in 1761.


See Seale, Geognosy of Saint Helena (folio plates), 1834; Brooke, History of Saint Helena, 1808 and 1824; Beatson, Tracts, &c., 1816; Darwin, Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands, 1844; Melliss, Saint Helena, 1875.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition, Volume XXI. pp. 170-171.

Available Books


Image Name
A View near the Roode Sand Pass at the Cape of Good Hope
Back Cover
Aegialitis Sanctae Helenae
Sium Helenianum
Geological Section
View Looking South from Sea of the Barn and Flagstaff Hill
Pagoda at Tanjore
Plate 19 - Fish
Pagoda at Trinchicunum
Pladaroxylon Leucadendron
Sandy Bay Valley in the island of St. Helena
Ruins of the Fort at Juanpore on the River Goomtee
Sugar-loaf Hill, St. Helena
Title Page
Rocks, called Lot and his Daughters, St. Helena
St. Paul's Church
Back Cover
The Friar Rock
The Pyramids at Cairo
Pagoda at Ramisseram
Portion of Great Dike - Ass's Ears
Mesembryanthemum cryptanthum
Book Display
The Obelisk at Axum
Mucculla in Abyssinia
Ladder Hill, St. Helena
Tripteris Burchelli
Pharnaceum acidum
Volcanic Bombs
View of Grand Cairo
Frankenia portulacifolia
St. Paul's Church
Wahlenbergia Linifolia
Plate 21 - Fish
Hedyotis Arborea
A View at Lucknow
Lichtensteinia Burchellii
Lobelia Scaevolifolia
The Town of Dixan in Abyssinia
Geological Map of the Island of Saint Helena
The Pass of Atbara in Abyssinia
South West Portion of Great Dike, Speery
Aster Gummiferus
Longwood New House
Bell Stone - A Mass of Phonolite near Shipways
Dicksonia Arborescens
Marshal Bertrand's Cottage
Acalypha Reticulata
North East View of Turks Cap and Barn
Title Page
Front Cover
The Town of Abha in Abyssinia
Nesiota Elliptica
Commidendron Robustum
Mr. Wathen
Plantago Robusta
Phylica Ramosissima
Title Page
The Briars
Wahlenbergia Burchellii
St. Helena from the Anchorage
Detached Portion of Cliff - N.E. Side of Gregories
Views of Lower Part of James Town
Plantation House
Napoleon's Tomb
A view within the Fort of Monghyr
Aster Rugosum
View of Upper Part of Main Street
The Vale of Calaat
Jamestown, St. James Church
View Northward Down Lemon Valley
View Looking South of the Waterfall, Site of an Extinct Solfatara
Longwood House, St. Helena
Barracks on Ladder Hill, St. Helena
Melanodendron Integrifolium
Pretobium Arboreum
Ancient Excavations at Carli
Fort on High knoll, St. Helena
View near Point de Galle, Ceylon
View from High knoll, St. Helena
Oak Bank
Carex Præalta
Plate 23 - Insects
The Room in Which Napoleon Died at Longwood
Polypodium Dianæ
Lanchanodes Prenanthiflora
Plate 20 - Fish
Longwood Old House
Plantation House, St. Helena
Front Cover
Front view of Longwood Old House
Aster Burchellii
St. Matthew's Church, Longwood
View of James Town from the road leading to the Briars
Plate 56 - Plants


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