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What Should I Know About Saint Helena?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Saint Helena is a tiny island territory in the South Atlantic. it covers 164 sq. miles (425 sq. km), and has a population of just around 4000 people. It is made up of the island of Saint Helena, and the two remote islands of Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. The nearest large mass of land to Saint Helena is more than 1200 miles (2000 km) away, making it one of the most remote islands in the world.

Saint Helena was first discovered by a Portuguese explorer in the early-16th century. The island was uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it, but they didn’t attempt to set up a permanent colony, although they did set up some temporary structures and planted lemon trees to assist future visitors suffering from scurvy. A single man, an escaped prisoner, lived on the island long-term in the 16th century, from 1515 to 1545.

In the early-17th century the island began to be used as a resupplying point for ships making the long journey from Asia, and in the mid-17th century the Dutch claimed it for their own. The Dutch occupation was short-lived, however, and immediately upon their departure the British East India Company claimed it as their own.

The British were the first to build a truly permanent settlement on Saint Helena, Jamestown in 1658. The Dutch later tried to retake the island, but were repelled quickly by the British. Slaves were imported to the island, and rather opulent residences were built. The island was a surprisingly bustling center for its remote location, as it served as one of the main throughways for wealthy merchant ships. The relative isolation and beauty of the island also led to it becoming temporary residence to many men of science, including most famously the astronomer Edmund Halley.

In 1815, after his defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte was sentenced to exile on Saint Helena. Napoleon lived on Saint Helena until he died in 1821. For the six years he was there, the island became much less hospitable to incoming ships, and a much larger contingent of British troops was always around, as were numerous visitors and family members of Napoleon. Saint Helena became quite overcrowded in this period, and supplies had to be imported from the outside world, as the island could not sustain itself.

When Napoleon died in 1821, many of the temporary inhabitants of Saint Helena left, and the island once again returned to its status quo under the British East India Company. In 1833 Saint Helena was officially transferred to the British crown, ending the East India Company’s rule. Saint Helena continued to prosper until the advent of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal in the late-19th century, at which point the amount of visitors to the island decreased drastically and the economy entered a slump.

Over the next century Saint Helena would occasionally be used as a place to send exiles, including the son of the Zulu king Cetshwayo. The British also held a number of POWs on the island during the Second Boer War, after becoming alarmed that the POWs would be freed if held in South Africa.

Saint Helena is truly one of the most remote places on Earth, and only those who want to be far, far, far from the crowds should consider visiting. The beaches are beautiful, of course, and the island has its share of national parks, but it is the isolation that truly sets Saint Helena apart. Visiting Longwood House, Napoleon’s home-in-exile, is a great experience for anyone interested in the history of Napoleon, as it is arguably the best Napoleon-themed museum on Earth.

Getting to Saint Helena is most easily accomplished by taking a ferry from South Africa, although finding cruise ships or yachts making port there is becoming easier and easier. There are currently plans underway to construct an airport, as well, which will likely be completed sometime in 2012.

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