WATCH: St Helena's colourful history
NewsByte is doing a series of inserts about Africa’s islands, their history and the challenges they face, and today's featured island is St Helena.
It’s a tiny island off the coast of Namibia and Angola, down in the south-western region of the continent. It’s part of the British Overseas Territory, which includes Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. St Helena is, among those two, one of the remotest islands in the world, and was uninhabited until the Portuguese landed there in 1502.
It’s also tiny - just 16km by 8km - and is now home to around 5 000 people. But it has played host to some very famous people, which is why I’d like to focus on this remote island just less than 2 000km off the coast of Africa and about 4 000km away from South America. Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled there?
The French Emperor resided on the island with his entourage from 1815, until his death in 1821. He was initially buried on the island and his empty tomb still remains, but the French had his body repatriated 19 years after his burial.
But he wasn’t the only prisoner of war exiled to the island. Boer POWs were sent to St Helena, Ceylon - modern-day Sri Lanka - and Bermuda, due to overcrowding in South African prisons during the Second Boer War between 1899 and 1902. About 5 000 Boer prisoners, including General Piet Cronje, were imprisoned on the island, and by all accounts were shown a great deal of courtesy by the island’s inhabitants.
Another prisoner to have served time on St Helena was Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, son of the last Zulu king to be recognised by the British. He was exiled there in 1890 for seven years for leading a Zulu revolt against the British for their annexation of coastal lands belonging to the Zulu.
St Helena, like many islands, also has a number of romantic stories of escape and settlement by slaves. For example, around 1557, two slaves from Mozambique, one from Java, and two women, escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island for many years, long enough for their numbers to rise to 20.
The island became known to the British as early as 1577, 75 years after its discovery and partial settlement by the Portuguese, with the Patriarch of Abyssinia having already landed at St Helena in 1557 on a voyage to Portugal, remaining on the island for a year. Three Japanese ambassadors on an embassy to the Pope also visited St Helena in 1583.
The Spanish and the Portuguese eventually gave up on colonising the island, choosing instead to focus on the coastal regions of West Africa. The Dutch tried to stake a claim for the island in 1633, but by 1651, they’d basically given up, focusing instead on the colony at Cape Town, South Africa - then known as the Cape of Good Hope.
So, while the Dutch East India Company was settling on mainland Africa, the British East India Company decided to focus on St Helena island, and by 1659, the island had its first governor. It was tough going with immigrants and slaves finding it hard to live on the island, with their numbers eventually dropping to 66, and sometime later, in 1672, they had to fend off an invasion by the Dutch East India Company who found the Cape to be less hospitable than they thought it would be.
Fast forward a few hundred years, countless mutinies, draconian rule, and barbaric corrective measures, the first library was built between 1813 and 1816. Around 1818, St Helena was among the first of the British territories to try to end slavery, by decreeing that all children born after Christmas should be freed once they reached their teens.
A little more than a hundred years later, Britain stripped the islanders, known as Saints, of their British citizenship, effectively confining them to the British Overseas Territories, severely affecting their ability to make a living for themselves.
That was in 1981, and in 2002, the British finally reacted to rampant unemployment, poverty and plummeting population numbers by restoring citizenship to the Saints. Now, up until this point, the only way to reach the island was via a British mail ship, which only called on the island once a month over a period of a year, but a vote was taken for an airport to be built and it opened, after several delays, in 2016, with the first flight landing in 2017.
Landing at the St Helena airport is tricky, largely due to wind shear, so approaching the landing strip from the north is restricted. Approaching from other directions introduces the problem of tailwinds, increasing the ground landing speed and necessitating weight restrictions. Fog is also a massive problem, so arriving by mail ship remains the safest, and arguably more romantic, way to reach the island.
Once you’re there, you’re greeted by dramatic cliff faces, lush vegetation and about 400 endemic species of bird. In terms of government, the country still answers to the Queen, with a local governor acting in her stead. The capital of Jamestown is nestled between two mountains characteristic of volcanic islands.
Fancy a trip to this remote, temperate, marine, semi-tropical island? Let us know in the comments below as well as which African island you’d like us to explore next.
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