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Saint Helena

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Saint Helena
Flag Coat of arms
Motto: "Loyal and Unshakeable"
Anthem: " God Save the Queen"
" My Saint Helena Island" (unofficial)
Capital Jamestown
15°56′S 5°43′W
Official languages English
Ethnic groups 50% African, 25% European, 25% Chinese
Government Part of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
 -  Monarch Elizabeth II
 -  Governor Andrew Gurr
British overseas territory Charter granted 1657
 -  Colonised
(East India Company)
 -  Crown colony
(Company rule ends)
22 April 1834 
 -  Current constitution 1 September 2009 
 -  Total 122 km2 
47 sq mi 
 -  February 2008 census 4,255
 -  Density 35/km2
90.6/sq mi
Currency Saint Helena pound ( SHP)
Time zone GMT ( UTC+0)
Calling code 290
ISO 3166 code SH
Internet TLD .sh

Saint Helena (pronounced  /ˌseɪnt hɨˈliːnə/ saint hə-lee-nə), named after St Helena of Constantinople, is an island of volcanic origin in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha which also includes Ascension Island and the islands of Tristan da Cunha. Saint Helena measures about 16 by 8 kilometres (10 by 5 miles) and has a population of 4,255 (2008 census).

The island was uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world. For centuries, it was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa. The British also used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon I, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and more than 5,000 Boer prisoners. Saint Helena is now Britain's second oldest remaining colony (after Bermuda).


Saint Helena Island as seen from space

Early history, 1502–1658

Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, and that he named it "Santa Helena" after Helena of Constantinople. Another theory holds that the island found by De Nova was actually Tristan da Cunha 2,430 kilometres (1,510 miles) to its south, and that Saint Helena was discovered by some of the ships attached to the squadron of Estêvão da Gama expedition on 30 July 1503 (as reported in the account of clerk Thomé Lopes).

The Portuguese found the island uninhabited, with an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock, fruit trees and vegetables, and built a chapel and one or two houses. Though they formed no permanent settlement, the island was an important rendezvous point and source of food for ships travelling from Asia to Europe.

Englishman Sir Francis Drake probably located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577–1580). Further visits by other English explorers followed, and, once St Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home. In developing their Far East trade, the Dutch also began to frequent the island. The Portuguese and Spanish soon gave up regularly calling at the island, partly because they used ports along the West African coast, but also because of attacks on their shipping, the desecration of their chapel and religious icons, destruction of their livestock and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors.

The Dutch Republic formally made claim to St Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favour of their colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

East India Company, 1658–1815

'A View of the Town and Island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to the English East India Company', engraving c. 1790

In 1657, Oliver Cromwell, granted the English East India Company a charter to govern St Helena and the following year the Company decided to fortify the island and colonise it with planters. The first governor, Captain John Dutton, arrived in 1659, and from that date St Helena was Britain’s second oldest colony (after Bermuda). A fort and houses were built. After the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the East India Company received a Royal Charter giving it the sole right to fortify and colonise the island. The fort was renamed James Fort and the town Jamestown, in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England.

The Company experienced difficulty attracting new immigrants, and unrest and rebellion fomented among the inhabitants. Ecological problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, vermin and drought, led governor Isaac Pyke to suggest in 1715 that the population be moved to Mauritius, but this was not acted upon and the Company continued to subsidise the community because of the island's strategic location. A census in 1723 recorded 1,110 people, including 610 slaves.

Eighteenth-century governors tried to tackle the island's problems by extending tree plantations, improving fortifications, eliminating corruption, building a hospital, tackling the neglect of crops and livestock, controlling the consumption of alcohol and introducing legal reforms. From about 1770, the island enjoyed a lengthy period of prosperity. A church was erected in Jamestown in 1774. Captain James Cook visited the island in 1775 on the final leg of his second circumnavigation of the world.

The importation of slaves was made illegal in 1792. Governor Robert Patton (1802–1807) recommended that the Company import Chinese labour to supplement the rural workforce. The labourers arrived in 1810, and their numbers reached 600 by 1818. Many were allowed to stay, and their descendents became integrated into the population. An 1814 census recorded 3,507 people on the island.

British rule 1815–1821, and Napoleon's exile

Napoleon at Saint Helena.
Longwood House, St Helena: site of Napoleon's captivity.

In 1815 the British government selected Saint Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was brought to the island in October 1815 and lodged at Longwood, where he died on 5 May 1821. During this period, St Helena remained in the East India Company’s possession, but the British government met additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The island was strongly garrisoned with British troops, and naval ships circled the island.

The 1817 census recorded 821 white inhabitants, a garrison of 820 men, 618 Chinese indentured labourers, 500 free blacks and 1,540 slaves. In 1818, Governor Lowe initiated the emancipation of the slaves.

British East India Company, 1821–1834

After Napoleon's death the thousands of temporary visitors were soon withdrawn and the East India Company resumed full control of Saint Helena. Owing to Napoleon's praise of St Helena’s coffee during his exile on the island, the product enjoyed a brief popularity in Paris in the years after his death. In 1832, the East India Company abolished slavery in St Helena (freeing 614 slaves), a year before legislation to ban slavery in the colonies was passed by Parliament.

British rule, a Crown colony, 1834–1981

Under the provisions of the 1833 India Act, control of St Helena was passed from the East India Company to the British Crown, becoming a crown colony. Subsequent administrative cost-cutting triggered the start of a long-term population decline whereby those who could afford to do so tended to leave the island for better opportunities elsewhere. The latter half of the 19th century saw the advent of steam ships not reliant on trade winds, as well as the diversion of Far East trade away from the traditional South Atlantic shipping lanes to a route via the Red Sea (which, prior to the building of the Suez Canal involved a short overland section). These factors contributed to a decline in the number of ships calling at the island from 1,100 in 1855 to only 288 in 1889.

In 1840, a British naval station established to suppress the African slave trade was based on the island, and between 1840 and 1849 over 15,000 freed slaves, known as "Liberated Africans" were landed there. In 1900 and 1901, over six thousand Boer prisoners were held on the island, and the population reached its all-time high of 9,850 in 1901.

A local industry manufacturing fibre from New Zealand flax was successfully reestablished in 1907 and generated considerable income during the First World War. Ascension Island was made a dependency of St Helena in 1922, and Tristan da Cunha followed in 1938. During World War II, the United States built Wideawake airport on Ascension in 1942, but no military use was made of St Helena.

During this period, the island enjoyed increased revenues through the sale of flax, with prices peaking in 1951. However, the industry declined because of transportation costs and competition from synthetic fibres. The decision by the British Post Office to use synthetic fibres for their mailbags was a further blow, contributing to the closure of the island's flax mills in 1965.

From 1958, the Union Castle shipping line gradually reduced its service calls to the island. Curnow Shipping, based in Avonmouth, replaced the Union-Castle Line mailship service in 1977, using the RMS ( Royal Mail Ship) St Helena.

1981 to present

The British Nationality Act 1981 reclassified St Helena and the other Crown colonies as British Dependent Territories. The islanders lost their status as "Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies" and thus lost the right of abode in Britain. For the next 20 years, many could find only low-paid work with the island government, and the only available overseas employment was on the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island. The Development and Economic Planning Department, which still operates, was formed in 1988 to contribute to raising the living standards of the people of St Helena.

In 1989, Prince Andrew launched the replacement RMS St Helena to serve the island; the vessel was specially built for the CardiffCape Town route and features a mixed cargo/passenger layout.

The St Helena Constitution took effect in 1989 and provided that the island would be governed by a Governor and Commander-in-Chief, and an elected Executive and Legislative Council. In 2002, the British Overseas Territories Act restored full passports to the islanders, and renamed the Dependent Territories (including St Helena) the British Overseas Territories. In 2009, St Helena and its two territories received equal status under a new constitution, and the British Overseas Territory was renamed Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Geography, flora and fauna

Relative locations of Saint Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha
Map of St Helena.
Positions of (from north to south) Ascension Island, Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean
Positions of Saint Helena and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean

Saint Helena is one of the most isolated places in the world, located in the South Atlantic Ocean more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the nearest major landmass. The island is associated with two other isolated islands in southern Atlantic, also British territories— Ascension Island about 1,300 kilometres (810 miles) to the due northwest in more equatorial waters and Tristan da Cunha, which is well outside the tropics 2,430 kilometres (1,510 miles) to the south.

The island of Saint Helena has a total area of 122 km2 (47 sq mi), and is composed largely of rugged terrain of volcanic origin (the last volcanic eruptions occurred roughly 7 million years ago). The centre is covered by forest, of which some has been planted, including the New Millennium Forest Project. The highland areas contain most of the island's endemic flora, fauna, insects and birds. The coastal areas are barren, covered in volcanic rock and are warmer and drier than the centre of the island. There are no native land mammals on St Helena, but rabbits, rats and mice have been introduced, as well as feral cats and dogs.

The highest point of the island is Diana's Peak at 818 m (2,684 ft).

When the island was discovered, it was covered with unique indigenous vegetation, including a remarkable cabbage tree species. The flora of Saint Helena contains a high proportion of endemic species. The island's hinterland must have been a dense tropical forest but the coastal areas were probably quite green as well. The modern landscape is very different, with widespread bare rock in the lower areas, although inland it is green, mainly due to introduced vegetation. The dramatic change in landscape must be attributed to the introduction of goats and the introduction of new vegetation. As a result, the string tree ( Acalypha rubrinervis) and the St Helena olive ( Nesiota elliptica) are now extinct, and many of the other endemic plants are threatened with extinction.

There are several rocks and islets off the coast, including: Castle Rock, Speery Island, The Needle, Lower Black Rock, Upper Black Rock (South), Bird Island (Southwest), Black Rock, Thompson's Valley Island, Peaked Island, Egg Island, Lady's Chair, Lighter Rock (West), Long Ledge (Northwest), Shore Island, George Island, Rough Rock Island, Flat Rock (East), The Buoys, Sandy Bay Island, The Chimney, White Bird Island and Frightus Rock (Southeast), all of which are within one kilometre of the shore.


The climate of Saint Helena is tropical, marine and mild, tempered by trade winds which blow almost continuously. The climate varies noticeably across the island. Temperatures in Jamestown, on the north leeward shore, range between 20–32 °C (68–90 °F) in the summer and 15–26 °C (59–79 °F) in the winter. The temperatures in the central areas are, on average, 5–6 °C lower. Jamestown also has a very low annual rainfall, while 750–1,000 mm (30–39 in) falls per year on the higher ground and the south coast.

Administrative divisions

Saint Helena is divided into eight districts, each with a community centre. The districts also serve as statistical subdivisions and electoral areas. The four most populated districts send two representatives each to the island council, and the remaining districts send one representative each.

Districts of Saint Helena
sq mi
Alarm Forest 5.9 2.3 289 276 46.8
Blue Hill 36.5 14.1 177 153 4.2
Half Tree Hollow 1.6 0.6 1,140 901 563.1
Jamestown 3.6 1.4 884 714 198.3
Levelwood 14.0 5.4 376 316 22.6
Longwood 33.4 12.9 960 715 21.4
Sandy Bay 15.3 5.9 254 205 13.4
Saint Paul's 11.4 4.4 908 795 69.7
Royal Mail Ship
St. Helena
149 171
20 9
Total 121.7 47.0 5,157 4,255 35.0


Executive authority in Saint Helena is invested in Queen Elizabeth II and is exercised on her behalf by the Governor of Saint Helena. The Governor is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the British Government. Defence and Foreign Affairs remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom.

There are fifteen seats in the Legislative Council of Saint Helena, a unicameral legislature. Twelve of the fifteen members are elected in elections held every four years. The other three members are the Governor and two ex officio officers. The Executive Council consists of the Governor, two ex officio officers, and six elected members of the Legislative Council appointed by the Governor. There is no elected Chief Minister, and the Governor acts as the head of government. The current Governor, since November 2007, is Andrew Gurr, who succeeded Michael Clancy.

Both Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha have an Administrator appointed to represent the Governor of Saint Helena.

One commentator has observed that, notwithstanding the high unemployment resulting from the loss of full passports during 1981–2002, the level of loyalty to the British monarchy by the St Helena population is probably not exceeded in any other part of the world. King George VI is the only reigning monarch to have visited the island. This was in 1947 when the King, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret were travelling to South Africa. Prince Philip arrived at St Helena in 1957 and then his son Prince Andrew visited as a member of the armed forces in 1984 and his sister the Princess Royal arrived in 2002.


Jamestown, from above

Saint Helena was first settled by the English in 1659, and the island presently has a population of about 4,250 inhabitants, mainly descended from people from Britain – settlers ("planters") and soldiers – and slaves who were brought there from the beginning of settlement – initially from Africa (the Cape Verde Islands, Gold Coast and west coast of Africa are mentioned in early records), then India and Madagascar. Eventually the planters felt there were too many slaves and no more were imported after 1792.

In 1840, St Helena became a provisioning station for the British West Africa Squadron, preventing slavery to Brazil (mainly), and many thousands of slaves were freed on the island. These were all African, and about 500 stayed while the rest were sent on to the West Indies and Cape Town, and eventually to Sierra Leone.

Imported Chinese labourers arrived in 1810, reaching a peak of 618 in 1818, after which numbers were reduced. Only a few older men remained after the British Crown took over the government of the island from the East India Company in 1834. The majority were sent back to China, although records in the Cape suggest that they never got any further than Cape Town. There were also a very few Indian lascars who worked under the harbour master.

Jamestown, the capital of Saint Helena

The citizens of Saint Helena hold British Overseas Territories citizenship. On 21 May 2002, full British citizenship was restored by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. See also British nationality law.

During periods of unemployment, there has been a long pattern of emigration from the island since the post-Napoleonic period. The majority of "Saints" emigrated to the UK, South Africa, and in the early years, Australia. The population has steadily declined since the late 1980s and has dropped from 5,157 at the 1998 census to 4,255 in 2008. In the past emigration was characterised by young unaccompanied persons leaving to work on long-term contracts on Ascension and the Falkland Islands, but since "Saints" were re-awarded UK citizenship in 2002, emigration to the UK by a wider range of wage-earners has accelerated due to the prospect of higher wages and better progression prospects.

Saint Helena is one of the few territories in the world which has never had a recorded HIV / AIDS case.


The majority of people belong to the Church of England, being members of the Diocese of St Helena, which includes Ascension Island, and which has its own Bishop residing on St Helena. The 150th Anniversary of the Diocese was celebrated in June 2009. Other Christian denominations on the island include: Roman Catholic (since 1852), Salvation Army (since 1886), Baptist (since 1845), and, in more recent times, Seventh-day Adventist (since 1949), New Apostolic, and Jehovah's Witness (one out of every 35 residents is a Jehovah's Witness, the highest ratio in the world). The Baha'i Faith has also been represented on the island since 1954.

Tristan da Cunha and Ascension

Tristan da Cunha, settled since 1815, has a population of fewer than three hundred inhabitants of mainly British, Italian and St Helenian descent. Christianity is the main religion, mainly Anglican and some Roman Catholic.

Ascension Island has no native inhabitants. It is a working island with a transient population of approximately 1,000, made up mainly of members of the American and British militaries, supporting civilian contractors who serve on the joint Anglo-American airbase, and members of their families (a few of whom were born on the island). There are also some Cable & Wireless and local government employees.


Some of the data in this section has been sourced from the Government of St Helena Sustainable Development Plan.

The island had a monocrop economy until 1966, based on the cultivation and processing of New Zealand flax for rope and string. St Helena's economy is now very weak, and the island is almost entirely sustained by aid from London. The public sector dominates the economy, accounting for about half of GDP. Inflation was running at 3.6% in 2005 but is thought to be much higher today, reflecting recent increases in the cost of fuel, power and all imported goods.

The Saint Helena tourist industry is heavily based on the promotion of Napoleon's imprisonment. A golf course also exists and the possibility for sportfishing tourism is great. Three hotels operate on the island but since the arrival of tourists is directly linked to the arrival and departure schedule of the RMS ( Royal Mail Ship), occupancy levels are very low at about 10%. Some 1,180 short- and long-term visitors arrived on the island in 2005.

Saint Helena produces what is said to be the most expensive coffee in the world. It also produces and exports Tungi Spirit, made from the fruit of the prickly or cactus pears, Opuntia ficus-indica ("Tungi" is the local St Helenian name for the plant). Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha and Saint Helena all issue their own postage stamps which provide a significant income.

Economic statistics

Quoted at constant 2002 prices, GDP fell from £12.4 million in 1999/2000 to £11.2 million in 2005/6. Imports are mainly from the UK and South Africa and amounted to £6.4 million in 2004/5 (quoted on an FOB basis). Exports are much smaller, amounting to £0.24 million in 2004/5. Exports mainly comprise fish and coffee. Philatelic sales were £0.06 million that year. The limited number of visiting tourists spent about £0.43 million in 2004/05, representing a contribution to GDP of 3.1%.

Public expenditure rose from £10.2 million in 2001/02 to £12.3 million in 2005/06. The contribution of UK budgetary aid to total SHG government expenditure rose from £4.6 million in to £6.4 million over the same period. Wages and salaries represent about 38% of recurrent expenditure.

Unemployment levels are low (50 in 2004 compared with 342 in 1998). The economy is dominated by the public sector, the number of government positions only falling slightly from 1,163 in 2002 to 1,142 in 2006. Public sector employment is characterised by high turnover rates, mainly due to emigration. St Helena’s private sector employs approximately 45 per cent of the employed labour force and is largely dominated by small and micro businesses with 218 private businesses employing 886 in 2004.

Household survey results suggest that the percentage of households who spend less than £20 per week on a per capita basis fell from 27% to 8% between 2000 and 2004, implying a decline in income poverty. Nevertheless, 22% of the population claimed social security benefit in 2006/7, although most of these are aged over 60 – this sector represents 20% of the population.

Banking and currency

In 1821, Saul Solomon issued a token copper currency of 70,560 halfpennies Payable at St Helena by Solomon, Dickson and Taylor — presumably London partners — which circulated alongside the East India Company's local coinage until the Crown took over the Island in 1836. The coin remains readily available to collectors.

Today Saint Helena has its own currency, the Saint Helena pound which is at parity with the pound sterling. The government of Saint Helena produces its own coinage and banknotes. The Bank of Saint Helena was established on Saint Helena and Ascension Island in the year 2004. It has branches in Jamestown on Saint Helena, and Georgetown, Ascension Island and it took over the business of the St. Helena government savings bank and the Ascension Island Savings Bank.

For more information on currency in the wider region, see the Sterling Currency in the South Atlantic and the Antarctic.


RMS St Helena in James Bay
Looking back at the island from RMS St Helena

Saint Helena is one of the most remote islands in the world, currently has no commercial airports, and travel to the island is by ship only. A large military airfield is located on Ascension Island, with two Friday flights to RAF Brize Norton, England (as from September 2010). These RAF flights offer a limited number of seats to civilians. The ship RMS Saint Helena runs between St Helena and Cape Town, also visiting Ascension Island and Walvis Bay, and occasionally voyaging north to Tenerife and Portland, UK. It berths in James Bay, St Helena approximately thirty times per year. The RMS Saint Helena was due for decommissioning in 2010, however its service life has been extended indefinitely until the airstrip is completed.

After a long period of rumour and consultation, the British Government announced plans to construct an airport in Saint Helena in March 2005 and the airport was originally expected to be completed by 2010. However constant delays by the British Government meant an approved bidder, the Italian firm Impregilo, was not chosen until 2008, and then the project was officially "paused" in November 2008, allegedly due to new financial pressures brought on by the credit-crunch. By January 2009, construction had not commenced and no final contracts had been signed, and Governor Andrew Gurr departed for London in an attempt to try and speed up the process and solve the problems. On 22 July 2010, the British Government agreed to help pay for the new airstrip using taxpayer money.

A minibus offers a basic service to carry people around Saint Helena, with most services designed to take people into Jamestown for a few hours on weekdays to conduct their business.

Culture and society

Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 5 and 15. There is no tertiary education institution in Saint Helena. Saint Helena is a member of the International Island Games Association. The Saint Helena cricket team is due to make its debut in international cricket in Division Three of the African region of the World Cricket League in 2011.

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