Tag Archives: Napoleon in exile

St Helena Island ~ An Island of Exile

Saint Helena Island, named after Saint Helena of Constantinople, is an island of volcanic origin in the South Atlantic Ocean 1,200 miles off the southwestern coast of Africa. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world and has, for centuries, been an important port of call for ships. Saint Helena measures about 10 by 5 miles, has a population of 4,255, and is the second oldest remaining British territory, after Bermuda.

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Our ship anchored in the harbor and we took tenders to Jamestown, which is the main town of the island. This seaport is nestled in a deep valley and has an interesting heritage. Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Captain Bligh, Edmund Halley, Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook have all walked the streets of this city which tells of colonial conquest, slavery, idealist ideals, the age of sailing ships, war and exile. This is a unique town that boldly brings the past into the present.

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Aerial view of Jamestown

Portuguese sailors sighted the uninhabited island in 1502, but kept the island’s location a secret. They formed no permanent settlement there, but imported livestock, fruit trees, and vegetables, thus providing an important supply point for their ships. In 1588, the English (Captain Thomas Cavendish) visited St. Helena and it became an important port of call for English ships sailing between Europe and the East Indies.

The Dutch occupied St. Helena for a time during the mid 1600’s, but the English took control again in 1659, only to lose it back to the Dutch in 1672. Finally, in 1673, the East India Company reestablished its control of the Island until 1834.

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The British also used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon I. After Napoleon’s successful escape from Elba Island in the Mediterranean and his subsequent recapture, the British government selected Saint Helena as the place of detention for Napoleon Bonaparte. He was brought to the island in October 1815. His residence at Longwood had not been completed by the time he arrived, so he stayed with a British family at their home. He got along well with the family, but complained about his treatment by the authorities. Among his gripes: he thought he should be allowed to ride a horse unsupervised and felt the British Governor should address him as “your majesty.” He surely plotted escape, but he never made it. He died on May 5, 1821. In 1840, Napoleon’s body was moved to Paris.

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Longwood House ©Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

Jacob’s Ladder, a prominent feature of Jamestown, was constructed in 1829 and includes 699 steps cut into the stone leading up from the lower area to a garrison fort atop Ladder Hill. Soldiers had to haul ammunition and supplies up the staircase. A fairly large residential area has developed up there recently, but Jamestown is the commercial, business and governmental center of the island. Several people from the ship did climb up and down the ladder, but we both avoided that challenge that is said “to break your heart going up and break your neck coming down.” A road winds and climbs back and forth across the face of the steep hill. A beautifully restored 18th century provisions warehouse is now a museum that Barb planned to visit but ran out of time and energy before getting there.

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When allowed we boarded the tender and went ashore. On our trip we got a good look at the look at the mail ship named the St. Helena who was anchored in the bay to unload the supplies and goods destined for the island as well as pick up and deliver mail and passengers. The ship leaves here and goes to Ascension Island and Cape Town, South Africa before it returns to the islands and heads north to Southampton, England to complete its circular route. The cargo is offloaded by crane onto barges and brought to shore and ships provide the only link with the outside world, as there is no airport here.

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Mail Boat

After getting to shore we walked to town. Along the harbor we passed the yacht club, and a barrel-vaulted building that was once used as a mortuary extensively during the 18th and 19th centuries.

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We walked past the Castle and through the town gates on which the crest of the British East India Company was displayed on one side and within the town the picture of the endangered wire bird was depicted. The original castle of St. John was built-in 1659 when the English took possession of the island. Most of the rest of the present buildings were constructed in the 1860s to replace those damaged by termites brought to the island via a salvaged Brazilian slave ship. Today it serves as the administrative center of the St Helena government.

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The mule yard is to the left of the town gates and this is where early residents tethered their pack animals (mules and donkeys).

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Speaking of vehicles, there are not a large number of them with a population of only 4,000 people on the entire island. So the license plate numbering system was not the least bit complicated.

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We enjoyed walking around the town and had lunch at Ann’s Place – a local restaurant behind the Castle Gardens. The restaurant ceiling was decorated with flags from around the world and sage advice adorned the walls.

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Afterwards, while Barb was taking some pictures in the gardens, MJ wandered off and the next time Barb saw her, she had her arms full of bubble wrap and was heading back to the ship.

One of the unusual buildings Barb saw was “The Market” that is a prefabricated cast-iron building that was shipped to the island in 1865 and assembled. The building sits on railroad rails and contains several stalls for selling various products.

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Barb continued to walk up and down the streets of Jamestown taking photographs of the town and its people.

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About 3 PM Barb found herself near St. James Church and decided to attend the communion service at the Anglican (Episcopal) church being offered for the ship’s passengers. St. James is the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere and dates from 1772. It was built near the site of the original Portuguese chapel and replaced earlier churches. It was a nice service and about 100 of our fellow passengers took part. The Bishop of Cardiff (Wales) was substituting for the parish priest who was in a hospital off of the island.

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Afterwards Barb returned to the ship and later enjoyed taking sunset pictures of the island as we departed for Ascension Island.

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