History of Saint Helena

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Saint Helena has a history of over 500 years since it was first discovered as an uninhabited island by the Portuguese in 1502. Claiming to be Britain’s second oldest colony, this is one of the most isolated islands in the world and was for several centuries of vital strategic importance to ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa. For several centuries the British have used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and over 5,000 Boer prisoners.

Contents

Discovery and early years, 1502–1658

Most historical accounts state the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, on his voyage home from India, and that he named it "Santa Helena" after Helena of Constantinople. Given this is the feast day used by the Greek Orthodox Church, it has been argued that the discovery was probably made on 18 August, the feast day used by the Roman Catholic Church.

It has also been suggested that the island may not have been discovered until 30 July 1503 by a squadron under the command of Estêvão da Gama and that da Nova actually discovered Tristan da Cunha on the feast day of St Helena.[1][2][3] The Portuguese found it uninhabited, with an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock (mainly goats), fruit trees, and vegetables, built a chapel and one or two houses, and left their sick, suffering from scurvy and other ailments, to be taken home, if they recovered, by the next ship, but they formed no permanent settlement. The island thereby became crucially important for the collection of food and as a rendezvous point for homebound voyages from Asia. The island was directly in line with the Trade Winds which took ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic. St Helena was much less frequently visited by Asia-bound ships, the northern trade winds taking ships towards the South American continent rather than the island.

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