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Articles Blog

St. Helena, BOT

Karyn Planett


Early History

            “‘How far is St. Helena from the Capes of Trafalgar?’

            A longish way, a longish way, with ten year more to run.

            It’s South across the water underneath a falling star.”                       

            Rudyard Kipling, “A St. Helena Lullaby,”                                                                                                                

The island of St. Helena is, in a word, remote. Some say that this island is further away from anything else than anywhere else in the entire world. So remote is St. Helena that most world travelers have never set foot here. Or, even spotted it in the distance from a passing ship. It is only the most dedicated globetrotter who will somehow manage to wander ashore on St. Helena, for it is found indisputably on the road less traveled.

Brazil lies 1,800 miles to the west of St. Helena. Alexandria, Angola 1,200 miles to the east. Even the nearest landfall, Ascension Island, is found a distant 700 miles away. And St. Helena is not much of a landfall itself, for it measures a mere ten miles by six miles. However, for a speck of land in the middle of absolute nowhere, it has experienced a very, very interesting history.

Portuguese Navigators

The Portuguese Admiral João da Nova Castella was returning to his homeland from India with three small vessels under his command when he spotted land on the distant horizon. It was on the 21st of May, 1502, the anniversary of the birth of Emperor Constantine the Great’s mother. Da Nova named this jagged little island in the vast Atlantic “St. Helena” in honor of this great birthday, and sent a scouting party ashore.          

As was customary in those days, the crew released several goats to live on the island and multiply. They and their offspring would provide meat for passing sailors who needed provisions in the future. In fact, these animals flourished prolifically for there were no natural predators on the island.

The Island’s First Resident

Fernando Lopez was Portuguese and of noble descent. Along with General d’Alboquerque, the commanding officer of the operation, and a company of soldiers, Lopez sailed to the Indian city of Goa in the early days of the 16th Century. Their mission was to claim this vast and rich continent for Portugal and its royal family. Once ashore, their reception from the Indian people was less than friendly. Following a short but intense skirmish with the local residents, a decision was made to leave Lopez and a few men behind in Goa to take command of the people and protect the fortress they had captured.

General d’Alboquerque returned to Portugal to recruit more soldiers and take on more munitions. During his two-year absence, not only had Lopez failed to control the Goans, he had become quite sympathetic to them. He even converted to Islam.

When D’Alboquerque eventually returned to Goa and discovered Lopez’s treason, he mandated a brtual punishment. The penalty for Lopez’s crimes was something called “scaling the fish” and was swift but severe. The prisoner’s head, brows, and beard were plucked. His ears and nose were cut off. So were his left thumb and right hand. Ashamed and remorseful, Lopez fled into the hills until his countrymen sailed away.

Following an anguished three-year period of hiding in the outskirts of Goa, Lopez returned to the port and was taken aboard a ship bound for Portugal. This vessel stopped in St. Helena for provisions and while there, Lopez, fearing shame for his family, decided to stay behind and not reboard the ship. He again ran off into the countryside and evaded those sailors who had been sent to search for him.

The ship’s crew ultimately sailed away, but left behind some dried meat and other food to sustain Lopez for a period of time. He supplemented this food with fish he caught, goats he slaughtered, berries he gathered, and eggs he retrieved from shorebirds’ and turtles’ nests.

Over the years, other sailors passing by left behind for Lopez seeds, fruit trees, and a barnyard full of animals including turkeys, cats, ducks, dogs, and bullocks. His veritable Garden of Eden flourished for St. Helena’s soil was rich, the rains were plentiful, and the conditions were perfect for crops and herds. 

Whenever sailors from a passing vessel came ashore, Lopez always hid deep in the forests. Eventually Portugal’s royalty learned of this man and his terrible plight. And, despite grave misgivings, Lopez agreed to travel to Portugal on a ship and meet the King and Queen at their official residence in Lisbon. Granting his wish, they arranged for him to meet privately in Rome with the Pope, to confess his sins. There, he pleaded with the Pope to be returned to his life of seclusion on St. Helena.  

Fernando Lopez’s wish was granted and he was returned to St. Helena where he lived out his self-imposed exile. Death came to this disfigured, disgraced man of lonely isolation in the year 1546. Yet, today, his story is kept alive by the people of St. Helena who view him as the island’s most resilient individual among a cast of some pretty impressive characters.