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Articles Blog

St. Helena, BOT

Karyn Planett


Flourishing, Then Plundered

“‘How far is St. Helena from the Beresina ice?’

An ill way, a chill way, the ice begins to crack.

But not so far for gentlemen who never took advice.”

Rudyard Kipling, “A St. Helena Lullaby,”                                          

Freshened by the southeast Trade Winds, this small speck of land was home to palms and ferns, ebonies and redwood. Home, too, to seals and turtles, sea cows and such. Then, through the dedicated effort and back-breaking labor of one lonely man, Fernando Lopez, the island of St. Helena blossomed into a bountiful oasis in the middle of the Atlantic. 

The Word Spreads 

The legend of Fernando Lopez was well known among sailors during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Tales of a disfigured man who had harvested crops and tended flocks on St. Helena created great curiosity among those who sailed the Atlantic. They were eager to see this oasis for themselves. And sea captains, in search of a spot to take ill crew members ashore for recuperation, called on the island of St. Helena. There, the sick could eat well, regain their vitality, and join the crew of the next vessel to pass by.           

A few rather permanent dwellings were eventually constructed on the island. The faithful even built a small chapel close to the waterfront. But there was never more than a handful of people on the island to worship in this tiny church, for no one actually called St. Helena home after Lopez died in 1546. 

Flocks and Fields 

Conditions were ideal for the fruit trees planted by Lopez and those who followed behind him. Pomegranate trees were plentiful, as were date palms and a variety of citrus trees. These fruits, along with a large assortment of herbs, provided the necessary medicines for crews suffering from scurvy and other maladies.           

The herds of goats and cattle multiplied, as did all the other animals on the island. Eventually, their numbers were so large that they began to devastate the vegetation on the island. And unwanted insects and vermin arrived from passing ships. Rats ravaged the landscape. Goats ripped at the bark of saplings. The domesticated pigs that had escaped into the wild were rooting up just about everything. And giant African spiders tucked up inside banana stalks. Trouble was truly brewing in paradise. 

Flocks and Fields No More 

Captain Thomas Cavendish, sailing under the British flag, came ashore on St. Helena for nearly a fortnight. While there, he successfully charted the island’s position, ultimately revealing it to virtually any sailor with a compass. Again and again the island was decimated by crews who literally uprooted trees, destroyed plants and slaughtered animals in an effort to prohibit future visitors from enjoying the spoils of the land.           

By the time the 17th Century rolled around, this Garden of Eden was in grave peril. All living things near the harbor had been destroyed. Thankfully, one stand of lemon trees further inland (today called Lemon Valley) had initially been spared and was said to still be able to yield as many as 14,000 lemons at a given time. Remember, lemons were essential for the treatment of scurvy which plagued sailors in those days.           

By 1634, fewer than 50 lemon trees were left growing on the entire island of St. Helena. 

A New Era 

The ubiquitous East India Trading Company viewed the island of St. Helena as a base for shipping operations and trade. In the 1670s, they shipped in brave British settlers and slaves from the island of Madagascar. All tolled, the entire population of St. Helena numbered fewer than 100 people.           

These settlers were impoverished people in search of some type of opportunity. And for that reason, they had agreed to live on this windswept speck of land in the center of the sea and attempt to carve out some prosperity. The East India Trading Company ruled them and the island with a heavy hand, taxing residents on their every move. More slaves arrived. Many crops failed because erosion had stripped away the topsoil. Animals grew thinner and thinner.           

St. Helena’s port of Jamestown was little more than shacks and brothels. Then word arrived that, following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon would be exiled to St. Helena. And a new chapter began.