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Saint Helena

an island in the South Atlantic Ocean best known as the site of Napoleon Bonaparte's final exile

location of Saint Helena


St. Helena has an area of 47.3 square miles, with an extreme southwest-to-northeast length of 10½ miles, and an extreme breadth of 6½ miles. The island is wholly of volcanic origin, although volcanic activity ceased long ago. Its principal feature is a semicircular ridge of mountains, within which can be found the island's highest point, Diana's Peak (2,704 feet).

map of Saint Helena


Approximately half of St. Helena's population is of African descent, with the remainder being almost evenly split between white Europeans and Chinese immigrant workers. Jamestown, the island's only city and the capital of St. Helena, is nestled in a deep narrow valley that leads to the only functional harbor.

Jamestown, the only city on St. Helena


St. Helena is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. It is administered locally by a Governor, who is appointed by the British monarch. Local laws are enacted by a unicameral Legislative Council, the members of which are elected by popular vote. The islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha are administered as dependencies of St. Helena.


St. Helena's economy depends largely on financial assistance from Great Britain. The local population earns income from fishing, raising livestock, and sales of handicrafts.


St. Helena was discovered on May 21, 1502, by Portuguese Admiral Joćo de Nova Castella on his voyage home from India, and it was he who named the island in honor of Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. At the time of its discovery, the island was uninhabited. The Portuguese imported livestock, fruit trees and vegetables, built a chapel and one or two houses, and left their sick there to be taken home, if they recovered, by the next ship, but they formed no permanent settlement. The first known permanent resident of St. Helena was Fernando Lopez, a Portuguese in India who had turned traitor and had been mutilated by order of Alphonso d'Albuquerque. He chose to be marooned on St. Helena rather than be returned to Portugal, and was landed on the island in 1513. He died there in 1546.

The Portuguese stopped calling at the island about 1603, after which St. Helena was occupied by the Dutch. The Dutch in turn gave up possession of the island in 1651, the year before they founded Cape Town (in present-day South Africa). The British East India Company appropriated the island immediately after the departure of the Dutch, and in 1659 they dispatched a small force of troops and others under John Dutton to form a settlement. The company was confirmed in possession by a clause in their charter of 1661. The fort built by the company was named after the Duke of York, who subsequently became King James II. The island has remained a British possession ever since.

In 1815 the British government selected St. Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was brought to the island in October of that year and lodged at Longwood, where he died in May 1821. During this period the island was strongly garrisoned by regular troops, and the Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, was nominated by the Crown. After Napoleon's death the East India Company resumed full control of St. Helena, and kept it until April 22, 1834, at which time it passed to the control of the Crown.

St. Helena's importance as a port of call began to diminish with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The withdrawal in 1906 of the small garrison was another cause of depression, but during World War I the island was again garrisoned. In 1921 Ascension Island was made a dependency of St. Helena; Tristan da Cunha and the associated islands of Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough, became dependencies of St. Helena in 1938. The island was of strategic importance in the naval operations of World War II.

Sites and Attractions

Longwood House, Napoleon's home during his exile, has exhibits which make it one of the best (if not the best) Napoleonic museums in the world. The St. Helena National Trust maintains a museum in Jamestown which features exhibits about the island and its history. There are two national parks. One helps protect some of the rare flora on the central ridges of the island, many species of which can be found nowhere else in the world. The second, at Sandy Bay on the southern coast, protects other native species, as well as the spectacular geological structures unique to the island's volcanic origins.

Official Symbols

The blue flag of St. Helena has the flag of the United Kingdom in the upper hoist-side quadrant, and the Saint Helenian shield centered on the outer half of the flag. The shield features a rocky coastline and three-masted sailing ship.

flag of St. Helena

Napoleon Bonaparte
United Kingdom
British East India Company
Suez Canal
World War I
World War II

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The Robinson Library >> Africa >> West Coast Islands

This page was last updated on 06/18/2018.