A DESCRIPTIVE SKETCH OF THE ISLAND OF ST. HELENA.
If the Island of Capreæ acquired celebrity by the residence of Tiberius, so the Islands of Elba and St. Helena will assume a local importance—one from being the first, the other the last scene of Napoleon's fall from the pinnacle of power to the solitude of captivity! St. Helena is situated in 15 deg. 55 min. south lat. and 5 deg. 49 min. west longitude from Greenwich. Its length is ten miles and a half ; breadth, six miles and three quarters ; and its circumference about 28 miles. The Island contains about 30,000 acres of pasturage and garden ground. It lies within the limit of the S. E. trade winds, and is distant 400 leagues from the coast of Africa, 600 from that of South America, and 1200 from Cape St. Vincent, in Portugal, the nearest point of Europe. The voyage from England is usually performed in ten weeks. St. Helena consists of one vast rock, perpendicular on every side, like a castle in the middle of the ocean, whose natural walls are too high to be attempted by scaling ladders ; nor is there the smallest beach, except at the bay, called Chapel Valley Bay, which is fortified with a strong battery of large cannon, planted even with the water, and farther defended by the perpetual dashing of prodigious waves against the shore, which without further resistance, makes landing difficult.
St. Helena was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, on the 21st May, which is the feast of St. Helena the mother of Constantine the Great, and hence the name of the Island. The English formed a settlement on it in 1651 ; and a few years afterwards it was taken by the Dutch, from whom it was retaken by the English under Capt. Munden, in 1673, and has ever since remained in the hands of the East India Company. Every accessible point has been fortified, and telegraphs and watch towers have been scattered over the island. All the northern part is composed of rocks, naturally scarped in a rugged manner, so as to hang over rather than than recede from the sea, rising every where from 800 to 2000 feet or more. The island bears the marks of volcanic origin ; but with a slight exception in the middle of the last century, the inhabitants have been undisturbed by any convulsion of nature since the discovery in 1502.
In making a voyage to St. Helena, it is necessary in general, on account of the trades, to stretch along the Brazil coast, quite out of the tropics, and then round over to the eastward, with variable winds, till the Island can be gained by the South-east trades. On approaching it in this direction, it appears like a lofty irregular ridge of rocks, the northern extremity of which is very abrupt, and the southern more shelving. At a small distance from the latter there are two rocks, called the Needles, one of which resembles a large ship under full sail. Barn's Point, the next promontory, is passed by ships at a cable's length ; it is nearly perpendicular, and about 1600 feet high. From hence vessels steer close along shore for Suger-loaf Hill and Point : on the peak of the former there is a telegraph, and on a jutting crag of the latter, about 80 or 90 feet above the level of the sea, there is a small battery of three or four guns, to compel vessels to "heave to, and send their boats on shore." If this be not attended to, guns and batteries open in succession upon the vessel. After this ceremony, Rupert's Valley, and several ranges of batteries formed among the precipices, is passed. On rounding Rupert's Hill, James's Town and Valley present themselves, abreast of which vessels cast anchor, about half a mile from the shore. While the ship and fort are saluting, the reverberation of sound among the rocks and mountains resemble the loudest peals of thunder ; and, joined to the novelty of the surrounding prospects, form a striking contrast with the monotonous scenery to which the eye is accustomed during a long voyage from Europe or Asia.
James's Valley is bounded on the sides by two craggy ridges ; that on the eastern is called Rupert's Hill, that on the western, Ladder Hill. On the sides of these (as traced in the engraving) are the roads into the country, and branches of these ridges of hills divide the Island. Rupert's Hill and Ladder Hill gradually recede from each other, as they approach the sea, and at length terminate at the beach in two stupendous and almost perpendicular cliffs, leaving a triangular intermediate space about a mile and a half in length, and 350 yards broad at its base. This base is a fortified line, extending from cliff to cliff, and mounting 30 pieces of heavy cannon, nearly level with the water's edge. Immediately behind this line, the Government house and church are situated, from whence the town extends up the valley, which decreasing in breadth, leaves at last room only for a single house.
St. James's Valley, in which the town is situated, lies on the N. W. or leeward side of the Island. The stranger feels on landing a continuation of the respect inspired by the military appearance of the place ; for after passing the drawbridge, the way leads between a line of heavy guns and a double row of trees, of a lively green, generally in full leaf. The town is entered by an arched gateway, under a rampart, or terrace, forming one side of a parade, about 100 feet square. On the left side are the Government house and the main guard room ; the former is enclosed with a wall, having the semblance of the embrazures, and is called the Castle : it contains the Governor's habitation, and the offices of the Government. The church, fronting the gateway, is a neat and not inelegant edifice. The principal street commences between it and a palisade, inclosing the Company's garden ; it consists of 28 houses, which are handsomely built in the English style, generally two stories high, and well white-washed ; very much resembling a pretty little country town in England. This street divides into two other streets, one on the east, leading to that side of the country ; the other proceeding to the upper part of the valley, where are situated the barracks, the new garden, and the hospital. In this street is the Lieut.-Governor's house, and a number of shops well stored with European and Indian commodities. With the exception of the Governor, Lieut.-Governor, and two Members of Council, all the other inhabitants, both military and civil, let lodgings, the established rate of which, including board and wine, is 30s. per diem for each person, and half that sum for children and servants. Fortunes are frequently made by receiving as inmates visitors from India, and supplying the shipping.
Looking up from the street and towards Rupert's and Ladder Hill, the scene is awfully sublime! The stranger shudders to behold the enormous masses of rocks impending on each side of the valley from a prodigious height, and which, seem ready every instant to hurl destruction on the town!.
St. Helena Bay being formed by two projecting promontories, and situated on the leeward side of the Island, is of course completely sheltered from the south-east trade winds by the mountains, and protected from the long swell of the Southern Ocean by the Island itself. It thus affords a safe and commodious anchorage for our ships, which may lie close to the rocks in water as smooth as glass. The fresh water, that distils down from the crevices in the rocks, is collected in a reservoir under Rupert's Hill, where ships and boats can lie at the jetty side, and have the pipes led into the casks. The history of the island affords but one single instance of shipwreck, and that was on the day it was discovered by the Portuguese.
The Island is unequally divided by a lofty chain or ridge of hills, running nearly east and west. From this chain alternate ridges and vallies branch off in various directions. Diana's Peak, towards the east end of the chain, is the highest point of the Island, and rises nearly two thousand seven hundred feet above the level of the sea. From the summit of this peak, no point intercepts the horizon ; the whole Island is beneath the scope of vision ; the ridges and hollows diverging from the chain are traced to the sea. Houses and plantations diversify the prospect, and the contrast of verdant and naked mountains renders the scene at once novel, picturesque, and majestic.
On Ladder Hill are mounted 24 pieces of cannon ; some ranged along the brow of the cliff that overhangs the town, and others along that which overlooks the roadsted. Six or seven of these are mounted on depressing carriages, so as to fire down into the town and roads, thereby completely commanding those places.
The tract over which the traveller proceeds from the town to High Knoll, which is 2000 feet above the sea, is the very emblem of sterility, presenting new views of rocks and mountains, congregating on each side in the wildest order, and without exhibiting an atom of vegetation : but on ascending the tower on the top of the Knoll, all this rude but majestic scenery vanishes like a magical illusion, leaving the eye to range over a series of beautiful vallies, groves, and lawns, verdant as the spring, and affording luxuriant pasturage to the flocks and herds that stray amongst them. Throughout this prospect are interspersed small plantations, gardens, and handsome little country houses ; the whole surrounded by a lofty irregular ridge of hills and precipices. On the south side of the Knoll is the Governor's country residence, called Plantation House.
Among these stupendous scenes, the hitherto restless Napoleon, in the solitude of his exile, will have time to calm the turbulent passions that have so long agitated his breast, and reflect on the "vanity of human wishes." The cliffs and precipices may remind him of the Alps and his first career of glory. The fertile interjacent vallies may recal to his memory the Mantuan vales and the trophies of Marengo ; but the roaring surge that perpetually dashes against the rocky barriers of his circumscribed retreat, must ever harrow up the mortifying recollection of that maritime nation, which first checked and finally subverted all his projects of ambition—that nation, which he warred against in his prosperity, and flew to in his adversity ; and which proved "the most powerful, the most constant, and (had not a true regard to the preservation of the peace of the world prevented, would have been) the most generous of his enemies."
The great object of the East India Company, in spending so much on a settlement which has never returned them one-fourth of the money, was to have a point of of rendezvous and supply to their homeward-bound ships. All the regulations have therefore reference to this end. The breed of cattle and sheep on the island is originally English ; and though they thrive well, yet inconsequence of the small extent of the pasture ground, and the great demand form the Company's shipping for fresh provisions, a bullock is seldom allowed to attain the age of four years. From the same cause, all the inhabitants are limited in the use of fresh provisions : the military and servants are allowed fresh beef or mutton only four times a year ; and at each of those periods the former have three, and th latter five fresh meals.
Upon an average of five years, from 1801 to 1805 inclusive, 165 ships touch annually at St. Helena ; and in war time, the long detention for convoy experienced by large fleets (the crews and passengers of which are frequently equal to the whole population of the Island), occasions such an extra consumption of stock and refreshments, that the mere productions of the Island itself could never be adequate to such exigencies, were it not provided with ample quantities of salt meat from England, and of rice from Bengal. These articles, as they are cheaper than fresh provisions, constitute the principal food of the inhabitants and garrison. Salt meat is issued to them from the Company's stores under prime cost, and every other article at only ten per cent. advance, including freight. Beef is sold at 61/2d. per pound alive, having been raised to that price since 1808 ; and as it is principally destined for the King's, or the Company's shipping, no person can kill even his own ox, without permission from the Governor, a rule which has existed since the year 1752. To compensate in some measure, however, for the deficiency of fresh meat, there is an abundant supply of fish and vegetable productions. Of fish, 76 species frequent the coast : those most common are mackerel, albecore, cavalloes, jacks, soldiers, old wives, and bull's eyes ; the shell fish are long legs & stumps, which resemble the lobster in taste and colour.
The vegetables comprise abundance of potatoes, yams, cabbages, peas, beans, &c. The fruits, which are not less plentiful, are apples, peaches, guavas, grapes, melons, and figs. The hopes of the farmer having frequently been disappointed in the cultivation of grain, either from drought or from the depredation of the rats, no grain is now sown in any part of the Island. Rabbits abound in some situations ; pheasants and partridges are become numerous, and every garden is enlivened by the notes of the canary bird.
The climate of St. Helena is remarkably salubrious and conducive to longevity, the temperature of the air being very moderate, considering its situation between the tropics, where the sun is vertical twice a year. From the great inequality of the surface of the Island, there is considerable diversity of course in its climate, the thermometer on the heights frequently sinking below 54°, while in St. James's Valley it is sometimes above 84°. There are no land and sea breezes : thunder, lightning, or storms rarely disturb the serenity of this mild atmosphere. The greatest inconvenience to which it is subject is drought, which has been known to continue for three years on a stretch, and prove a great scourge to the Island, killing the cattle, destroying the trees, and withering every appearance of vegetation. It is remarked by the natives that storms, attended with thunder, lightning, or rain, occur about once in ten or twelve years, sometimes doing great mischief ; the rocks and crags being loosened and dislodged by the rain, sweep away at those times the little farms and gardens situated on the declivities.
Since the possession of the Cape, St. Helena has become of less importance to the East India Company. The population of the Island is about 4000 souls, including 600 white inhabitants, 1600 blacks, 350 of whom are free, exclusive of the garrison and civil establishment of the Company. The military necessary to man respectably the different batteries and garrison, the citadel on High Knoll, the last resort of the Island, ought not to be less than 1000 men. The pieces of cannon on the different batteries and eminences may probably amount to more than 450. The Island comprises only one parish ; but for the more regular performance of the county and parish officer's duties, it is divided into three districts, viz. the east, the west, and the south, or Sandy Bay division. There are two churches in the Island—one in the town and another in the country.
The only endemic disorders to which the natives are subject, are of the catarrhal kind : Hydrophobia and the small-pox have never been known on the Island.
The situation of a little colony, embosomed in the recesses of a rocky island, and separated by an immense ocean from the troubles and calamities of the surrounding world, might be supposed to be the retreat of happiness : especially as the inhabitants in the enjoyment of ease and security have only to attend to the care of their families and gardens, where they are blessed with some of the best things this world can give—with long life — exemption from disease — a healthy offspring, and beautiful women. The reverse is, however, the case. But whether from family jealousies, which are apt to rise in such confined situations, or those little tales of scandal and whispers of distraction, which are so frequently heard in small communities, it is to be regretted that the peace and social intercourse of this settlement have been sometimes disturbed. To strangers they appear to associate very little together, and except during the shipping season, when they quit their country residences and live in James Town, they pass the remainder of the year apart from each other, at their garden houses, between which, if their tenants were even more disposed to associate, the intervention of crags, precipices, and chasms, would prevent easy & frequent intercourse. What lively interest is excited by the appearance of any ship! But the arrival of the homeward bound Indiamen is the greatest event of the year : it fills the whole settlement with alacrity and joy : they quit their gardens, flock to James Town, open their houses for the accommodation of the passengers, and entertain them with plays, dances, and concerts. These gay assemblies are livened by the presence of many agreeable and handsome young women of the place ; who, amid the general festivity, seem to feel a peculiar interest in what is going forward ; probably not without some throbbing expectation of being taken from a scene where they are weary with constantly contemplating the same objects. The appearance of so much loveliness and beauty in so secluded a situation, has sometimes raised stronger emotions than those of mere sympathy in the bosoms of their guests ; and the native women of St. Helena have adorned domestic life, and graced the politest circles of England and India. There is one important consideration, which should not be overlooked : the inhabitants owe all their luxuries and many of the necessaries of life to their frequent intercourse with European shipping, and particularly with the East India fleets returning from our Asiatic possessions. This communication is to be broken off, and, after a short time, "no foreign or mercantile vessel will be allowed to touch at St. Helena." Napoleon will be to St. Helena, therefore, what profound peace is to a naval and non-commercial sea-port—ruin! The inhabitants will in consequence have every reason to pray for a speedy deliverance from the presence of their august prisoner ; and how far this feeling may, on some future occasion, operate in favour of Napoleon's designs, is a question that should not pass unagitated or unregarded by Government.—Such is the Island or Rock which the "high destinies of Napoleon the First" have doomed for the scene of his future exile. Immured in any of the citadels which crown the lofty summits of the mountains, his airy prison above the clouds will perpetually remind him that the summit of his power—the goal of his ambition, turned out but the consummation of his misfortunes, and the commencement of his captivity!
Davidson, Printer, Old Boswell Court, London.
Notes about this version of Tobin:
Details of the original:
Tobin, G. Views in St. Helena. Orme, London, 1815.
Text: Description (one leaf, verso blank).
Plates: Four coloured aquatint plates, signature and imprint variable and detailed for each plate below.
British Library shelfmark: Not in the catalogue.
Library of Congress call number: Not in the catalogue.
Number 311 in Abbey.
Abbey, J.R. Travel in Aquatint and Lithography, 1770-1860, from the Library of J.R. Abbey: Vol. I, World, Europe, Africa. Curwen Press, London, 1956.
Last updated: 23 May, 2013