St. Helena once a woody Island—cause of its Denudation—Plans proposed for restoring Wood, and extending Cultivation—the Institution of Goat ranges luxurious—Extermination of the Goats recommended.
IN the year 1502, when St. Helena was first discovered, its interior was one entire forest even some of the precipices, overhanging the sea, were covered with gum wood trees.
Goats, unhappily (as it has proved) for the island, were first introduced in the year 1513, and from this period to 1588, so greatly had they multiplied, that Captain Cavendish relates "there were thousands, and that they were seen one or two hundred together, and sometimes in a flock almost a mile long."
Those early accounts in respect to wood, are fully corroborated by the records, by the testimony of persons now living, and by the fragments of trees which are occasionally found on those hills that are now the most desolate and barren.
Within the last fifty years many gum wood trees grew on the hills between Rupert's and Dead wood.—This name, indeed, evidently implies there was a forest there. On the Barn Hill, and near Lot's Wife, pieces of ebony are still remaining ; and there is a tradition that a thick wood occupied Half tree hollow, between High Knoll and Ladder Hill ; and that some persons, who had advanced therein, lost their way and perished.
But the most remarkable and positive testimony of the existence of "huge forests" on the Island of St. Helena, is recorded on the consultation dated the 12th of July, 1709, in the following words :
Our necessity is so great for want of coals, that we thought it would have put a full stop to our work, but do find that ebony wood will burn lime, and being informed that there are huge quantities of that wood which lie dead on the hills near Sandy Bay, the Governor and Captain Mashborne went there to view it, and found the report true, for that there is abundance indeed, and just by that place where the wood lies, are mountains of extraordinary lime stone ; and it will be much cheaper to our honourable masters to bring lime from thence, ready burnt, (being light) than to fetch that sort of wood (which is very heavy), and bring it to the castle in James's Valley."
We have thus a series of clear and satisfactory evidence that St. Helena, when first discovered, and for many years afterwards, abounded with trees ; but of those "huge forests" how few vestiges are now to be seen!
The cause of this sad reverse, in the aspect of the island, is readily ascertained by what is daily passing before us. Ebony, red wood, white cedar (or gum wood tree), are all indigenous. They shed great quantities of seed ; and numerous plants. are seen annually to spring up, where the trees are secured from the trespass of goats, and black cattle. Such is the case at Longwood : in some places there are absolutely impervious thickets. Does not this prove what would naturally take place if the young trees remain undisturbed ; and that many parts of the island would, in the course of a few years, be again covered with wood? Those young plants are preferred, by the goats, to the finest pastures : they are consequently, when exposed. to their depredations, greedily devoured—Even the leaves of the old trees, when within reach, do not escape their ravages. The young trees having been in this manner cut off, and the parent trees having perished through age, it is no wonder there should be no succession ; and this is the obvious cause that, since the period of the introduction of goats, this formerly woody island has been wholly denuded. Some of the peaks and highest lands, owing to their steep and abrupt acclivities, are the only places which have withstood their unceasing depredations.
To the goats, therefore, is solely to be ascribed the total ruin of the forests, an evil which is now severely felt by every individual, and which would undoubtedly become much more serious, if the Company should add the freight and charges to the price of coals. The mischief occasioned by the goats, added to the neglect of fencing, and planting trees, has greatly encreased the demand for imported fuel ; and the loss to the Company upon the article of coals, in 1808, amounted to no less a sum than £2729..7..8.
To obviate, as much as possible, a further increase of this expense, it is become absolutely necessary that the utmost attention should immediately be given to those ordinances that regard fencing and planting. It is indeed fortunate there are here some trees or shrubs, of a very rapid growth, peculiarly adapted to the purpose of fences, as well as fuel. Of those, the most valuable, for both purposes, is that hitherto despised plant the Palma Christi. It intrudes itself every where, and is turned out of every garden and plantation, being considered in no other light than a troublesome weed.—But having remarked bow rapidly it becomes a tree, I naturally concluded it might be useful in the formation of fences ; and accordingly I commenced an experiment in September, 1809. The seeds were sown and intermixed with some wild brinjal (a species of solanum), upon an elevated bank four feet high, and about six feet in breadth. In the short period of twelve months I have now a beautiful and impenetrable fence about five feet in height. The stems of the Palma Christi are already about two inches in diameter, and the branches are covered with nuts. The success of this trial has determined me to improve the old fences, and to form new ones at Plantation-house farm, of the above description, about eight or nine feet in thickness. The addition of the blackberry, entwined among the strong stems of the Palma Christi, would undoubtedly make a fence not inferior to, the best hedges in England.
What an advantage it would be to the land holders, and what an improvement in the aspect of the island, to substitute this cheap sort of fence for their stone walls ! Besides, if the Palma Christi were extensively cultivated, which might easily be done by making the hedge rows 20 feet or more in thickness, the people of this island may not only speedily raise fuel, but may also participate in a lucrative branch of commerce, which they have hitherto left to others. It is well known, that considerable quantities of the oil of palma christi are annually sent from India to England, where it fetches a very high price : in no part of the, world can it thrive better than at St. Helena.
If the above sort of fences were generally introduced, they would both secure and shelter the lands. cultivation might then be carried on with facility, and without interruption, and the Planting Law might be easily complied with ; for the lands, at first brought into cultivation, might be converted into plantations of trees for useful timber, in the proportions required by the original tenures. Other lands might afterwards be inclosed and cultivated with corn, potatoes, mangel wurzel, lucerne, guinea grass, &c. These valuable artificial grasses might indeed be raised among the trees as crops are in Italy : but it is much to be apprehended, that unless the goats, as well as sheep, could be confined, they will defeat every plan of improvement, and will occasion constant vexation from their incessant depredations. Wherefore, as it is morally impossible to restrain those animals without incurring an enormous expense in fencing the lands, there seems to be no other possible mode of checking the further progress of the vast ruin and waste they have committed, nor any prospect whatever of restoring wood to the island, than by their total extermination, retaining only a very limited number of sheep to each land holder, on condition, however, that they are tended, or confined, entirely to his own lands.
The measure of extermination was resorted to by the planters in the year 1731, and was completely successful.—Indigenous trees sprang up spontaneously, and many parts soon became well wooded, where no trees had been suffered to grow for many years.
It is therefore evident that the extermination of goats, and a reduction in the number of sheep, cannot fail of being a most important benefit to the whole island : and that, without this previous step, there can be no hope of ever rendering it a valuable property to the Company : and with it, there cannot be a doubt, from the success of trials upon a small scale, in various parts of the island, that every species of improvement in agriculture and planting, might be carried on successfully and extensively, and with infinite advantage to all parties concerned.
I am perfectly aware of the arguments adduced in favour of the goats—I have weighed them maturely, and I am thoroughly convinced the whole are nugatory ; for it must be admitted that a few sheep, imported by this Government front the Cape, would lessen, or, perhaps, render unnecessary, any demands on the planters for supplying the Hospital ; and that a large stock of hogs, upon every farm, with the limited number of sheep beforementioned, would be no bad substitutes for the want of goatflesh. Hogs are also preferable to goats, on account of the great quantities of valuable manure they would produce for meliorating the lands.
There is, indeed, no species of husbandry so well adapted to St. Helena as that of hoggeries.—By their means, the most extensive produce in yams, potatoes, mangel wurzel, &c. might be consumed on the farms ; which it would be impossible, in this mountainous country, to carry to market, even if it were in demand. For hogs there would also be a ready sale to the Company (at the English price of pork), for the use of the garrison ; and in supplying the other inhabitants : and the planters might feed themselves and families at home without purchasing and sending for every sort of meat from James's Valley. Moreover, if the island price were lowered, there would be a very considerable sale to the shipping.
What a vast field for improvement in the condition of the planters, and what an incitement to industry does this hold out, compared with their narrow views, in having hitherto no other object or vent for the produce of the lands than what may arise from the shipping that touch here!—When disappointments in their arrival or detention occur, it is not suprising there should be complaints of "no cash being in circulation." These would undoubtedly be removed, if industry and agriculture were extended ; which are, in every country, the most efficacious means of promoting the prosperity of the people.
In respect to the goats, it would be very unreasonable to expect that any considerations of a selfish nature, or the mistaken prejudices of a few, should counteract what is obviously for the good of the whole. That the exercise of the right or privilege of the goat ranges has ever been, and still continues, a most intolerable abuse, will not be denied. Those ranges were limited to certain spots : but what has been the result ? The proprietors of goats never trouble their heads about where they browse, and as they are of course never looked after but on pounding days, they are seen daily to range every where ; and thus a limited privilege, to a few persons, has absolutely given them the range of the whole island!
To attempt to confine them, as originally intended when that privilege was granted, would be an endless labour : and, without the most vigorous enforcement of this condition, the evils which have happened were naturally to be expected. Wherefore, the institution of goat ranges must appear to every unbiassed person to have been injudicious ; and by no means calculated to produce any advantage that could compensate, even in the smallest degree, the manifold evils and vexations that have resulted from it. It is indeed surprising that a privilege so extraordinary, so grossly abused, and so ruinous in its consequences, should have been quietly borne by the inhabitants at large for so many years.
By the measure of extermination all would benefit.—The owners of goats and sheep would not be losers—if they were to receive from the Company a fair and reasonable price for their goats and sheep. These might speedily be consumed by issuing them to the garrison, without any extra loss being incurred by the Company in thus giving rations of fresh instead of salt meat.
The owners might also be repaid the bona fide price they gave for the goat ranges, which would indeed be the only charge to the Company attending the arrangement I have suggested ; and if it were carried into effect, those ranges, and many other places, might be sown with the seeds of all sorts of indigenous and other trees ; for where trees formerly grew, it may be presumed they would grow again. This was indeed proved, as already noticed, after the destruction of the sheep and goats in 1731.—Should this measure, therefore, be again carried into effect, and the improvements of planting and fencing carried on with spirit, there would soon be no want of fuel, nor any impediment to agriculture ; and after a few years, the inhabitants might again have restored to them a privilege of cutting wood on the goat ranges, similar to that which they enjoyed of cutting fuel from the Great wood. Whatever trees are thus planted, should be for the benefit and use of all the inhabitants.
If the goats and sheep were removed, many valuable orchards and gardens might easily be established in those well watered ravines or vallies which, on account of their depredations, have hitherto been unproductive. Fruit trees of every sort, vines, sugar canes, coffee, and cotton, would all thrive luxuriantly in those warm and well sheltered situations. Fences would almost be unnecessary, since the steep declivities on either side, would sufficiently protect the plantations from the trespass of black cattle.
Although there were, according to the returns in December 1809, 1811 sheep and 2887 goats on the island, in all 4698, none have, for many years past, been brought to market ; and the export to shipping has very much diminished, owing to the prices having risen about three fold during the last twenty years. In 1789, 109 goats, and 201 sheep were sold to the ships : whereas, in 1809, the total numbers were only 6 goats and 22 sheep ; and these last were imported from the Cape. What then is the use of maintaining such large flocks, since they neither contribute to the refreshment of ships, nor to the comforts of the community? A few individuals may indeed prefer them to hogs ; and derive convenience from their mode of keeping them, because it is neither attended with labour nor expense. But whether this trifling advantage to a few, attended with an intolerable nuisance to the whole, should supersede the infinite and important benefits which would result to the island, to the Company, and even to the proprietors of goats and sheep, by their extermination, is a question which the preceding inquiry may possibly determine.
20th September, 1810.
"Finding," say the Governor and Council, "that great quantities of ebony trees, which grew in and about Peak Gut, in their tender growth, were barked and destroyed by the goats that ranged there, we thought it for your Honors' interest, for the preservation of the wood, and the welfare of the island, to order the goats there to be killed."—To this representation the Court replied, "The goats are not to be destroyed, being more useful than ebony."
Such is the aptness of the seeds of the indigenous trees of St. Helena to take root, that I have often observed myriads of seedlings spring up, amongst the grass, immediately after the setting in of the rains : but these were of course nipt off by the cattle. All that is here stated, and many other circumstances which have come to my knowledge, impress me with a strong conviction that if St. Helena were again uninhabited, and if cattle of every description were removed, for a period of twenty years, the island would again be covered with wood.—May 1813.