OF THE INDIGENOUS AND EXOTIC PRODUCTIONS, AND OF THE MEANS OF IMPROVING THE ISLAND.
WHEN ST. HELENA was first discovered, several shrubs and plants were found growing upon it ; some of them said, by Mr. FORSTER and other botanists who have visited this island, to be of a new and peculiar character. In what manner these plants came here, however fruitless our conjectures may be, it is natural to inquire. Shut up in a remote and solitary recess of the ocean, where the phænomena attending its formation were concealed from human curiosity, we cannot easily conceive whence this island could derive the seeds of vegetables, after it became fit to receive and nourish them. During the period of its combustion, which has so visibly affected every part of its composition, it could not be the abode either of plants or of animals ; and it will not be supposed, that any latent germ of life could be preserved, unhurt, among materials which flowed from the craters of volcanos. How long, and with what vehemence, these volcanos burned, we may conjecture, but cannot know. The vast depth of some of the basaltic beds, which, from the homogeneity of their structure, seem each to have been the effect of a single eruption, and the numerous distinct layers composing the hills, thrown out, perhaps, at very distant periods of time from each other, would seem to argue the great vehemence and protracted duration of those fires which produced them. When, at last, the subterranean sources which fed these successive eruptions were finally exhausted, and had left the volcanized mass to the temperature of the surrounding air and water, many years must necessarily have passed away, before a soil could be formed on its surface, fitted for the growth and nourishment of plants. After the cessation of its fires, being no longer an object of terror to the tenants of the ocean, it would naturally become the haunt of the sea tortoise, and of some oceanic birds. But were these likely to deposit on it the seeds of vegetables ? No bird, peculiar to any land, had found its way to this spot ; or if any were driven thither casually by storms, they must have perished from want of food, as no kind of land fowl was found upon it, at the time of its discovery. Are we in these circumstances to suppose, that some unfortunate bird, which had fed upon the seeds of plants in GUINEA or BENGUELA, having afterwards lost its way, was forced by tempests on this inhospitable rock, where it perished ; and though, like the Phœnix, it could not renovate its kind, deposited the first germ of vegetation with its ashes ? But it may be doubted, how far any bird, which Nature, having, destined it for a tenant of the land, has only provided with strength of wing sufficient for shorter excursions, could have supported so long a flight, without dropping from fatigue. Though birds of passage may travel farther, they do not accomplish their migration by a single flight, nor without the means of resting on their journey.
The only permanent winds of these latitudes blow from the coast of AFRICA, which is the nearest land ; whence it may therefore be supposed, that the seeds of vegetables may have been carried by these winds and by currents. But have lands so remote been known to impart their productions to each other, by the agency of winds and currents? Several of the native shrubs, which grow about the CAPE OF GOOD HOPE and the western shore of AFRICA, have been transplanted to ST. HELENA, since it became a settlement, and have thriven and multiplied spontaneously : Yet none of these had been borne thither by the effects of easterly winds and currents ; and of some of the indigenous trees and shrubs, which grew upon this island at the time of its discovery, none, it is said, of the same kind, have been found on the opposite parts of AFRICA. This increases our amazement and difficulty : Yet in this amazement and difficulty we must be contented to remain, till we shall be able to remove the veil, which covers the mysterious origin of every thing around us.
If we are not satisfied to take things as we find them, but must needs indulge in speculations about their causes and origin, we may here conjecture, that some seeds of plants, accidentally floating on the surface of the sea, were picked up by oceanic birds, entangled among their food ; and in this way, deposited on those summits, where they appear first to have taken root. For it must be remembered, that the progress of vegetation here, has not been from the shore to the inland parts ; but exactly the reverse. It has begun in the loftiest summits, and descended only a little way downwards,-all the exterior parts that border on the sea remaining to this day, a naked and scorified crust. So that any vegetable seed thrown on the coast by winds and currents, must, before it could find a soil to take root in, have been elevated, some way or other, nearly 2,700 feet above the level of the ocean. But allowing all this to have happened, and that its having happened is a proof of the all-sufficient means of Nature to impart and distribute her productions; yet, if among these indigenous plants, some are found of a very peculiar character, what are we to conclude from this ? Are we to assist the agency of birds, winds, and currents with the more pliant winds of imagination, and suppose that these plants are the offspring and relicks of some more ancient and contiguous land, which no longer exists ? Or that ST. HELENA, just cooled from the fervor of its volcanic fires, had received a few scattered seeds of Trees and Shrubs from the celebrated ATLANTIS of PLATO, before its submersion ? Such extravagant and fanciful suppositions, if none better can be substituted in their room, will only serve to shew, how inadequate any conclusions must be, which we can form on such subjects, and how vain and fruitless our attempts to penetrate that region of darkness and perplexity, which every where confines the visible sphere of our observation !
Of the indigenous Shrubs and Trees, some of which are said to be peculiar to this island, there are only about nine or ten different species. One of the most curious is called by the inhabitants the Tree Fern. It grows to the height of 20 or 25 feet, and bears a very close resemblance to the Fern. Nature frequently imitates in her larger productions the exact models which she has chosen in her minuter works, of which the Tree Fern of ST. HELENA is a striking example : for this is literally a Fern of the size of an ordinary tree. There is another tree, which the inhabitants call the Cabbage Tree, from its supposed resemblance to a cabbage, and two or three Gum Trees, which yield a pure gum like gum arabic. One of these seems to be the same as the TUMACARRY of the coast of COROMANDEL. But the others bear no resemblance to the Mimosa, that yields the gum arabic. There is also a shrub, the leaves of which, when bruised, yield an highly aromatic flavour ; of this the goats are particularly fond: and there is a plant which, from the texture of its rind and wood, is called the String Wood Tree. To these may be added, the Ebony and Aloe, which are also indigenous ; and a shrub said to resemble the Box, which the writer did not see. The Aloe plants were particularly tall and vigorous, and most of them were in flower. These were the only trees and shrubs found growing on the island, at the time of its discovery. Of the smaller vegetable productions, the principal indigenous ones were, besides some species of grasses, Endive, Purslane, Samphire, wild Celery, and Water Cresses ; of which, the Samphire and Purslane are still the most abundant, and are the only plants that are met with in the barren valleys and hills that border on the sea, where they are found growing in the hollows and crevices of the rocks. Yet no vegetation is seen on these, at a distance, except in a very few places, where there have been water courses, which appear quite green from the wild celery and water cresses, which chiefly grow in these situations.
The native trees and shrubs were much more abundant formerly than they are at present. As a proof of this, permission is recorded in the council-books to have been granted, occasionally, to the inhabitants to cut wood in situations where there are now no shrubs or trees remaining. They have been cut down for firewood and other domestic purposes ; and the goats, which are very numerous, have destroyed many of them. From these causes, they would probably have disappeared altogether, but that the inhabitants of late have paid some attention to their preservation. COL. ROBSON, the late Deputy Governor, with a laudable zeal for the interest of his employers, and the benefit and advantage of a spot, where the want of wood is one of the greatest inconveniences, made very extensive plantations of those native trees, on the grounds which lye to the south east. The trees which COL. ROBSON planted, were chiefly those that yield the gums, and thence denominated gum wood trees. In this part of the island, which is more open and exposed than any other, the writer observed a circumstance which shews with what sharpness the Trade wind blows here. Several of the INDIAN fruit trees, particularly the Pumple Mose were nipt and withered, where they rose above the walls which sheltered them from the bleakness of the Trade wind. But it was only in this particular part of the island, which is bleak and unsheltered, that any appearances of this kind were observed. In all situations which are sheltered by the surrounding hills ; and it is difficult here to find any situation that wants this shelter, the fruit trees of INDIA seem likely enough to thrive. Indeed, the productions of most climates have been tried here with success. At the garden of COL. BROOKE, the late Governor, who paid great attention to the interest and welfare of the island, and studied to enrich it with many valuable foreign plants, the writer observed, within a small compass, a great variety of trees and shrubs, all thriving luxuriantly, and which had been brought together from the remotest parts of the world, and from climates the most opposite:—from BRITAIN, AFRICA, CHINA, INDIA, NEW ZEALAND, NEW SOUTH WALES, and AMERICA. One was particularly struck with the vigorous growth of the Oak, Chesnut, Ilex, Bamboo, Palm, English Weeping Willow, Cypress, Orange and Apple Trees, and Plantain. With these were intermixed the Strawberry, Coffee Plant, Vine, Olive Tree, and very large Aloes in flower ; together with the Heath and Broom peculiar to the southern parts of AFRICA, and some beautiful Mimosæ from BOTANY BAY. The summits of the hills around this spot, were overspread with Furze and Bramble, intermixed with the Myrtle and Scotch Fir. The Furze was introduced about eighty years ago ; and many of the heights are now overspread with them. Here they grow, intermixed with the Gum Wood Trees, and other indigenous plants, and seem to thrive as well. The Scotch Firs were very vigorous ; and the Myrtle here grows to an unusual height.
The Apple Tree is said to yield fruit twice a year. The apples are very fine, and some of them exceedingly large. An inhabitant asserted, that he had seen one that measured 14 inches round. The Cherry Tree and Pear Tree have been tried but do not thrive ; neither does the Gooseberry. The Plantain does not answer, except in the low and sheltered grounds. The Peach used to be the most abundant fruit in the island, but there are few of these now remaining. This valuable fruit tree, which was introduced here many years ago, throve and multiplied amazingly, in almost every situation, propagating itself like an indigenous plant. Wherever a seed of it happened to be dropped, even in the crevice of a rock, it sprung up into a flourishing tree ; and so abundant was the fruit, that it was customary to feed the hogs with peaches. But about thirty years ago, an insect, imported either from the MAURITIUS, or from the CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, along with the Constantia Grape, has destroyed almost all the peach trees, and no means have hitherto been found of checking its ravages. It settles on the trunk of the tree, which becomes covered with a white crust, and shortly after withers and dies. The inhabitants have tried all methods of destroying it, but hitherto without effect. They have smoked the trees, scraped off the white crust, and washed the stem with a decoction of tobacco, &c. But none of these methods have answered. This destructive insect is so minute, that it is not visible to the naked eye. It attacks some other trees, particularly the native Gum Wood Trees and the Mulberry ; but the trunk of the Peach seems to be its favourite lodgement. It is a curious circumstance, that this insect, which, according to the testimony and belief of the inhabitants, was imported with the Constantia Vine from the CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, or with some shrubs from MAURITIUS, should not now settle on any of the plants, on which it is supposed to have been brought hither. Its ravages are almost exclusively confined to the Peach, the Mulberry, and one or two of the native island shrubs. An old inhabitant, describing and lamenting the ravages it had made, could not forbear crying out, the tears almost starting into his eyes, "We would with pleasure have given up to it half the trees of the place, had it only spared our peaches, which we valued so much." But this inexorable little foe will listen to no such composition ; and having hitherto resisted every offensive means employed against it, is likely to continue its progress, till it has completely deprived the inhabitants of this wholesome and delicious fruit. The circumstance is the more vexatious, as no other fruit tree prospered so well, and with so little trouble as the peach. It grew readily in every part of the island ; though in the cultivation of several other fruit trees, the inhabitants have had some difficulty, from the want of rain, the rocky nature of the soil, and, in exposed situations, from the bleakness of the Trade wind.
It has been already mentioned, that the valleys near the sea are almost wholly barren, and hardly shew the slightest trace of vegetation, any more than the black volcanic hills which divide them. This unfruitfulness of the valleys is ascribed by the inhabitants to the effects of a saline impregnation, derived probably from the neighbouring hills, where, among the hollows of the rocks, considerable quantities of salt are formed, and washed down by the waters. It appears to be principally common salt, deposited and chrystallized from the exhalations of the surrounding ocean. This saline impregnation does not, however, prevent fertility, in places where any cultivation has been attempted. In JAMES'S VALLEY, where some trouble has been taken with the soil, both native and exotic plants thrive exceedingly well ; and in the next valley, RUPERTS', where nothing has been hitherto done in the way of improvement, there is a Palm Tree of a growth as tall and vigorous as the ordinary palms of INDIA. Where one palm prospers so well, others certainly may be made to grow ; and these trees seem likely to thrive best in the valleys near the sea, as it is in such situations chiefly that the Palm Tree is found within the tropics.
Notwithstanding the disadvantages to which ST. HELENA is subject, from the scantiness of its rains, its rocky soil, and the unfavourable influence of the Trade wind on some particular plants, there is, perhaps, no spot on the face of the globe better adapted, in point of temperature, to unite the productions of most climates ; and we have in fact seen that many plants at least, peculiar to warm as well as to cold countries, thrive here. Where we already find the furze and the myrtle growing together, intermixed with many Indian trees, and with the oak, the chesnut and Scotch fir, and several plants from NEW HOLLAND, AFRICA, and AMERICA, there is surely some encouragement held out, to persevere in improving the value of the island, by extending and multiplying the only sources of wealth and convenience which it seems capable of yielding. The improvements, hitherto made, are very partial, and almost wholly confined to a few small spots around the garden-houses of the inhabitants, which are at a considerable distance from each other. All the intermediate grounds are entirely neglected. The whole surface, in its present state, when viewed from any commanding eminence, discovers, like a miniature of ARABIA, only a few inconsiderable spots of verdure, scattered among naked rocks and barren clays ; and it is not every where that the eye is relieved with this grateful prospect of verdure. In descending from the interior heights, vegetation all around becomes more and more partial, and disappears altogether, among the hills and valleys on the shore.
From this rude and barren state of the island in general, we are the more surprized to observe the summits of the interior hills, and the hollows between them, all covered with the most luxuriant vegetation ; and this becomes the more striking, as the approach to these fine spots of verdure, which are not seen till we come close upon them, is so naked and dreary. These heights appear to have been the first places which were overspread with the native shrubs and plants ; and these still grow here, intermixed with many exotics, which seem to thrive equally well ; so that it is difficult to say, whether the native island shrubs, or the furze, myrtle, Scotch fir, the mimosæ of NEW HOLLAND, or the heath and broom of AFRICA, prosper best. On these spots, the beauty of which is probably heightened by the contrast of surrounding barrenness, we have an opportunity of observing what the unassisted efforts of the climate, and of highly productive soil, are capable of effecting.
Of this original and spontaneous fertility, almost exclusively confined to the loftiest summits and adjoining hollows, while the surrounding hills and valleys are so naked and barren, the reason will naturally be inquired. At first sight one might suppose, that these heights are the remains of some primogenial land, which have been left untouched by the volcanic eruptions, whose lava and cinders have formed the surrounding parts of the island. But the difficulties attending this supposition, have already been stated ; and it has been shewn, that these eminences are of a similar structure and disposition with the hills on the coast, only that there is here a greater proportion of clay, and that the rocks are in a more decayed and friable state. Here too, the clays, which are of a bright red, are tinged with a black mould, from the decay of the native plants which have long flourished on these heights. To this difference of soil, but chiefly to their great elevation, which secures to them a more constant supply of moisture, the fertility of those parts is probably owing ; for they seldom suffer from the parching and long continued droughts, which affect the lower situations. They are generally inveloped in light clouds and vapour ; and it often rains here while there is no rain in any other part of the island. The effects produced on the clouds, at different degrees of elevation, have already been noticed ; and it has been mentioned, that while in the valleys on the shore there is only a fog that does not wet ; yet, as we ascend higher, this becomes a drizzling mist ; and on the tops of the inland hills it is a thick rain. Here too the temperature is from ten to fifteen degrees lower than that in the valleys ; and this greater degree of moisture and coolness, while it feeds the springs from which all the streamlets that water the island are derived, at the same time renders those elevated situations so uncommonly fertile and exuberant in their productions. All these circumstances must have been favourable to the growth and increase of the few native plants, which in whatever way their seeds were conveyed hither, appear first to have taken root and flourished only in the highest situations. That they had spread a considerable way over the hills to the northward, there is, as has already been stated, the evidence of public records ; from which it appears, that permission had formerly been granted, to cut wood in places where there is none now remaining, Had things here been left to the spontaneous efforts of Nature, the native plants would probably in time have overspread the whole surface of the island ; and that they had made so small a progress at the period of its discovery, may seem to argue a more recent cessation of the volcanic fires, than other appearances will justify. But however this may be, and whatever progress the native shrubs might have made, had they been left in the undisturbed repose of Nature, they are not now likely to spread and increase any further, as they are exposed to the depredations of the goats, and are also cut down for fire-wood, wherever they spring up spontaneously. The efforts of Nature in cloathing a rugged, volcanic surface, must be slow and feeble at the beginning, even when they meet with no external interruption ; and in the circumstances which have been mentioned, unless these efforts are seconded by the care of the inhabitants, ST. HELENA is likely to remain long in its present state of nakedness ; and those black volcanic cliffs, where only a few plants of Samphire and Purslane have hitherto found their way, may continue for ages, to present the same aspect of desolation to the mariner.
Yet it would be hard to suppose, that Nature, after surmounting so many obstacles in establishing the first growth of plants, in a situation so remote and unconnected, had doomed the rugged volcanic hills on the shore, to a state of perpetual destitution and sterility. Their present nakedness cannot be considered as without a remedy, in a climate which has been found so favourable to many of the productions of hot as well as of cold countries ; and the deficiency of wood here might certainly be supplied, by encouraging and protecting the growth of the indigenous plants, and by introducing such trees and shrubs, as thriving in similar situations in other countries, are there fore likely to prosper here.
But though several trials which have been made, with different sorts of exotics, have completely succeeded, they have hitherto tended rather to ornament than utility ; and plantation has not yet extended beyond the decoration and improvement of the summer dwellings of the inhabitants ; while all the intermediate grounds, both hills and valleys, as if they were left as a foil for setting off the verdant spots by their gloomy and sullen aspect, are not only neglected, but the shrubs which formerly grew upon some of them, have been wholly eradicated.
The only attempt towards a more general improvement of the island was made about seventeen years ago, when some of the inhabitants formed themselves into a society for this laudable purpose. The subscribers to this scheme were to contribute, according to their circumstances, towards raising a fund the object of which, was to excite a spirit of industry, and an ardour for botanical experiments. For by the distribution of small pecuniary rewards, and honorary premiums, it was their purpose to advance and encourage planting, gardening, farming, and every sort of improvement, of which the grounds are capable. This benevolent scheme, if the confined and scanty means of its promoters had enabled them to execute their intentions, would have been attended with very beneficial consequences to the island. But the inhabitants are not sufficiently numerous and wealthy, to carry or, extensive plans of improvement ; and (though the society entered on their undertaking with the zeal and ardour natural to a new Institution) we cannot blame them, if the experience of many difficulties, and the want of adequate funds, shortly abated their efforts. In the mean time, it may be satisfactory to record the general result of some of their earliest experiments, which having been successful, as far as they were carried, hold out the greater encouragement to attempt farther improvements.
By the direction of the Society, three spots of ground, differing in their situation and climate, were very properly selected for the trial of such exotics as they might have an opportunity of procuring. One piece of ground was in JAMES'S VALLEY, Where the average temperature is from 74 to 76, and where the heat is above 80 in the summer months. Another was at the country government house, where the mean temperature is about 66. A third was on one of the summits of the island called HIGH PEAK, where the thermometer sinks twelve or fourteen degrees lower. All this variety of temperature, arising from the different degrees of elevation, occurs within the space of three miles. The ground pitched upon in JAMES'S VALLEY, consisting of about two acres, was found to be well adapted to the culture of all Oriental plants, the Mango, Mangosteen, Jumbo Malac, Coffee, Plantain, &c. So favourable was the climate here to these, and a variety of other productions, that this place, which had only been a heap of broken rocks and stones, was, in the short period of twelve or fourteen months, covered with a great variety of shrubs and trees ; besides yielding a plentiful supply of roots and, greens for the hospital. The plantation at the GOVERNMENT GARDEN was still more extensive and various, as the climate here was found to favour the productions of almost all other countries ; and that on HIGH PEAK seemed equally well adapted to the succulent vegetables, and the hardy trees and shrubs of northern regions.
In their early labours, the Society was greatly assisted by Dr. JAMES ANDERSON, the present Physician General of FORT ST. GEORGE, a man whose ardent and active benevolence, ever ready to engage in whatever concerns the welfare and happiness of mankind, will be long remembered with affection and gratitude in that part of the world, where, during a residence of more than forty years, he has been a constant benefactor. By the care and assiduity of this excellent person, many rooted plants and seeds of the most useful trees and shrubs, which grow in the EAST INDIES, were forwarded by the Indiamen to ST. HELENA ; and had the means of the Society enabled them to keep pace with the zeal and ardour of their coadjutor, this island, besides deriving an increase of accommodation and convenience from the growth of its plantations, would shortly have become the conservatory of many of the most valuable productions in the world.
An island enjoying so benign and salubrious a climate, situated in the route of vessels returning from INDIA, at a convenient distance too between GREAT BRITAIN and her eastern possessions, and in one of those happy latitudes, where the ships that touch for refreshment are at no season liable to injury from storms, nor their crews from sickness, is certainly a valuable acquisition. In a military view, likewise, it may be regarded as a post of some consequence; and as it is in most places impregnable by Nature, and in others well fortified by art, nothing seems wanting to complete its value and importance, except the addition of wood, and a more extended cultivation of such vegetables as the rocky nature of its surface is capable of yielding.
The grounds certainly are not adapted to the cultivation of any grain ; and if they even afforded opportunities of tillage, the crops must be extremely uncertain and precarious, from the frequent droughts that prevail. The inhabitants are of course obliged to depend on very remote countries for their indispensable supplies of bread-corn, and which the casualties of shipwreck, or the accidents of European warfare, may occasionally intercept. To secure themselves against the consequences of such events, which would be the more dreadful in their situation, as they are placed so far out of the reach of immediate assistance, the great object ought to be, the raising of such trees and plants as will endure the dryness of the climate, and best supply the want of bread-corn. They have already the Potatoe, the Yam, and the Plantain. The two former thrive well, and the last Succeeds in some situations. But the various sorts of Palms, which would afford a more certain resource, because they are less subject to suffer from drought, seem wholly neglected. Yet there can be but little doubt that they would grow in the valleys. It is not intended here to assert, that the produce of these trees, whether consisting of pulp, kernel, or pith, is, in its crude and unprepared state, a light and proper nourishment for an European constitution. It certainly is not. Yet it would for a time support life; and people would gladly resort to it in the extremity of hunger. The question here is not about the choice of food; it only regards the last means of subsistence in the hour of calamity; and if, from the effect of unpropitious seasons, and of disappointment in the arrival of expected supplies, a real scarcity were to be felt here, where could any resource so certain be found as in the fruit and produce of the Palm ? for several sorts of these trees are capable of enduring great extremities of drought. A tropical island, where no corn is produced, and where the smaller vegetables are liable to perish from the failure of rain, seems, in wanting palm trees, to want its best ornament, and most independent resource, in the exigence of famine. As these trees are besides subservient to so many useful purposes, and minister more than any other to the immediate convenience and accommodation of man, it seems surprizing that their culture hitherto has been so much neglected.
Were we to follow the footsteps of Nature, who in her various allotments and distributions does nothing in vain, we should consider the introduction of the Palm, as the first object in the improvement of ST. HELENA : For this is the most remarkable production of those islands and continental shores, which are situated within the torrid zone. Here this beautiful and useful tree is spread in such abundance and variety, that its appearance constitutes the peculiar and distinguishing feature of the lands where it grows ; and its representation may be considered as the most natural symbol of tropical climates. It is unquestionably the best gift which the beneficent Author of Nature hath bestowed on the inhabitants of those sultry regions. Wonderfully adapted to the purposes of simple life, it yields without the labour of preparation that food and exhilarating beverage, which in austerer climates, can only be obtained with toil and care. Its broad and spreading foliage, of the most refreshing verdure, cools and shelters the thirsty soil where it grows, while it is easily fashioned into a light pavilion, which protects the natives from the sun and rain. Of the numerous class of palms, though there are several more beautiful, there is none so eminently useful as the Cocoa-nut. Man, in a state of nature, wants but little that is not supplied by this admirable tree, which is adapted to purposes so various and manifold, that the HINDOOS, who celebrate it: uses in their songs and verses, regard it with wonder and veneration as a most lively and affecting example of the beneficence of Providence.
The same wise and benevolent design, which has so amply provided for the convenience and accommodation of the southern islands, and shores of continents, by the easy and abundant growth of this useful tree, has still further extended the benefit of this provision, by making its propagation from one land to another depend, in many instances, on the operation of natural causes. For these trees growing near the sea, and frequently over-hanging the surf, their fruit when ripe drops into the water, and is often carried to a great distance by winds and currents ; and being, in this way, thrown upon the sandy shore of some remote island, it strikes root. In this manner Palms have sprung up in some uninhabited isles, where no trees of the kind grew at so recent a period as that of the discovery of INDIA by the route of the CAPE OF GOOD HOPE. And here the writer cannot avoid mentioning a curious fact, regarding the manner in which a new species of Cocoa-nut was first introduced, on the west coast of the peninsula of INDIA. The natives of TRAVANCORE had long observed that strong westerly winds blew upon their shore great quantities of cocoa-nuts, which being of a peculiar form, they called the sea cocoa-nut, supposing that it grew at the bottom of the sea ; and from their ignorance of geography, not knowing where else it could be produced. According to their accounts, many ages past before they became sensible of the advantage of attending to the culture of this plant. It was left to the spontaneous efforts of Nature, and sprung up here and there among the sand. It is now however considered as one of their most useful trees ; and is, in some respects, reckoned more valuable than the common cocoa-nut. It probably came from the SECHELLES, or some of the remote MALDIVES, where the same species is still found.
From what has been stated, it will be evident, that the spontaneous growth and propagation of the cocoa-nut must be principally confined to low islands, and to the flat and maritime parts of continental lands. In these places, it seems to thrive best. When transplanted to high situations remote from the sea, although it grows, it does not prosper so well. On this account, those valleys of ST. HELENA, which border on the sea, seem better adapted to its culture than any other part. In those places, the cocoa-nut, as well as the date, have already been tried, and are found to thrive. In RUPERT'S valley, there is a very fine date tree, which seems to have sprung up by accident, for so little has been done for the improvement of this place, that a solitary date tree is the only one of any kind to be seen in the largest valley of the island; though, from the example of a single tree thriving so well, it is evident that others of the same kind might be easily reared, and that the bottoms of the valleys, in most places, might be covered with groves of the date tree and cocoa nut. Together with these, the other valuable Palms ought to be tried, especially those which would afford the greatest resource to the inhabitants, in the event of any urgent scarcity. One of the most extraordinary Palms in the world grows in MALABAR, and is called by the natives there the CODDA PANNI. The pith of it is made into bread. The branches are so large, that one of them plaited will protect a dozen people from the sun or rain. The natives here know the value of their palm trees, as they subsist for a part of the year on their produce. The codda panni, and another palm of MALABAR, called TODDA PANNI, would be valuable in ST. HELENA. They are both different from the sago palm, which alone would be a great acquisition.
The Palmyra, or Borassus Flabelliformis, is a very hardy palm, which, along the coasts of MALABAR and COROMANDEL, grows out of the dead sand, and overspreads it in some places with a lofty and open forest ; in others, with a close and impenetrable thicket. It affords a hard and very durable timber and its fruit, though less valuable than the cocoa-nut, is useful for many purposes. This tree, as it requires but little moisture, would probably grow in ST. HELENA. In some parts of INDIA, it is planted for the sole purpose of affording shelter to the more delicate palms which are intermixed with it, such as the Areca, or Betel-nut palm. Though no trial has hitherto been made with the bread fruit, it seems probable that it would succeed in some parts, especially among the interior hills, where there is always more moisture than in any other place. In similar situations in INDIA it is found to thrive, and is easily reared ; though its culture here has never been an object of much attention.
Together with the palms, which, in times of exigency, would afford a substitute for bread, such trees should be introduced as yield the most wholesome and nutritious fruits. Among these, certainly, one of the most valuable is the Jack, or Artocarpus Integrifolia, which bears the largest fruit in the world, and affords a beautiful timber, resembling mahogany. It would probably thrive among the argillaceous hills of the interior. In TANDORE, it grows in a soil somewhat similar, through which we find dispersed many volcanic products. In the salt soils near the sea it does not thrive, but grows luxuriantly on the tops of hills, whence the natives of INDIA say, that it was originally transplanted into the plains. It is a singular circumstance respecting this tree, which is, perhaps, not generally known, that it produces its fruit at the same time from the boughs and stem, and from that part of the trunk which is under ground, where the natives find it upon digging. The fruit, dug up in this way, is reckoned the best, and the time of its maturity is known, from the ground over it cracking and opening. This tree, which is one of the most beautiful and useful in the universe, has not been long known to European Botanists. Its foliage is very close and shady, and the leaf bears some resemblance to the laurel. The fruit is of a most extraordinary size, and contains a wholesome and sweet pulp, interspersed with small kernels called Jack-nuts, of an exquisite flavour and nutritious quality. The natives of some of the hills of INDIA use these kernels as bread.
The Mahwah tree, which grows in the sandy desarts of BAHAR and ORISSA, and by supporting the severe droughts of that climate, supplies a seasonable subsistence to the inhabitants, seems well calculated to bear the less parching droughts of ST. HELENA, and ought to be introduced here.
Next to the culture of those trees, which more immediately administer to human wants and convenience, and which would afford a resource against the worst accidents that could arise from the failure of foreign supplies, the principal object should be to introduce such trees and shrubs as will best shelter the surface, and afford an useful timber. From this, the dews and rains might be rendered more frequent and general, the growth of the smaller vegetables promoted, and sufficient supplies of wood obtained for the use of the island itself, and for the accommodation of the ships which touch here. How much this is wanted, will readily appear from the instructions given by the Court of Directors to the Commanders of their ships, in which it is particularly enjoined, that the said Commanders shall bring with them from INDIA a sufficient supply of wood, to avoid distressing the inhabitants of ST. HELENA, where the great scarcity of this article has obliged the Governor and Council, to prohibit its being carried off the island. A spot, which has so much of .the Company's care, it would be worthy of their liberality to improve by planting and decorating it with wood ; by which means this settlement would be rendered more comfortable and independent in itself, and more essentially useful to the public. Some progress might be made in this plan of improvement, without any great expence, and merely by forwarding in the annual ships from India and England, the seeds and rooted plants of the most useful shrubs and trees, and by appointing some proper persons on the spot, to superintend the rising plantations.
It should be an object here to make trial of a great variety of vegetable productions ; since, from the experiments that have hitherto been made, it seems impossible to determine before hand what particular plants, either of hot or cold countries, are best suited to this spot ; some having succeeded beyond expectation, and some few, where there appeared a greater probability of success, having failed. For example, where we see the apple answer so well, we might expect that the pear and the cherry would succeed ; yet it is otherwise, according to the testimony of the inhabitants. No Indian plant seems less calculated for this situation than the Bamboo, which delights in moisture, and grows best on the river banks, and in rich wet grounds at the foot of hills: Yet the bamboo grows, exceedingly well at ST. HELENA. We should not easily have supposed that the furze, the bramble, and fir of northern regions would have attained a vigorous and luxuriant growth on the summit of a volcanic rock in the Torrid Zone; yet these plants thrive as well here as in BRITAIN. Of the numerous useful productions, peculiar to warm and cold latitudes, of which no trial has hitherto been made, it seems probable that many will succeed. Why trees and shrubs of the same country, when transplanted hither, should not answer equally well, it may be difficult to explain. But there seems to be something peculiar in the soil and climate, which is more favourable to certain vegetable productions than it is to others of the same region. This peculiarity in the soil and climate, which perhaps operates more considerably from the present bleak and naked state of the grounds, may probably change with the progress of improvement, when the surface is better sheltered, and consequently more moist and humid, and any sharp ungenial influence of the Trade wind thereby diminished.
The different sorts of palm trees have been mentioned as the productions most likely to answer in the valleys. On the bare rocky heights, it is probable that the jungle shrubs of INDIA would succeed as well as the palms in the lower grounds. Of these shrubs, the Mimosæ would be the most useful. Their growth, besides sheltering and protecting the surface, would afford a supply of fire-wood to the inhabitants ; and prevent the necessity of importing coals in a climate, where fire is only wanted for culinary purposes. The culture of forest and timber trees would probably succeed best on the declivities and summits of the interior hills ; where, if they could be made to grow, they would, no doubt, have a favourable influence on the climate, by attracting the clouds, and favouring the descent of rain,
This plan of improvement, which would propose to confine the cultivation of palms to the valleys on the shore; of jungle shrubs to the rocky eminences ; and of forest trees to the interior heights and declivities, seems best adapted to the soil and situation of the grounds ; and it is conformable to the course which Nature has followed, in cloathing the surface of one of the most ancient lands in the world, the peninsula of INDIA, whose shores are overspread with groves of palms, while deep jungles occupy the higher rocky grounds, and forests surround the interior mountains. And although this land has been inhabited from the remotest antiquity, by a race of civilized people, who have filled it with the stupendous monuments of their religion and industry, they have, however, interfered so little with the order which Nature had chosen for distributing her productions, that its different portions, to this day, are distinguished by the peculiarity of their shrubs and trees ; and the palm, the bamboo, the teak, and mimosæ, still occupy their ancient and natural situations.
The Teak, which is one of the most valuable of all the Indian trees, ought likewise to be tried here; and if we may judge from the situations in which it generally grows, we might suppose it would answer. Some of the finest teak trees, that are met with in the ANIMALEE Forests, spring from among fragments of rock, where there appears to be no sort of soil, besides a little red earth or clay, similar to that of ST. HELENA. If to the teak, which is so useful, the Poon, another eastern tree, could be added, it would be a valuable acquisition. It grows straight and to an amazing height, and is generally used for the masts of ships. Groves of such trees on the heights, besides the influence they would have on the general course of the rains and dews, would constitute a source of interior wealth ; and afford accommodation to fleets, which might not, otherwise be inclined to touch here.
Of many other Indian trees, which might be recommended as proper to be tried, and likely to succeed, the writer shall only mention one more. The tree which he means is the Banyan, that noblest production of the vegetable kingdom, which springing from a small seed, dropt sometimes in the crevice of a rock, shoots up and spreads into the extent and magnificence of a grove. This tree perhaps would thrive among the rocks, on the sides of the hills. In INDIA, it frequently takes root, and grows in such situations. It very often springs from the walls of a Choultry or Pagoda, and spreading round, includes the whole building within its roots and fibres ; in many places, confining and supporting what otherwise would tumble down: For in some ruinous buildings, round which the banyan has spread in this manner, and where the lower parts of the building have been removed by the natives, we still observe the upper parts of the walls entire and unbroken, and suspended in the air among the fibres of the banyan. Surely, no tree could be a greater acquisition to ST. HELENA than one of this description ; whose growth would fix and confine the loose basaltic crags, and guard the houses of the inhabitants against the mischief to which they are exposed, from the rocks unexpectedly separating and tumbling down. That the banyan would grow among these loose rocks, seems not unlikely. The Pipel, which resembles it, and grows in similar situations in INDIA, has somehow or other taken root in RUPERT'S Hill, near the Government-house. There is only a single plant of it ; but it is healthy, and grows out of the lava. No one could tell how it came there. Where the pipel thrives, the banyan is likely to grow. This last, frequently springs from the fissures of the granite, where there does not appear to be any soil. It very often takes root in the trunks of trees, especially in that of the palmyra. There is an extensive plantation of these trees (palmyras) between ALLAMPARVA and SADRAS, on the coast of COROMANDEL, in which every palmyra composing it, is encompassed with a net-work of the roots of the banyan, from seeds dropt in the crevices of the trunks by the birds. These facts, which are curious in themselves, are mentioned here, only to shew the facility with which the banyan takes root, and the probability there is of introducing it with success at ST. HELENA.
Artificial grasses, and a variety of useful herbs, which cannot support the drought of the island in its present naked state, might yet be introduced and cultivated with success, if the valleys and rocky eminences were moderately sheltered with wood. One great advantage of the native jungles of INDIA (many of the small trees and shrubs of which would probably thrive here) is, that they protect the herbage, and thus preserve abundant pasture for the cattle in the dry and hot season while the open plains, which are unprotected with wood, are converted into sandy wastes, and yield not a blade of grass. These hardy shrubs seem to be the first productions, with which Nature, in a burning climate, overspreads rocky and sandy grounds ; and, while they afford shelter to the tender herbs which spring up under their shade, they probably prepare the soil for the reception and growth of forest and fruit trees. It would be advisable to adopt this course, in improving the roost rocky and barren parts, by planting them with these jungle shrubs of INDIA, which by preserving the surface cool and humid, would favour the growth of herbs and grasses, assist in correcting the natural dryness of the climate, and prove, in a variety of ways, useful to the settlement.
But in order to ensure complete success to these improvements, and to obviate the ill effects of long continued droughts, while the plantations are young and the surface unsheltered, it would be necessary to obtain an artificial command of water. This might be effected by digging tanks and reservoirs, which, from the nature of the grounds, might be so constructed, as to afford an easy and ready supply to most parts of the island. Many of them might be filled and kept up by the springs of the interior hills ; and they would be still further augmented by occasional rain. In a situation where water is so much wanted, and where its artificial distribution would yield such benefit, we are surprized to see so much of it running to waste. The effect of the partial allotments of Nature, may frequently be compensated by human industry and care. Even in this dry climate, where the rains are not only deficient in quantity, but partial in their extent, and uncertain in their periods of access, still the quantity that actually falls down from the clouds upon the hills, and which oozing through the beds of rock and clay, breaks out in numerous springs at their bottoms and on their declivities, might, with proper management and distribution, be sufficient to moisten and fertilize a great part of the surface. Tanks and reservoirs dug to retain and preserve it, would, as has been observed, receive still further additions from the rains, and would prove a great resource to vegetation during the prevalence of severe droughts ; and this seems the only way in which cultivation on such a spot as this can, at the beginning, be carried on without any risk of failure or miscarriage. The expence and labour of constructing a sufficient number of tanks for this purpose could not be very considerable, and would be far less than the natives of some countries are obliged to undergo, in order to secure themselves from famine. If the prospect of expence or difficulty could have deterred from useful undertakings like this, no Hindoo legislator would ever have entertained the arduous project of introducing the culture of rice into the CARNATIC, and of instructing the inhabitants of one of the most parched and fervid climates in the world, to depend for their subsistence on the production of a delicate grain, which cannot be made to grow out of water. Yet, by the construction of immense and numerous tanks and reservoirs, which collect and preserve the partial bounties of heaven, and by the erection of some stupendous works, which controul the course of rivers and extend the distribution of their waters, the plains of the CARNATIC, which for six months together are sometimes not visited with rain, and for a long period not refreshed with any dews, have been made to yield luxuriant harvests of a grain purely aquatic ; and from being in a state of nature, mere rock and sand, overspread with, jungle, have, through the patient industry of the HINDOOS, become the garden and granary of INDIA. It may be doubted, whether the inhabitants of EUROPE, with all their boasts of civilization, and proud claims of superiority over the rest of mankind, would, in circumstances so arduous and difficult, have the courage to undertake, and the patience to execute, such a stupendous monument of public beneficence.
If examples were needed, or could avail to encourage exertion, the writer knows of none stronger or more applicable than that of the CARNATIC, which shews how a parched and rocky soil may be improved, and a great scheme of watery cultivation carried on, in opposition to the natural dryness of the climate. But that elaborate process and assiduous care required in the culture of an aquatic plant, are not wanted for the purpose of carrying on any improvements of which ST. HELENA is capable. Trees and shrubs, transplanted to its hills and valleys, would only for a time require an occasional supply of water. In a state of greater strength and maturity, they would probably attract a sufficiency of dew and rain to support their verdure, and promote their farther growth.
By the effect of such improvements, the climate here might probably undergo some little alteration, in becoming moister than it is at present; and the planting of the bare rocky summits with such trees and shrubs as can be made to grow upon them, is the only means which we can employ to favour the descent of dews and rains. That such plantations, when grown to some maturity, would attract a sufficiency of moisture to preserve their verdure and promote their farther growth, seems highly probable, from what happens among the interior hills, where there are groves of flourishing trees and shrubs, and where, as it has been already mentioned, light rains frequently fall, while not a drop reaches the bare rocks on the shore, notwithstanding their great elevation. But although the natural dryness of the climate might in this way be considerably relieved, and the island rendered more valuable, and far more commodious and agreeable to its inhabitants, is not to be expected that any improvements which can be made on the surface of so small a spot, can effect any material change in the course of the seasons, in which it is placed. Extensive tracts of land, from the effect of cultivation, from the disposition of their woods, and the draining of their marshes, may undergo considerable changes of temperature and climate : But a petty isle, removed from the influence of every other land, and lying in an immense ocean, whose climate and temperature are regulated by the invariable course of the Trade wind, can have no great influence on the seasons, and on the peculiar state of the atmosphere which prevails in those latitudes. Yet it is reasonable to believe, if it were covered with wood, and otherwise cultivated, that it would be more frequently visited with showers than it is at present ; and this supposition is conformable to what actually takes place in its naked and wooded summits. But that the rains here can ever become very abundant, or regularly periodic, as in most other tropical countries, is not at all probable. In spite of what human art and industry can effect, ST. HELENA must always remain a dry climate, unless some great revolution of nature should raise other lands in its neighbourhood, from the bottom of the ocean ; and by controuling the general current of the Trade wind, give rise to periodic monsoons, variable winds, or alternate land and sea breezes, in the centre of the Æthiopic. From these ordinary sources of rain in warm countries, the particular situation of ST. HELENA wholly excludes it ; and being placed in circumstances where the principal causes which produce the general and occasional rains of tropical countries do not operate at all, and where the sources of its own peculiar rains only operate feebly and at uncertain intervals, the only alteration that is likely to happen is, that a wooded and cultivated surface will naturally attract and retain more rain and humidity than a naked rock, which is almost continually heated above the temperature of the surrounding sea.
From the peculiar nature of the climate here, and the course of the winds, there is no reason to apprehend, that the salubrity of the place would be affected by the improvements which have been recommended. It is true, that some of the most unhealthy of the tropical islands, especially those in the Asiatic seas, are observed to be the most exuberant in their vegetable productions. But the malignity of their climate does not arise from their verdure and luxuriance ; it is occasioned by the close and sultry heats, dead calms, and excessive rains, to which they are subject. From these, and the noxious effects of them, ST. HELENA is wholly exempted. It does not owe its salubrity to its nakedness, but to the steady influence of the Trade wind, which would equally purify and refresh its hills and valleys, if its whole surface were covered with wood, and those dark and rugged volcanic cliffs, with their deep chasms and overhanging crags, were decorated with verdure and luxuriance to the water's edge. And while this steady and salubrious gale is continually blowing over it, no hurtful exhalations are likely to arise from the greater humidity of its wooded surface.
When we consider how much this island might be improved and decorated by the addition of wood, it is difficult not to anticipate the striking and beautiful effects that would arise from it. There is here every variety and wildness of surface, which can result from the most fantastic configuration of rocks and hills and this rude and natural scenery wants only the shade and embellishment of wood, to make the whole one of the most delightful and romantic spots in the world and which, instead of disgusting the eye with a prospect so dismal and dreary under a benign and genial sky, would discover, in the remote solitude of the ocean, an object the most grateful and refreshing to those that approached it.