A

DESCRIPTION

OF THE

Island of St. Helena ;

CONTAINING

OBSERVATIONS

ON ITS

SINGULAR STRUCTURE AND FORMATION ;

AND

AN ACCOUNT OF ITS CLIMATE,

NATURAL HISTORY, AND INHABITANTS.

 

LONDON.


PRINTED FOR R. PHILLIPS, NO. 6,
BRIDGE STREET, BLACKFRIARS,
1805.


TO THE HONOURABLE THE COURT OF DIRECTORS FOR THE AFFAIRS OF THE HONOURABLE UNITED COMPANY OF MERCHANTS OF ENGLAND, TRADING TO THE EAST-INDIES.

HONOURABLE SIRS,

THE island which is the subject of the following pages, has employed so much of your care and attention, and is in itself so curious and extraordinary, and so little known from description, that a particular account of its singular appearances, climate and productions, cannot we may reasonably hope, be unfavourably received by your Honourable Court. In this hope it is dedicated to you by the author, who, as he has no claim or expectation of patronage, nor any wish to obtrude himself personally on your notice, conceives that in this address, he may, without the imputation of flattery, be permitted to express the feelings of truth and respect. To the attention and liberality of your Honourable Court, the island which is here described, already owes many important benefits. To you, its inhabitants, who are separated from the rest of the world by a vast ocean, and confined to a naked and unproductive rock, are, in a great measure, indebted for their comforts and for their subsistence ; and it deserves the grateful remembrance of the friends of humanity, that the blacks, who are employed here in cultivating the country have been released by your orders, from a state of slavery. St. Helena is indeed so much indebted to your care, and so necessarily dependent on your support, that you cannot but feel somewhat of a paternal concern, in whatever regards the welfare of this barren and rocky isle, which its original parent, Nature, that produced it in some extraordinary convulsion, seems to have abandoned to a state of hopeless destitution in the solitude of the ocean. It is gratifying to reflect, that the most helpless and dependent of all your possessions, has been so peculiarly distinguished by your care and humanity. What you have already done encourages the expectation, that from your farther attention and munificence, this island may yet receive the full measure of improvement of which it is capable. In what manner it may be rendered more valuable independent in itself, more commodious to fleets, and more comfortable to its inhabitants, it has been one of the author's principal objects to shew ; and be shall think the time and labour employed on the following pages fully repaid, if he succeed in calling the attention of your Honourable Court to the important subject of improving this island.—To impart the gifts of Nature and the accommodations of life to regions that are desolate and barren, is to obtain a species of conquest and dominion of all others the most lasting and beneficial. The acquisitions of the sword are uncertain and fugitive : But the appropriation and culture of the wastes of Nature, the introduction of valuable trees and shrubs, and of those useful plants and fruits of the earth which minister to the wants of man, are benefits that will endure through all the vicissitudes of power and conquest. Your vast empire in the East, comprehending the territories of so many ancient kingdoms, and the scenes of so many former conquerors ; filled with a population of sixty millions, and overflowing with the inexhaustible riches of Nature ; this mighty fabric, in itself so new and unparalleled in the annals of the world, may, like other empires acquired by the sword, and upheld by opinion, pass away as a shadow, and leave no vestige of your power and greatness. But an island recovered from that waste and desolation in which it was lost to every purpose of life, and replenished by your care with the bounties of Nature, will prove a lasting and valuable acquisition to mankind, and bear on its improved and flourishing aspect, the best and only imperishable memorial of power and conquest.

That this island may receive at your hands all the advantages of a more extended culture, and that its inhabitants may long continue to enjoy the benefits of your mild and equitable government, is the earnest wish of,
   Honourable Sirs,
      Your most faithful and
         Devoted humble Servant,
            THE AUTHOR.

London, May 1, 1805


PREFACE.

ISLANDS are generally situated near continents, or in the neighbourhood of each other ; and discover, in the similarity of their structure, soil, and productions, the affinity and relations of a common origin. But besides these, there are some other islands, of a distinct and peculiar fabric, and probably of a more recent formation, either situated on the borders of other lands, or found quite unconnected and solitary, in the most remote and unfrequented spaces of the ocean. Perhaps, one of the most singular and extraordinary of this last description, is the island of ST. HELENA, whether we regard the peculiarity of its form, or the circumstances of its situation. A wild and solitary mass of a structure so strange and unusual, and so curiously raised up in the midst of the waves, has never been viewed by any person, without wonder and astonishment ; and yet very little is known of it, and no adequate account of it has ever been given, though it is now three hundred years since a Portuguese navigator first discovered it, on his return from India. It may therefore be expected, that an attempt to convey an accurate description of this extraordinary island, and of the peculiarities of its climate and productions, will be favourably received by a candid and discerning public.

Some readers, perhaps, may think the description here given of the rocks and strata, rather too minute ; while others may consider this delineation as incomplete, without some chemical and mineralogical details. To the first class of readers, the writer has only to observe, that he found it impossible to convey a just and accurate description with less minuteness, or in fewer words than he has used ; and if such readers are fatigued with the aspect of rocks, they may pass on to what follows, which he, hopes, will be found less uninteresting. The other class of readers, who are seldom numerous, he would gladly have gratified if time and opportunity had allowed him to do so. But, besides that he was unprovided with the means for carrying on such investigations (even supposing him to have been otherwise qualified), he is afraid, as his time was only short, that in minute details of this kind, he might have lost sight of those grander objects and general views, which were to him peculiarly delightful and interesting. Of what delighted and interested him so much, he has endeavoured to convey a faint impression to others ; and he shall think his labour well bestowed, if he succeed in imparting to his readers a clear and just conception of those objects which excited in himself so much curiosity and attention.

Perhaps some persons, who shall in future visit ST. HELENA, may not be able at once to discover in its structure all that order and regularity which are here described. For, at first sight, and to those who only take a superficial view of some parts of it, there appears much confusion and irregularity. Yet the writer has no fear, that his descriptions will be found incorrect, by those who examine this island with care and at leisure ; for such persons only are qualified to estimate the accuracy and fidelity of the account here given, which, whatever its defects may be, has not been executed, without close and patient attention to the subject.

In endeavouring to account for the appearances which are described, some conclusions have been adopted which may seem bold and hazardous, though they were not unwarily admitted, nor without mature reflection. The idea of torrents of melted and burning matter, forcibly propelled through the chasms of an island, and congealing into perpendicular cones and extended beds of rock, may shock the prejudices of our belief, as such an operation is not within that ordinary course of natural events, which has fallen under our notice : In like manner, it might appear to us amazing and incredible, that vast frozen or ignified masses should traverse our solar system, in directions contrary to the planetary movements, if experience had not taught us that there are such bodies as comets. If the deductions of reason, concerning what has been, or may be, beyond the narrow circle of our experience, are not to be admitted, it is to be feared, that no part of the constitution of the terraqueous globe can ever be explained ; as every foot of the ground on which we tread, has undergone changes and revolutions, which we have never seen in the act of taking place, whatever reasonings and conjectures we may form about the manner in which they have been effected. When we consider the fabric and appearance of the island, which is here described, and the singular disposition of its rocky and volcanic parts, it seems impossible not to conclude, that subterranean operations, of a kind more extraordinary than any of which we have ever witnessed the actual and immediate agency, must, at some very remote era have shaken and convulsed the centre of the Ćthiopic : that this island must have been formed by some such unusual efforts of convulsed and labouring Nature ; and that it can only be considered as a wreck left among the waves, by the fury and conflict of the most irresistible of her elements. Though the force and potency of those subterranean agents that produced it, have long since spent themselves and passed away, they have left on it, traces of its igneous origin, so deep and lasting, that we are in some measure enabled to mark the order and succession of the operations, by which this extraordinary mass has been raised from the bed of the waters.

The volcanic origin of basaltes has been questioned by some authors. Perhaps some light may be thrown n this subject, by considering the situation in which this stone is found at ST. HELENA, where it is placed in alternate beds with lava, cinders, and vitrified stones, and with layers of bright red volcanic earths and clays. Whatever there may be curious and peculiar in this, or different from what is found in other countries, the indelible vestiges of a fiery and subterranean origin, which the hand of Nature has so strongly impressed on the aspect of this island, are rendered more striking and remarkable, by the numerous horizontal beds of basaltes, and the huge vertical strata of broken and fissured rock which traverse the whole, from the base to the summit ; and which themselves bear such evident marks of fire, that it is difficult to consider them as being of a distinct and separate origin from the volcanic matters with which they are so closely blended and united.

But whatever shall be determined, as to the probability of any conclusions drawn from the appearances of this spot, it is to be hoped, that most readers will be gratified with an account of a climate, so peculiarly circumstanced as that of ST. HELENA ; lying in the sixteenth degree of south latitude, and in the seventh of west longitude, and near the centre of a vast ocean, where there are no other lands to influence or modify the course of its seasons. There are indeed, probably, very few islands in the world, so extraordinary in themselves, or so singularly situated as this ; and its climate is not the least remarkable of its peculiarities. The writer is aware, that in order to have made this part of his subject more compleat and perfect, a longer opportunity of observation than that which he enjoyed, would have been necessary : Several things of importance have probably escaped his notice ; or he may possibly have been misinformed in some instances where he was obliged to trust to the testimony of others. But when it shall be found, that there are here many omissions, or some few oversights, let it be remembered that these observations, which a longer residence among the scenes which are described, might have made more complete and worthy of public attention, are only such as could be gathered in a diligent search of five weeks ; and, that though they may have been somewhat improved and methodized by reflection, they could not easily have been amplified from books ; in which, where the subject of them is treated at all, it is only touched upon very slenderly. Yet several men of science, well qualified to illustrate this subject, have visited ST. HELENA ; and from the opportunities which it affords for astronomical observation, some have resided here a considerable time. One of the highest hills still bears the name of the celebrated HALLEY, who fixed his telescope on this spot, for the purpose of observing the stars of the southern hemisphere : Other astronomers have resided here; and it would be a matter worthy of curiosity in men employed on scientific missions, whether their immediate object be astronomy, botany or mineralogy, to give a little of their time and attention to the circumstances of this very peculiar climate, and to record appearances as they present themselves. Of all that the writer had an opportunity of observing himself, and of whatever he could collect from others, he has carefully digested the result, which he has still further endeavoured to explain and illustrate, by a comparison with the climate of India. Nor is it in this part of his tract only, that the reader will find several references and allusions to the circumstances of that remote and interesting region. These incidental references, it is hoped, will not be deemed impertinent, or extraneous. If they are valuable in themselves, they will the more readily find with most readers that excuse which it would he unnecessary to offer, if what is natural were always proper. To a person coming immediately from the East Indies, and struck with the objects presented by this island, many things here will awaken recollections of the scenes he has just left ; and these last will naturally intermix themselves with his views and conceptions of the appearances around him. If our notions of things were stripped of the adventitious aids and lights which they derive from comparison, how slender and naked would be the fabric of human knowledge?

The reader, who shall give himself the trouble of inspecting the following pages, may, perhaps, discover some casual lapses in the style and expression ; and it is not meant here to plead, either haste or negligence, in extenuation of any unheeded errors. Yet what has unavoidably happened, may surely be told without blame or affectation,-that this little Tract, which was written in retirement, is sent to the press under the disadvantage of not having been seen by any friend before it is printed. The writer, who is far from professing himself indifferent to the praise of clearness and simplicity, if he should happily attain it, will not affect to offer excuses for what has cost him trouble, and what probably no pains on his part could have made better than it is. For the descriptions themselves, and for the inferences drawn from them, as the former are as accurate as he has been able to make them, and the latter more probable than any thing else that has occurred to his reflection, the writer offers no apology.


CONTENTS.

CHAP. I.—The situation and general appearance of the island—Its extent, height, and direction of the hills ; singular disposition of the green and barren parts—First discovery by the Portuguese, and settlement of the English—Reflections on discovery and colonization—Origin of the island from subterranean fire—Structure and general appearance of the hills, with their layers—Description of the beds of basaltic rock, the irregularly columnar shape, and various appearances—Description of the volcanic masses—Of the volcanic earths and clays—Corresponding fabric of the clays and rocks—Remarkable difference between the exterior and interior parts of the island-the singular and striking scenery of the latter—Of the perpendicular and oblique strata of broken and fissured rock—Insulated and conical masses of the same—Some additional remarks on the, strata, rocks, hills, &c.

CHAP. II.—Reflections on the origin and formation of the island; such reflections naturally suggested by its singular and interesting appearance—Difficulty of reaching any satisfactory conclusion on such subjects—Some uses, and advantages of theory—Limited and particular view with which an thing of the kind is proposed, to account for the appearances of St. Helena—Proofs that this island has been the seat of volcanos—Whether it be wholly volcanic, or only the remains of some ancient land, changed by volcanos?—Mr. Forster's opinion with respect to this island and Ascension, with their general appearance, as described by him—Strong objections to this opinion, arising from a view of the whole external structure and composition of St. Helena—Probability of its being wholly volcanic, and raised in the state we now find it from the bed of the sea—That it could not have been raised suddenly, or by an earthquake, as supposed by some—Reasons for thinking that its materials must have been accumulated gradually ; and that its perpendicular and oblique strata have been raised, at some period subsequent to the formation of the volcanic masses—Probable conclusion from all this—Evidences of two distinct operations in the constitution of this island—Difficulty in supposing that there is any portion of primogenial land here, which existed above water, prior to the volcano—Irregularities in the bed of the sea, and other vestiges of volcanic fires in this neighbourbood—Numerous remains of them on the borders of the Atlantic, probably connected in their origin with some ancient revolution—Of the cessation and renewal of volcanos, with a reference to the circumstances of St. Helena.

CHAP. III.—Advantages of this climate with respect to its purity, moderate heat, and almost unruffled serenity—Power of the sun modified by the circumstances of the island, and a variety of temperature found at different heights—Mean heat—Effects of the Trade wind—Why there are no sea and land breezes here—Of the general state of the weather and seasons in the Ćthiopic, as affecting St. Helena—Excessive dryness, and the scantiness and uncertainty of the rains, the greatest and almost the only convenience of this climate—lts dryness the more extraordinary, from the circumstances of its situation—Four causes assigned for this extraordinary dryness and deficiency of rain:— 1. The uniform temperature and constancy of the Trade-wind. 2. The want of land and sea breezes, and of periodic and variable winds. 3. The remoteness of other lands, and the inconsiderable size of the island itself. 4. The nakedness of its surface—These causes separately considered, with an attempt to explain and illustrate the peculiarities of the climate of St. Helena, by some of the most remarkable circumstances in the climate of the peninsula of India—Great salubrity of St. Helena—Favourable to longevity, and to such convalescents as arrive here—Its peculiar advantage as a station for fleets whose crews are sickly—Proofs of its healthfulness, from the confined situations where the inhabitants live—Few diseases—The smallpox never known here, nor the hydrophobia among dogs—Some general observations on the temperature of different climates, and an important error in the writer of Anson's Voyage corrected.

CHAP. IV.—Indigenous and exotic plants, with considerations on the means of improving the island—Great difficulty in conceiving how vegetation first arose on a volcanic island, so remote from other lands—Some conjectures on this subject—The native plants very few—Some of them not found in other countries—The tree fern and cabbage tree the must curious—The other indigenous plants enumerated—More abundant formerly than at present—Cause of this—More attention paid of late to the preservation of the native plants—Various exotics cultivated here with success—Hurtful effects of the Trade-wind—The climate very favourable to the apple and the peach—Of the insect that attacks the peach, and the fruitless attempts to destroy it—Supposed cause of the unfruitfulness of the valleys not consistent with facts and present appearances—Many plants of cold and hot climates brought from the most distant parts of the world, flourish here—Probability that many others would grow—Small progress made in plantation—Picturesque effects arising from a few scattered spots of verdure—Rich verdure and luxuriance of the interior summits—Causes of this spontaneous fertility—Indigenous plants originally found here—Greater humidity here, and why—Native shrubs not likely to spread and increase further without care—Nakedness of the surface not without remedy, proved from the successful issue of several trials, made with exotics—Short account of a society established for improving the island—Result of some of their earliest experiments—Of the value of this island, and the public advantage that would arise, from improving and planting it—The grounds not adapted to the culture of corn—The advantage of introducing such plants as would best supply the want of bread-corn in any exigency, from the failure of foreign supplies—The culture of the palm particularly recommended—The cocoa-nut, and other palms, likely to thrive here—Some notices respecting the palm—Best adapted to the valleys on the shore—The Palmyra or Borassus flabelliformis—The jack tree—Its uses—The mahwah tree—Deplorable scarcity of wood here, the greatest disadvantage to shipping—Peculiarities of the soil and climate with respect to some plants—The jungle shrubs of India likely to grow on the rocky summits—Forest and timber trees, among the interior hills and declivities—Natural order and distribution of some of the most remarkable productions in the peninsula of India, recommended here—Of the teak—Advantage of introducing the banyan—Some notices of this tree—Grasses, and many of the smaller vegetables, not likely to succeed without the shelter of wood—Indian jungle, its effects on the pastures—Necessity of obtaining a command of water, in order to ensure success to improvements here—Tanks recommended—The example of the Carnatic—Consideration of the question, how far the climate of St. Helena is likely to undergo a change from the effects of plantation—No probability that this would effect its salubrity.

CHAP. V.—Of the inhabitants—Manner of life here, and the mode of entertaining strangers—The conversation of the natives—Their courteous deportment to strangers—Some of their ideas very local—Women handsome—Number of inhabitants and of country houses—James Town—Romantic situation of the garden houses—Greater number of females born here than males—Probably the case in other tropical countries—Interior produce of the island in roots, pot-herbs, fruits, &c.—Destruction from rats and caterpillars—Live stock—Birds introduced—Great abundance and variety of fish—Country cultivated by slaves—Lately emancipated—Former state of slavery here—Reflections on this subject—Reports of former travellers and of some old inhabitants, respecting the more frequent appearance of lightning here than formerly—Probability of the climate having undergone some little change—St. Helena compared with the Cape of Good Hope—Its advantages and inconveniences as a station for fleets, and as a military post—Conclusion.


Notes on this version of Duncan:

The text was scanned from an original copy of Duncan and OCR software was used to generate a text file which was carefully proof-read against the original.

Contributed by Barry Weaver.

British Library shelfmark: 1507/133.
Library of Congress call number: Not in the catalogue.


Last updated: 20 December, 2011


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