Uninhabited when first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, Saint Helena was garrisoned by the British during the 17th century. It acquired fame as the place of Napoleon BONAPARTE's exile, from 1815 until his death in 1821, but its importance as a port of call declined after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Ascension Island is the site of a US Air Force auxiliary airfield; Gough Island has a meteorological station.
The island was discovered on the 21St of May 1502 by the Portuguese navigator Joao de Nova, on his voyage home from India, and by him named St. Helena. The Portuguese found it uninhabited, imported live stock, fruittrees and vegetables, built a chapel and one or two houses, and left their sick there to be taken home, if recovered, by the next ship, but they formed no permanent settlement. Its first known permanent resident was Fernando Lopez, a Portuguese in India, who had turned traitor and had been mutilated by order of Albuquerque. He preferred being marooned to returning to Portugal in his maimed condition, and was landed at St. Helena in 1513 with three or four negro slaves. By royal command he visited Portugal some time later, but returned to St. Helena, where he died in 1546. In 1584 two Japanese ambassadors to Rome landed at the island. The first Englishman known to have visited it was Thomas Cavendish, who touched there in June 1588 during his voyage round the world. Another English Calling ships are those which have been boarded by the harbour master and given pratique. Since 1886 boatmen are allowed to communicate with ships that have not obtained pratique, and these are known as passing ships.
Captain Kendall visited St. Helena in 1591, and in 1593 Sir James Lancaster stopped at the island on his way home from the East. In 1603 the same commander again visited St Helena on his return from the first voyage equipped by the East India Company. The Portuguese had by this time given up calling at the island, which appears to have been occupied by the Dutch about 1645. The Dutch occupation was temporary and ceased in, 1651, the year before they founded Cape Town. The British East India Company appropriated the island immediately after the departure of the Dutch, and they were confirmed in possession by a clause in their charter of 1661. The company built a fort (1658), named after the duke of York (James II.), and established a garrison in the island. In 1673, the Dutch succeeded in obtaining possession, but were ejected after a few months occupation. Since that date St. Helena has been in the undisturbed possession of Great Britain, though in 1706 two ships anchored off Jamestown were carried off by the French. In 1673, the Dutch had been expelled by the forces of the Crown, but by a new charter granted in December of the same year the East India Company were declared the true and absolute lords and proprietors of the island. In 1810, the company began the importation of Chinese from their factory at Canton. During the companys rule the island prospered, thousands of homeward-bound vessels anchored in the roadstead in a year, staying for considerable periods, refitting and revictualling. Large sums of money were thus expended in the island, where wealthy merchants and officials had their residence. The plantations were worked by the slaves, who were subjected to very barbarous laws until 1792, when a new code of regulations ensured their humane treatment and prohibited the importation of any new slaves. Later it was enacted that all children of slaves born on or after Christmas Day 1818 should be free, and between 1826 and 1836 all slaves were set at liberty.
Among the governors appointed by the company to rule at St. Helena was one of the Huguenot refugees, Captain Stephen Poirier, who attempted unsuccessfully to introduce the cultivation of the vine. A later governor (1741-1742) was Robert Jenkin of Jenkins ear fame. Dampier visited the island twice, in 1691 and 1701. Halley's Mount commemorates the visit paid by the astronomer Edmund Halley in 1676 the first of a number of scientific men who have pursued their studies on the island.
In 1815 the British government selected St. Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was brought to the island in October of that year and lodged at Longwood, where he died in May 1821. During this period the island was strongly garrisoned by regular troops, and the governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, was nominated by the Crown. After Napoleons death the East India Company resumed
full control of St. Helena until the 22nd of April 1834, on which date it was in virtue of an act passed in 1833 vested in the Crown. As a port of call the island continued to enjoy a fair measure of prosperity until about 1870. Since that date the great decrease in the number of vessels visiting Jamestown has deprived the islanders of their principal means of subsistence. When steamers began to
be substitufed for sailing vessels and when the Suez Canal was opened (in 1869) fewer ships passed the island, while of those that still pass the greater number are so well found that it is unnecessary for them to call. The withdrawal in 1906 of the small garrison, hitherto maintained by the imperial government, was another cause of depression. During the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 some
thousands of Boer prisoners were detained at St. Helena, which has also served as the place of exile of several Zulu chiefs, including Dinizulu.