Some time ago I wrote a blog about the Friends of St Helena's new Facebook page and the excellent collection of 1890-1930 photographs to be found there.
One that caught my eye was that of a large gun being wheeled up the main street in Jamestown. I asked then if anybody could tell me anything about it, and now Ian Bruce, the creator of the Facebook page has helped me out. An article he has written,to be published in the Friends of St Helena magazine next year, The Wirebird, fills in all the historical context about the garrison on the island.
In 1902, at the end of the Boer War, the island's garrison reached a peak of over 1500, and in 1903 two large modern guns were installed to guard the island. These guns had been captured from the Boers, and had done a great deal of damage during the Boer War. The "Long Tom" in the photograph was one of these. Shortly after these guns arrived the garrison was run down to a little over 200 men, with predictable economic consequences for the island, similar to the rundown after the death of Napoleon.
In 1906 the new Liberal Government, elected on a platform of retrenchment, and doubtless aware of the declining military value of St Helena as a coaling station as the Royal Navy shifted to oil, decided to close the garrison altogether. Despite public outcry on St Helena, and the organisation of a Committee in the UK which bizarrely and futilely tried to gain compensation for St Helena's landowners, the Government held firm.
Winston Churchill, holding office for the first time as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, defended the policy, arguing that they should await the results of an expert being sent to the island to investigate. This expert concluded that the establishment of a flax industry was the only possibility for avoiding economic depression. (1)
In 1907 Parliament voted a grant to set up the flax industry, and so another chapter in the island's precarious history began, to be ended, so legend has it, by another peremptory decision in the 1960's. (2)
Quite what happened to the redundant guns is a mystery to me.
1. "The First Dozen Years", draft article by Ian Bruce, kindly supplied by the author.
2. The conventional wisdom is that a decision at a fairly low level in the Post Office to abandon the use of flax for mail bags led to the shutdown of the flax industry. The explanation may be rather more complex, as Laurence Carter's blog suggests.