Monday, 15 July 2013

St Helena Britannica - new publication by the Friends of St Helena

The Friends of St Helena have recently published this collection of short pieces by the late Trevor W. Hearl(1924-2007) with an excellent preface by Alexander Schulenburg. The author's long association with St Helena began in July 1969 when he stepped ashore on the island "just thirty hours before the first Moon landing" and continued until his death. The current work is both a tribute and a substitute for the one that Mr Hearl was planning to write.

The book reflects the author's determination to rescue St Helena's history from historians of the captivity of Napoleon, its most famous inhabitant. As he reminds us, St Helena has not only been a "prison and fortress", but a vital part of British overseas expansion for 200 years, a natural treasury and scientific observatory, a seaport and whaling centre, a base in the fight against slavery and "a mecca for enterprising tourists, philatelists, naturalists, yachtsmen and game fishermen."

Among the pieces printed is the rather sad story of one of St Helena's first surgeons, Francis Moore whose premature death along with that of his wife left their children somehow to be cared for out of whatever proceeds could be gleaned from their property. Here too are chapters on the forgotten French Huguenots and St Helena's forlorn attempt to start a wine industry, on the East Indiamen that made St Helena a vital port for the British Empire before the opening of the Suez Canal, on the Southern Whale Fishery, on Consuls and Consular Agents, on scientific interest in St Helena, nicluding a short chapater on Charles Darwin which recalls the deep impression the island made on him and concludes

Today in the popular mind Darwin's name is tied to the Galapagos Islands, but if he could be asked which island he would like to explore again, I wonder what his choice would be? St Helena?

Perhaps most revealing were a couple of chapters on St Helena's "Social Revolution",the loss of power and influence of the country gentlemen at the top of the social pyramid in the days of the East India Company. From the 1830's they faced inadequate pensions, collapsing property prices and restricted opportunity for their children in a world in which the formerly despised trades people of Jamestown were now in the ascendancy. The book sheds a little more light on one of these, Charles Hodson, nicknamed "Hercules" by Napoleon after he visited him at Maldivia in 1815. Here we find him retired to England, St Helena still on his mind, concerned among other things about the introduction of Roman Catholic and dissenting places of worship, a reminder to us of the total dominance and social and political importance of the Anglican Church in the days of the East India Company.

Despite the author's non-Napoleonic orientation there are still five or six chapters spanning the period 1815-1821. These include one on the problem of supplying the islands with food stuffs and other essentials which the author claims gave Hudson Lowe more headaches than his relations with the inhabitants of Longwood. Another is on the races at Deadwood which began during the captivity of Napoleon and continued for a century thereafter. Here too is an excellent chapter on one of St Helena's most important inhabitants, Saul Solomon, a Jew who converted to Anglicanism, founded the Company that still bears his name, and was regarded with great suspicion by Hudson Lowe for his perceived sympathy and business relationship with the occupants of Longwood House, from which he derived great financial benefit. Solomon died many years later while on holiday in England, and his daughter brought his body back in a trunk, in fear that it would be discovered and consigned to the deep. There are though no secrets on St Helena, the body's arrival was greeetd with acclaim, and a suitably grand funeral soon followed.

The preface alone is worth consulting by anyone interested in the history of St Helena for its scholarly survey of the relatively little work that has been produced by professional historians. It correctly situates Hearl's contribution, his roots as a journalist and educator rather than a historian, his constant admission of the provisionality of his knowledge and expressions of hope that others would carry on from where he left off.

As a friend of mine said, it is a bit like a blog. You can dip into it and read whatever takes your fancy at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Produced by the Friends of St Helena, it may not be easily available from the usual places. I would recommend contacting Ian Mathieson at Miles Apart for this and any other books on St Helena that are otherwise difficult to obtain.


1. Trevor W. Hearl, St Helena Britannica studies oin South Atlantic island history edited by A.H. Schulenbu rg, Society of Friends of St Helena, London 2013, pp 8-9

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