There is an island in the Atlantic Ocean populated by Saints. They are the residents of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory 1,200 miles off the coast of South-West Africa. With a population of 4,550, those born on the island have the honour of being called ‘Saints’. They are a diverse mix of ethnicities, but none of them are of indigenous origin.
Saint Helena was originally uninhabited. It was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, who named it after the mother of Constantine the Great. They tried to keep it a secret, aware of its strategic value as a rendez-vous point for ships en route to the Cape of Good Hope and Asia. By introducing fruit trees, goats and pigs, they tried to establish a source of food for long voyages.
Before long, the Dutch and English were also aware of the island. The Dutch claimed it in 1633, but did not stay. Then it was settled by the English East India Company in 1659, who built a fort to defend it. The Dutch briefly reclaimed it in 1673, before the East India Company took it back with a charter from King Charles II.
Despite the previous efforts of the Portuguese to cultivate the land, it was difficult to keep the island self-sufficient. To keep up supplies, British homebound ships were ordered to deliver a tonne of rice whenever they passed.
The first settlers were British troops, planters and enslaved people from Africa and Asia. Efforts were made to attract more settlers, with limited success. The population grew as it became a holding place for prisoners. The most famous of these was Napoleon Bonaparte, who was imprisoned there from 1815 until his death in 1821. Others included Zulu chief Dinuzulu, the Sultan of Zanzibar and six thousand Boers during the Second Boer War.
While import of slaves had been illegal since 1792, slavery was officially abolished in 1832. Saint Helena became the base for the Royal Navy’s efforts to thwart the slave trade. Ships like the HMS Waterwitch ambushed transatlantic slavers and brought the human ‘cargo’ to the island. In total, 439 slave ships were captured, of which 87 were carrying slaves. Many did not survive the journey, but 24,400 were liberated in Saint Helena.
During this time, the island was transferred to the British Crown in 1834, with a governor in place to rule. But steam-powered ships and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced the usefulness of the island as a strategic naval hub. Saint Helena was no longer on the major shipping routes and fell into poverty. For a while, it was a successful producer of flax, used to make rope, but this also declined in the 1960s, with the development of new synthetic materials.
Today, Saint Helena gets an annual subsidy from Britain, although coffee and tuna exports and tourism draw an income. An airport was opened for commercial flights from 2017, making it more accessible. Where it used to take a ten-day boat journey from Cape Town to reach the island, there are now scheduled flights. Next year, a fibre-optic cable will connect it to the rest of the world in real time. The Saints are on the cusp of welcoming a new generation of immigrants, attracted by its sub-tropical climate, cultural diversity, friendly atmosphere and high-speed internet.