St Helena: South Atlantic Fortress

St Helena is a small volcanic island with an area of 47 square miles lying 1200 miles from the nearest land

and 1500 miles [2400km] north-west of Cape Town. The island is mountainous and almost completely surrounded by precipitous cliffs with only a few practicable landing places. Behind the sheer and barren cliffs the island, although mountainous, is green and fertile. The highest point on the island is Diana's Peak, some 2600 ft [c790m] high. It was this abundance of vegetation, plentiful fresh water and a single, comparatively safe, anchorage that attracted the island to passing ships. The island was discovered in 1503 by the Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova who arrived on the island on the birthday of Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.

Although St Helena had been known to the Portuguese since its discovery in 1503 the first English interest came in 1588 when an English sea captain, Thomas Cavendish, landed on the island. Between 1588 and 1659 English, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch ships all visited St Helena without making any attempt formally to claim the island. However, the Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid-17th century forced the English East India Company to claim the island in order to provide the Company's ships with a re-supply base since the Dutch occupation of the Cape of Good Hope prevented English ships obtaining supplies there.

The Dutch briefly occupied St Helena in 1672–3 but were ejected by an English force under the command of Sir Richard Munden. It was after this attack by the Dutch that the Court of Directors of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) decided that the island must be fortified if it was to be retained by the Company and so, in 1673, the HEIC developed the island into a major fortress.

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Author: Bill Clements

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Keywords: Fortifications, St. Helena, British, South Atlantic, Batteries


Bill Clements

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