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The island was uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world. For centuries, it was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa. The British also used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon I, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and more than 5,000 Boer prisoners. Saint Helena is Britain's second oldest remaining colony, after Bermuda.
Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Spanish navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, and that he named it "Santa Helena" after Helena of Constantinople. Another theory holds that the island found by De Nova was actually Tristan da Cunha 2,430 kilometres (1,510 mi) to its south, and that Saint Helena was discovered by some of the ships attached to the squadron of Estêvão da Gama expedition on 30 July 1503 (as reported in the account of clerk Thomé Lopes).
The Portuguese found the island uninhabited, with an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock, fruit trees and vegetables, and built a chapel and one or two houses. Though they formed no permanent settlement, the island was an important rendezvous point and source of food for ships travelling from Asia to Europe.
Englishman Sir Francis Drake probably located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577–1580). Further visits by other English explorers followed, and, once Saint Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home. In developing their Far East trade, the Dutch also began to frequent the island. The Portuguese and Spanish soon gave up regularly calling at the island, partly because they used ports along the West African coast, but also because of attacks on their shipping, the desecration of their chapel and religious icons, destruction of their livestock and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors.
The Dutch Republic formally made claim to Saint Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favour of their colony at the Cape of Good Hope.
In 1657, Oliver Cromwell granted the English East India Company a charter to govern Saint Helena and the following year the Company decided to fortify the island and colonise it with planters. The first governor, Captain John Dutton, arrived in 1659, making Saint Helena one of Britain's oldest colonies outside North America and the Caribbean. A fort and houses were built. After the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the East India Company received a Royal Charter giving it the sole right to fortify and colonise the island. The fort was renamed James Fort and the town Jamestown, in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England.
Between January and May 1673 the Dutch East India Company forcibly took the island, before English reinforcements restored English East India Company control. The Company experienced difficulty attracting new immigrants, and unrest and rebellion fomented among the inhabitants. Ecological problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, vermin and drought, led Governor Isaac Pyke to suggest in 1715 that the population be moved to Mauritius, but this was not acted upon and the Company continued to subsidise the community because of the island's strategic location. A census in 1723 recorded 1,110 people, including 610 slaves.
Eighteenth-century governors tried to tackle the island's problems by extending tree plantations, improving fortifications, eliminating corruption, building a hospital, tackling the neglect of crops and livestock, controlling the consumption of alcohol and introducing legal reforms. From about 1770, the island enjoyed a lengthy period of prosperity. Captain James Cook visited the island in 1775 on the final leg of his second circumnavigation of the world. Saint James' Church was erected in Jamestown in 1774 and in 1791–92 Plantation House was built, and has since been the official residence of the Governor.
On leaving the University of Oxford, in 1676, Edmond Halley visited Saint Helena and set up an observatory with a 24-foot-long (7.3 m) aerial telescope with the intention of studying stars from the Southern Hemisphere. The site of this telescope is near Saint Mathew's Church in Hutt's Gate, in the Longwood district. The 680 m high hill there is named for him and is called Halley's Mount.
The importation of slaves was made illegal in 1792. Governor Robert Patton (1802–1807) recommended that the Company import Chinese labour to supplement the rural workforce. The labourers arrived in 1810, and their numbers reached 600 by 1818. Many were allowed to stay, and their descendents became integrated into the population. An 1814 census recorded 3,507 people on the island.
In 1815, the British government selected Saint Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was brought to the island in October 1815; he stayed at the small Briars pavilion in the grounds of the Balcombe family's home until the building of his permanent home of Longwood was completed, where he died on 5 May 1821. During this period, Saint Helena remained in the East India Company’s possession, but the British government met additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The island was strongly garrisoned with British troops, and naval ships circled the island.
The 1817 census recorded 821 white inhabitants, a garrison of 820 men on the East India Company's payroll, 1,475 men from the King's troops (infantry, engineers etc.) and 352 people as their families, 618 Chinese indentured labourers, 24 Lascars, 500 free blacks and 1,540 slaves. In total, 6,150 people on the island. In addition, the British government had sent a naval squadron under the command of a Rear-Admiral and consisting of a couple of Man O'War and several smaller vessels. These were not counted in the Census, as most of them lived on their ships. Concerning the slaves, Governor Hudson Lowe initiated their emancipation in 1818: from Christmas of that year, every new born child was considered a free person (though his parents remained slaves until their death).
After Napoleon's death, the thousands of temporary visitors were soon withdrawn and the East India Company resumed full control of Saint Helena. Owing to Napoleon's praise of Saint Helena’s coffee during his exile on the island, the product enjoyed a brief popularity in Paris in the years after his death. The importation of slaves was banned in 1792. The phased emancipation of over 800 resident slaves did not take place until 1827, some six years before the British Parliament passed legislation to ban slavery in the colonies.
Under the provisions of the 1833 India Act, control of Saint Helena was passed from the East India Company to the British Crown, becoming a crown colony. Subsequent administrative cost-cutting triggered the start of a long-term population decline whereby those who could afford to do so tended to leave the island for better opportunities elsewhere. The latter half of the 19th century saw the advent of steam ships not reliant on trade winds, as well as the diversion of Far East trade away from the traditional South Atlantic shipping lanes to a route via the Red Sea (which, prior to the building of the Suez Canal, involved a short overland section). These factors contributed to a decline in the number of ships calling at the island from 1,100 in 1855 to only 288 in 1889.
In 1840, a British naval station established to suppress the African slave trade was based on the island, and between 1840 and 1849 over 15,000 freed slaves, known as "Liberated Africans", were landed there. In 1900 and 1901, over 6,000 Boer prisoners were held on the island, and the population reached its all-time high of 9,850 in 1901.
In 1858, the French emperor Napoleon III successfully gained the possession, in the name of the French government, of Longwood House and the lands around it, last residence of Napoleon I (who died there in 1821). It is still French property, administered by a French representative and under the authority of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On 11 April 1898 American Joshua Slocum, on his famous and epic solo round the world voyage arrived at Jamestown. He departed on 20 April 1898 for the final leg of his circumnavigation having been extended hospitality from the governor, his Excellency Sir R A Standale, presented two lectures on his voyage and been invited to Longwood by the French Consular agent.
A local industry manufacturing fibre from New Zealand flax was successfully reestablished in 1907 and generated considerable income during the First World War. Ascension Island was made a dependency of Saint Helena in 1922, and Tristan da Cunha followed in 1938. During World War II, the United States built Wideawake airport on Ascension in 1942, but no military use was made of Saint Helena.
During this period, the island enjoyed increased revenues through the sale of flax, with prices peaking in 1951. However, the industry declined because of transportation costs and competition from synthetic fibres. The decision by the British Post Office to use synthetic fibres for its mailbags was a further blow, contributing to the closure of the island's flax mills in 1965...