Heritage at Risk – St Helena

Fig. 1   Mundens Battery, dating from 1673 and expanded in 1708, is one of several military installations protecting the harbour of Jamestown.

The island of St Helena - situated in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately 2,500 miles east of Brazil and 1,200 miles west of Angola – is the UK’s second largest Overseas Territory.  Its location was ideal as a rendezvous and provisioning point for ships on their way to and from the East Indies, and in 1659 it was settled by the English under the auspices of the East India Company.  By the latter half of the 18th century, more than 1,000 ships were stopping at the island every year.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the island’s remote location led to it being selected by the British Government as his place of exile.  Napoleon arrived on HMS Bellerophon on 15th July 1815, and died at Longwood House on 5th May 1821.  St Helena is home to some of the most breathtaking Napoleonic heritage in the world, including Longwood House, the Briars, and the Valley of the Tomb, as well as the many batteries, fortifications, gates and flag-stations built or adapted to contain its most famous resident.

Less well-known is St Helena’s central role in the suppression of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Between 1840 and 1872, 450 ships carrying more than 26,000 enslaved Africans were captured by the Royal Navy West Africa squadron and brought to St Helena, where the slaves were liberated and the crews put on trial.  The majority of the former slaves were housed in a ‘Liberated African Establishment’ set up in Rupert’s Valley, which acted as a receiving centre, hospital and quarantine zone.  Tragically, more than 8,000 men, women and children died – mostly from disease – shortly after their liberation.  Most were hastily interred in two burial grounds in the Valley, considered among the most significant physical remaining trace of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the world.

Fig. 2   Jamestown, St Helena. 

The UK-St Helena Heritage Trust was set up to promote public education on – and preservation of – the built and cultural heritage of St Helena.  It does this mainly by conducting surveys and scans of heritage sites at risk, organising events on aspects of St Helena’s history and heritage, and working with local and international partners to develop heritage management plans and implement restoration and conservation projects.  Examples of some of the projects supported by the Trust are summarised below, and described in more detail on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ section of the Trust’s website.

Liberated African Establishment

The only surviving structure from the Liberated African Establishment in Rupert’s Valley is ‘No. 1 Building’, originally constructed in 1865 as an accommodation block to house up to 80 former slaves.  The UK-St Helena Heritage Trust is working in partnership with the Commonwealth Heritage Forum, St Helena National Trust and the Liberated African Advisory Committee to restore No. 1 Building and develop it into a modern interactive interpretation centre housing artefacts related to the history of slavery on St Helena. It will also be a place to convey historical information and interpretation, not only about the island’s positive role in slave trade suppression, but also its darker past as a slave-keeping colony.

Fig. 3     'No.1 Building' - the only surviving structure from the Liberated African Establishment in Rupert's Valley.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder is a steep staircase rising from the centre of Jamestown to Ladder Hill Fort and Half Tree Hollow, St Helena’s largest settlement. A route existed at least as early as 1707, but the Ladder was built in 1829 when an ‘inclined plane’ railway was constructed. The railway ceased operation in 1871, leaving 700 steps, of which 699 remain. The Ladder – which is a Grade I listed monument – is a much loved and symbolic remnant of Georgian St Helena, and is still used by the islanders to this day. The UK-St Helena Heritage Trust surveyed the ladder and developed a plan to preserve the site for many generations to come. Work on restoring the Ladder commenced in August 2022, and was completed with the site being re-opened to the public in April 2023.

Fig. 4         The 699 steps of Jacob's Ladder. The ladder rises at a pitch of 39 to 41 degrees for 924 feet (281.6 m) from the centre of Jamestown to Ladder Hill Fort.

High Knoll Fort

High Knoll Fort – a Grade I listed monument – stands 600m above sea level and is the largest, most prominent and most complete of the military installations on the island.  The fort was occupied during the Napoleonic period by the 20th Regiment. After Napoleon’s death in 1821, British forces withdrew from the island until the site was redeveloped in the early 1860s. The central and southern portions are late 19th century in origin, and the entry gate keystone has a date of 1874. The Royal Engineers finally completed phase two of the fort’s construction in 1894.  In the early 21st Century, parts of the fort collapsed, and what remains is in need of urgent restoration.  The UK-St Helena Heritage Trust worked with the Centre for Heritage Conservation at Texas A&M College of  Architecture to survey the site and produce 3D scans, and is supporting St Helena National Trust to restore the fort using traditional materials and techniques.

Fig. 5      High Knoll Fort.

Toby’s Cottage

Toby’s Cottage is a small two-room outbuilding to the east of the Briars, the estate of William Balcombe and Napoleon’s residence during his first weeks of exile. The cottage was inhabited by Balcombe’s enslaved domestic servants, one of whom – Toby – was befriended by Napoleon, who attempted to purchase his freedom. The Trust produced 3D scans of the cottage and developed plans for restoring it as a faithful replica of the conditions Toby would have experienced. In December 2023, restoration work commenced under the direction of St Helena Napoleonic Heritage Ltd. Once complete, the cottage will be an invaluable resource for exploring the history of slavery on the island, and for recounting that history through the perspective of one individual whose story is little understood.

Banks Battery

Constructed between 1700 and 1740 and modified during Napoleon’s incarceration, Banks Battery is strategically positioned to guard the approach to Jamestown. The pressing need to record and preserve this and the many other batteries on the island is highlighted by the collapse of a large part of the site during heavy seas in 2010.  Detailed 3D scans of Banks Battery can be viewed on the UK-St Helena Heritage Trust website.

If you are interested in the built and cultural heritage of St Helena, please visit the UK-St Helena Heritage Trust website or contact Executive Director Martyn Weeds on martyn.weeds@sthelenagov.com.

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