Some account of St. Helena

[From 3 May 1771]

This small Island, which is no more than twelve miles long and seven broad, is situated in a manner in the Middle of the Vast Atlantick Ocean being 400 Lgs. distant from the Coast of Africa and above 600 from that of America. It appears to be or rather is the summit of some immence mountain which towering far above the level of the Earth (in this part of the Globe very much depressd) elevates itself even considerably above the surface of the Sea, which covers its highest neigbours with a body of water even to this time unfathomable to the researches of Mankind.

The higher parts of all Countreys have been observd almost without exception to be the seats of Volcanoes while the lower parts are much seldomer found to be so. Etna and Vesuvius have no land higher than themselves in their neighbourhood; Heckla is the highest hill in Iceland; in the highest part of the Andes in South America volcanoes are frequent; and the Pike of Teneriffe still is on fire. These still Continue to burn, but numberless others have been found to shew evident marks of Fires now extinct and which have been so from the times of Our Earliest traditions.

That this has been the Case with St Helena and that the great inequalities of the ground there have been originaly causd by the sinking of the ground, easily appears to an observing eye who compares the opposite ridges, which tho seperated always by deep and sometimes by tolerably broad Valleys, have such a perfect similarity in appearance as well as direction as scarce leaves room for a doubt that they formerly made a part of a much less uneven surface; and that this sinking in of the Earth has been occasiond by subterraneous fires the stones Abunduntly testifie, as they universaly shew marks of having been some time or other exposd to the effects of a great degree of heat. Some are Evidently burnt almost to a cinder, especialy those which are found near the bottoms of Valleys, as may be seen in going up Side Path and probably Ladder Hill also; others shew small bubbles as is seen in glass which has been urgd almost to fusion; again others which perhaps from their situation on the tops of Ridges have been exposd to a far less degree of heat or from their own apyrous qualities shew scarce any signs of having been in fire: yet in many of these if carefully examind are found small peices of extraneous bodies such as Mundics &c which have submitted to the fire, tho it was not able to make any alteration in the appearance of the stone which containd them.

Thus much for these Suggestions, fit only for those who can beleive a Babilonian Chronology. I Pass now to the present state of the Island, a subject which would afford much entertainment to a contemplative mind and more food to an inquisitive one than the shortness of my stay gave me opportunity to collect.

Making it as we did and indeed most ships do on the windward side it is a rude heap of Rocks bounded by precipecis of an amazing height, composd of a kind of half friable rocks which however shew not the Least sign of vegetation, nor does a nearer view apear more promising. In sailing along the shore ships come uncommonly near it so that the huge Clifts seem almost to overhang and threaten destruction by the apparent probability of their giving way: in this manner they Sail till they open Chappel Valley where stands the small town. Even that valley resembles a large trench, in the bottom of which a few plants are to be seen, but its sides are as bare as the cliff next the Sea. Such is the apparent barrenness of the Island in its present cultivated state, nor do you see any signs of fertility till you have penetrated beyond the first hills; then the Vallies begin to be green and tho every where inconceivably steep produce a great deal of good herbage. Among these are the planters houses, near each of which is a small plantation of Cocos, the only vegetable they seem to labour much in the Cultivation of.

The Town stands just by the sea side, very small and except a few houses ill built. The Church which originaly has been a very poor building is now almost in ruins, and the Market house is advancing by quick steps to the same situation.

The White inhabitants are almost to a man English, who as they are not allowd to have any trade or commerce of their own live intirely by supplying such ships as touch at the Place with refreshments, of which however to their Shame be it spoken they appear to have by no means a supply equal to the extent as well as fertility of their soil, as well as the fortunate situation of their Island seem to promise. Situate in a degree between temperate and warm their Soil might produce most if not all the vegetables of Europe together with the fruits of the Indies, Yet both are almost totaly neglected. Cabbages indeed and garden stuff in general is very good, but so far from being in plenty so as to supply the ships who touch here a scanty allowance only of them are to be got, cheifly by favour from the greater people who totaly monopolize every article produced by the Island, excepting only beef and mutton which the Company keep in their own hands; and tho there is a market house in the town yet nothing is sold publickly, nor could either of the three Kings ships that were there get greens for their Tables except only Captn Elliot the Commanding Officer who was furnishd by order of the Governor out of his own garden.

Here are Plantains, Peaches, Lemons, Apples, Guavas and I beleive scarce any other fruits, tho probably very few kinds exist in either Indies which might not be cultivated here and brought to at least a great degree of perfection. But while their Pastures lay as they realy do as much neglected as their Gardens there can be little hopes of Amendment; in short the Custom of the Indias Captains, who always make very hansome presents to the families where they are entertaind besides paying any extravagant prizes for the few refreshments they get, seem to have inspird the People with a degree of Lazyness: were refreshments cheap they would probably upon the whole receive not much more money for them by the year and the present would be the same, so at least they seem to think. In short the Cape of Good Hope, which tho by nature a mere desart supplys abundantly refreshments of all kinds to ships of all nations who touch there, contrasted with this Island, which tho highly favourd by nature, shews not unaptly the Genius's of the two nations in making Colonies: nor do I think I go too far in asserting that was the Cape now in the Hands of the English it would be a desart, as St Helena in the hands of the Dutch would as infallibly become a paradise.

Small as this Island is and not raisd very much above the surface of the Sea it enjoys a varity of Climates hardly to be beleivd. The Cabbage trees, as they are calld, which grow on the highest ridges can by no art be cultivated on the lower ones where the red wood and Gum wood grow, both which in their turns refuse the high ridges, and neither of the three are to be found in the Vallies, which indeed are in general coverd with European plants or the more common ones of the Indies—in all probability originaly brought here by ships, and the more so as much the largest proportion of them are natives of England, among which I may recon the Meadow grass Anthoxanthum odoratum which is the cheif covering of their pastures and to which I am much inclind to atribute the verdure of the Island, which far exceeds any thing I have before seen in equaly low latitudes. The Furze also, Ulex Europeus, the seeds of which were brought over in the beginning of this Century, Thrives wonderfully and is highly praisd by the Islanders as a great improvement, tho they make no use of it except heating their ovens.

Barley has been sown upon this Island about 40 years ago. It producd sufficient to supply itself without any being sent from home; its cultivation was however suddenly drop'd, for what reason I could not find out, and since that time has never been atempted. Yams, the same as are calld Cocos in the West Indies, is what they cheifly depend upon to supply their numerous slaves with provision: these however are not cultivated in half the perfect[i]on that I have seen in the South Sea Islands, nor have they like the Indians several sorts many of which are very palatable, but are confind to only one and that one of the Worst.

All kinds of Labour is here performd by Man, indeed he is the only animal that works except a few Saddle Horses nor has he the least assistance of art to enable him to perform his task. Supposing the Roads to be too steep and narrow for Carts, an objection which lies against only one part of the Island, yet the simple contrivance of Wheelbarrows would Doub[t]less be far preferable to carrying burthens upon the head, and yet even that expedient was never tried. Their slaves indeed are very numerous: they have them from most parts of the World, but they appeard to me a miserable race worn out almost with the severity of the punishments of which they frequently complaind. I am sorry to say that it appeard to me that far more frequent and more wanton Cruelty were excercisd by my countrey men over these unfortunate people than even their neighbours the Dutch, fam'd for inhumanity, are guilty of. One rule however they strictly observe which is never to Punish when ships are there.

Nature has blessd this Island with very few Productions either usefull for the support or conducive to the Luxury of Mankind. Partriges and Doves are the only animals except possibly rats and mice, much more probably brought here by ships. Among vegetables Purslain, Celery, Water Cresses, wild mint and Tobacco, tho now common among the rocks, I doubt much whether they were so before people came here as none except the last are found in paralel latitudes; the first indeed is found on Ascention and many Parts equ[a]ly unlikely to have originaly producd it, but that [is] accounted for by the ancient custom of the Portugese, who finding this herb particularly beneficial in complaints contracted in long voyages made a point of sewing it wherever they went ashore, a custom from whence all nations have since reapd no small benefit. Amongst its native products however Ebony must be recond, tho the trees that produce it are now nearly extinct and no one remembers the time when they were at all plentifull, yet peices of the wood are frequently found in the vallies of a fine black Colour and a hardness almost equal to Iron; these however are almost always so short and so crooked that no use has yet been made of them. Whether the tree is the same as that which produces Ebony on the Isle of Bourbon and its adjacent Islands is impossible to know as the French have not yet publishd any account of it. Other species of trees and plants which seem to have been originaly natives of the Island are few in number. Insects there are also a few, and one species of Snails who inhabit only the tops of the Highest ridges and probably have been there ever since their original creation.

Had our stay upon the Island been Longer we should in all probability have discoverd some more natural productions but in all likelyhood not many. Secluded as this rock is from the rest of the World by seas of immence extent it is dificult to imagine how any thing not originaly created in that spot could by any accident arrive at it; for my part I confess I feel more wonder in the finding a little Snail on the top of the Ridges of St Helena than in finding people upon America or any other part of the Globe.

As the benefits of the Land are so limited the Sea must often be applied to by the natives of this little rock, nor is she unmindfull of their necessities which she constantly supplies with immence plenty and no less variety of Fish. She indeed would be culpable did she do otherwise: she never met with a calamity equal to that of the earth in the General Deluge, and her sons have moreover the advantage of a free intercourse with all parts of the globe Habitable to them without being driven to the Necessity of tempting the dangers of an element unsuited to their natures—a fatal necessity under which too many even of us Lords of the Creation Yearly perish, and of all others through the wide bounds of Creation how vast a proportion must. The seed of a thistle supported by its down, the Insect by its weak and the Bird by its more able wing, may tempt the dangers of the sea, but of these how many milions must perish for one who arrives at the Distance of twelve hundred miles from the place of his rest; it appears indeed far more dificult to account for the passage of one individual than to bel[e]ive the destruction of all that ever may have been by their ill fate hurried into such an attempt.

Money of all nations passes here according to its real intrinsick European value, therefore there is no kind of trouble on that head as in all the Dutch Settlements.