Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha

Despite the Napoleonic connection, Saint Helena is not a French property, but a British Overseas Territory, included in the triad that is also the Ascension Islands, and Tristan da Cunha.

Saint Helena was entirely uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it, either in 1502 or 1503, depending on which version of history you prefer. The 1502 version gives the discovery to the Spaniard João da Nova, who was employed by the Portuguese; the 1503 version claims that da Nova actually discovered Tristan da Cunha, and that it was Estêvão da Gama who discovered Saint Helena. Whichever it was named it for the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, a fanatical Christian who convinced her son to accept baptism and to make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, the reason why the Vatican is still in Rome today.

The Portuguese never settled the island, but simply used it as a convenient mid-Atlantic port, until it was rendered inconvenient by attacks from Dutch and British fleets; the Dutch claimed the island in 1633, but also never settled it; the British then took it in 1657, when Oliver Cromwell gave the East India Company a charter to seize the place. When the English monarchy was restored, the fort was named Fort James, and the main town Jamestown, in honour of the king.

Why exactly the Dutch and British then spent decades fighting over the island, seizing it, and seizing it back, is unclear, as the place was so utterly uninhabitable - drought, infertile soil, collapsed forests, and vast amounts of ghastly vermin - that the British commander at one point recommended the transfer of the entire population, which was about a thousand people including the half that were slaves, to Mauritius. A perfect place for a penal colony, if you thought about it. But neither the British nor the Dutch did think about it, until they needed somewhere to put Napoleon Buonaparte after the Battle of Waterloo had finally ended his tyranny - or his liberation of Europe from feudal monarchism, if you prefer that version of history. Napoleon, for the information, was initially lodged at the Briars Pavilion, owned by the British Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company, a man
 named Balcombe; the pavilion was located on the grounds of the family's home. Napoleon stayed there until his permanent home, Longwood House, was completed; he died there on 5th May 1821, probably of stomach cancer. The only member of the Balcombe family who could speak French was their thirteen year old daughter, Betsy; she acted as translator and later wrote a memoir. Sadly Betsy became rather enamoured of Napoleon, and her parents took a liking to him as well, which led the governor, Hudson Lowe, to suspect the Balcombes of not being properly Britishly stiff-upper-lip and Francophobe, and had them dismissed from the island. Or perhaps he just liked their house, and wanted it for his own; once the Balcombes were gone, he sequestered it for his own use, and it remained the Admiralty on the island forever afterwards. The garrison then served as a prison during the Boer war of 1900-1903, by which time Saint Helena's value as a way-station in the Atlantic had diminished to zero, because all ships now went by way of the Suez Canal.

Ascension Island was discovered at the same time as Saint Helena, and likewise ignored until it found a useless sort of use, in this case as a garrison to protect Saint Helena, in case anyone should think to launch a rescue of Napoleon. No one ever did. After this, it served as a provisioning station for the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron when said force was out on anti-slavery patrol, and during the Second World War the UK allowed the US to construct an airfield there to enable planes to refuel en route to Africa, and as a base for anti-submarine operations in the South Atlantic; later the Americans used it as a space tracking station. But the real moment of glory for Ascension came in 1982, when Queen Margaret of England sent the largest Navy in her nation's history to rescue another irrelevant island in the Atlantic from being returned to its rightful owner, and the Ascensions provided the midway staging-post and refuelling point. Viva Las Malvinas, Viva Las Ascensionas!

And last, and by every means least, Tristan da Cunha, which sounds like a single island, and is, but it is also the overall name for a group of islands, of which Nightingale, Inaccessible, and Gough make up the remainder. Before that, Tristan da Cunha was Tristão da Cunha, who was born in Portugal somewhere around 1460, and might have been the first Viceroy of Portuguese India, only a mysterious case of temporary blindness prevented him from taking up the post; or it may have been the thought of living forever on tandoori and chutney, which is hot and spicy and fine if you like it, but the pasta was being perfected in Rome, and serving as King Manuel I of Portugal's emissary to Pope Leo X, which he did from 1514, was definitely a better option. In the period between the blindness and the Roman appointment, da Cunha led a Portuguese naval fleet into the southern Atlantic, ostensibly to find and rescue the explorer João da Nova, whose ship had become stranded en route home from India, in practice to discover lands which could be claimed for Portugal, and to garrison them to consolidate the claim. Socotra, which are four islands that now belong to Yemen, were the first that he claimed, followed by Madagascar, Mozambique, and finally the group of islands that bear his name. His mission came to a convenient end, given his Roman aspirations, in Barawa in Somalia, when da Cunha was wounded trying to add that city to his collection.

And so to Rome, where King Manoel wanted to show Pope Leo just how substantial and significant the Portuguese world empire now was - a case of sibling-rivalry with Spain, though actually Portugal was all but bankrupt as a consequence of its attempts at imperialism. No one would suspect it from the triumphant arrival of da Cunha and his entourage in Rome, the details of which we know from the diaries of his secretary, the poet Garcia de Resende. The embassy consisted of one hundred and forty people, and it travelled in a very public pilgrimage that started in Lisbon and marched to Alicante, on the Spanish east coast, sailed to Majorca, then across the Tyrrhenian Sea to Rome, which it entered on March 12th 1514 in what could have been the July 4th parade outside Macy's in New York, but transferred in time and space. The generally preferred adjective among historians is "extravagant", and it included large amounts of exotic wildlife, displays of wealth from the Indies, members of the entourage dressed "Indian style", and at its vanguard, pride of the show, an elephant named Hanno, King Manoel's personal gift to the Pope - though it was unclear where he was going to keep it as the Roman Zoo was four hundred years in the future - as well as forty-two other creatures, including two leopards, a panther, several parrots, a gaggle of turkeys, and some extremely rare Indian horses which did not like the Italian climate. Hanno carried a platform of silver on his back, shaped as a castle and containing a safe with royal gifts, including vests embroidered with pearls and gems, and coins of gold minted for the occasion. The Pope welcomed the procession at Castel Sant'Angelo, where the elephant knelt down three times in reverence and then, following a wave of his Indian mahout (keeper), sucked into its trunk the contents of a bucket of water, and spat it out again over the assembled Cardinals. Six weeks after this ostentatious but illusory display of wealth, King Manoel made confession of his nation's bankruptcy, and had his emissary in Rome request a bail-out from the Pope, much in the manner of contemporary Portugal with the European Union. The Pope responded with rich gifts, in gratitude for which Manoel sent first a ship full of Indian and Arabian spices, and then another containing an Indian rhinoceros. Unfortunately the rhinoceros didn't like the Italian climate any more than did the Indian horses or the elephant, and it caused such trouble on-board that the ship sank off Genoa, and the last anyone heard of the rhino was a portrait by Albrecht Dürer. 

As to the island which da Cunha named after himself, it was garrisoned by the British in 1816 for the same reason as Ascension Island, and then resumed its former existence as an out-of-the-way and uninhabited nowhere until that status was formalised when it became a World Heritage Site in the late 20th century. South Africa leases a small corner of Gough Island for a meteorological station.

Marks For: You decide

Marks Against: Ditto

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