Helena of Constantinople, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was posthumously bestowed the namesake of a 47 square mile island in the South Atlantic following its discovery by a Galician navigator in 1502.
Lying 1,200 miles due west of Namibe in Angola, St Helena is one of the most remote British Overseas Territories. Having passed between Portuguese, British and Dutch possession, the East India Trading Company was granted a Royal Charter in 1659 to formally colonise and fortify the island, making it the second oldest remaining British Colony after Bermuda. The island became an important resupplying station for trade ships en-route to India and China, and the population, over 3,000 at the start of the 19th Century, consisted of British settlers and soldiers, Chinese labourers and African slaves.
One evening in 1815, with no more than a few days notice, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on St. Helena aboard HMS Northumberland. This was following his capture during the Battle of Waterloo. The British were determined to place Bonaparte somewhere he could never be rescued following his escape from Elba. His exile continued until his death six years later.
Slavery in the British Empire officially ended on August 1, 1834 though implementation dragged on. The Royal Navy eventually began intercepting slave ships crossing the Atlantic and thousands of liberated Africans began to arrive on island. Those who remained integrated with the population whilst others returned to Africa or the West Indies. The large number of ships calling at St Helena declined quickly in the late-19th Century following the introduction of steam-powered ships as trade winds were no longer vital and the Suez Canal offered a shorter route from Europe to Asia. This depleted the number of ships docking at the island each year from thousand to just a few hundred.
In the 1980s, islanders lost their right of abode in the UK when all Crown colonies fell under the same ruling to become British Dependent Territories. Work was scarce on island and many left to find employment on nearby Ascension Island or the Falkland Islands. The British Overseas Territories Act of 2002 saw a reinstatement of UK citizenship, which offers ‘Saints’ (the island’s occupants) the opportunity to work in the UK. The British Government has funded the construction of a much-anticipated airport (due 2016), which has the potential of creating a self-sustaining economy. This has instigated the slow return of a population that was previously in decline.
To reach St Helena it currently takes five days aboard the RMS St Helena, the last Royal Mail Ship in service. She continually sails between Cape Town, St Helena and Ascension Island transporting islanders, tourists, cargo, medical evacuations, and mail.