What is Saint Helena?

Michael Anissimov

Saint Helena is an isolated island in the South Atlantic Ocean with an area of 420 square kilometers (160 sq mi). Saint Helena is known for being the place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous military leader and Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, Dinuzulu kaCaetshwayo, King of Zululand from 1884 to 1913, and over 5,000 Boer, European colonists of South Africa who rebelled in the late 1890s when the British Crown tried to annex their land. Historically, Saint Helena has been an important geopolitical strategic point, as ships traveling from the East passed through the area on their way to the United States or Europe. Today, about 4,200 people live on the island. Saint Helena is more than 2000 km (1200 mi) away from the nearest major landmass, Africa.

Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Saint Helena in 1815.
Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Saint Helena in 1815.

Saint Helena was first discovered, uninhabited, by the Portuguese in 1502. They found it to have ample fresh water and trees, and imported goats, fruit trees, and vegetables for farming. Rather than permanently inhabiting it, the island was used as a rest stop and rendezvous point for those traveling east from the Middle East or East Asia. The Trade Winds pass right through the islands, making the location ideal for sailing ships. For over a century, the Portuguese were able to keep the location of the island secret, utilizing it themselves.

The island of St. Helena is 420 square kilometers.
The island of St. Helena is 420 square kilometers.

In the late 1590s, the English discovered the location of the island and began to attack Portuguese trade ships in the area. The Portuguese gave up their claim to the island as English and Dutch sailors began to kill all their livestock and desecrate their chapels. By 1658, the British, specifically the East India Company, laid claim to the island, making it the second British colony after Bermuda. From then until 1981, the island was a colony of the United Kingdom, administered through a governor and used as a trade and military base. After 1981, Saint Helena officially became a British Dependent Territory and the island's residents lost their entitlement to a UK citizenship.

For most of its history, Saint Helena's economy was based on just one crop -- New Zealand flax, used for rope and string. Otherwise, the island was supported by its own farming plots and outside input. Like many islands, most of the island is rugged and volcanic, with only a minority offering flat terrain suitable for farming. When Europeans first arrived on the island, it was covered in tropical forests, but now most of the plants on the island are introduced species. Saint Helena has a high proportion of plant species found nowhere else, and today, many of these are faced with the risk of extinction.

Two other island systems are associated with Saint Helena, Ascension Island to the north and Tristan da Cunha to the south. These other islands are dependencies of Saint Helena, which is in turn a dependency of the UK. Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated inhabited island in the world.

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