St Helena Online

Tag: history

Saved: ‘national treasure’ is found on rubbish dump

Drawings of The Run feature in a book that was found on St Helena's landfill site.
Drawings of The Run feature in a book that was found on St Helena’s landfill site.

A journal written by one of St Helena’s most important historical figures has been found on the island’s rubbish tip.

Historian Nick Thorpe has described the hand-written book by 19th Century engineer John Charles Melliss as “something of a national treasure” – and it was nearly lost.

It is not known how it came to be thrown on to the landfill site at Horse Point, where it was discovered by Denis “Oxie” Young.

J C Melliss condemned "miserable" huts occupied by freed Africans in the old China Town
J C Melliss condemned “miserable” huts occupied by freed Africans in the old China Town

Entries by the celebrated historian and naturalist include his report on a plan to dig a tunnel between Upper Jamestown and Rupert’s Valley.

In another, he urged the demolition of a collection of “miserable” huts in the island’s former China Town, occupied at the time by Africans liberated from captured slave ships, and the descendants of Chinese workers.

J C Melliss is acclaimed as the author the 1875 work, St Helena: A Physical Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, described by the late historian Trevor Hearl as the most impressive book ever written about St Helena.

His descriptions of endemic plants are still cited by conservationists.

The work found by Denis gives a new insight into living conditions on St Helena at a momentous time in its history.

Denis took his find to show his brother-in-law, Mike Thorpe, at his home at Oakbank.

By chance, Oakbank had also been the childhood home of the very man whose book Denis had found on the rubbish tip.

Mike immediately recognised its significance, and took photographs that he then passed on to his brother, Nick.

Had Denis not spotted the hand-written work, it might easily have been covered up by other waste within days and lost to history.

Nick said: “I haven’t seen the journal, but some extracts show discussion on a tunnel to Rupert’s, and water distribution – all very current. This is something of a national treasure.”

The water map shows how spring water was supplied to parts of the island that have been caught up in the drought crisis of 2013, including the governor’s residence at Plantation House.

The book also contains drawings showing the poor state of The Run, the watercourse through Jamestown, with proposed repairs; and also a report on the condition of a building that had been used as “the Ragged School”.

It is not clear what will happen to the collection – or whether Denis can be required to hand it over to the island’s government.

And an investigation may be needed to discover how it came to be thrown away.

  • Melliss's signature on a document dated 1871 - a year after he reportedly lost his job
    Melliss’s signature on a document dated 1871 – a year after he reportedly lost his job

    The new discovery may cause island historians to review the story of John Charles Melliss – as recounted in St Helena Britannica, a book of papers by Trevor Hearl that was published only in June 2013. Its account of the Melliss family activities – which included building Jacob’s Ladder – says that in 1870, “the military took over public works making ‘J.C.’ redundant at thirty-five without any prospect of employment.” Melliss had “little choice in 1871 but to leave the island”. But that is at odds with one entry in the collection found on the rubbish tip by Denis Young. The report it contains on the Ragged School building is signed “J C Melliss, Colonial Engineer” – and dated 1871.

Revealed: plan to tunnel through to Rupert’s Valley

J C Melliss reported on the possibility of digging a tunnel from Upper Jamestown to Rupert's Valley
J C Melliss reported on the possibility of digging a tunnel from Upper Jamestown to Rupert’s Valley

Records found abandoned on St Helena’s rubbish tip reveal how the island’s administrators considered digging a tunnel between Upper Jamestown at Rupert’s Valley.

When John Charles Melliss was the Colonial Engineer on St Helena, the only path leading into Rupert’s Valley was the coastal route round Munden’s Point.

The island’s prison had been built in the upper part of Rupert’s, and attempts had been made in the early 1860s to establish a settlement there, known as Hay Town after Governor Drummond Hay.

Now a brief report on the planned tunnel has been saved from being destroyed before island historians had even realised its existence, in a hand-written book found by Denis “Oxie” Young on the island’s landfill site.

Melliss’s copy of the report is dated 14 January 1870.

It is headed: Memorandum with reference to a proposed tunnel Rupert’s Hill for the purpose of connecting Rupert’s Valley with James Town. 

As Colonial Engineer, Melliss advised that the tunnel could be dug through 580 yards of Rupert’s Hill, starting in the quarry that still exists near the hospital in Upper Jamestown.

His report described a thick bed of volcanic rock running almost horizontally through the hill.

He wrote: “…it is proposed to drive a tunnel through this bed of stone, which is soft and easily worked, for the purpose of connecting by level way Rupert’s Valley, which contains a good building ground, with James Town…”

The commencement of Hay Town had been made possible in the 1850s with the establishment of a reliable water supply for Rupert’s Valley, piped into the valley from The Briars.

At the time of Melliss’s report on the tunnel scheme, Rupert’s Valley was still being used intermittently as a holding camp for Africans liberated from slave-running ships.

The island’s 32-year role as a liberation station would not come to an end until two years later. The horrors of the time were revived by the excavation of hundreds of graves in the valley in 2007.

In 1875, Melliss published an account of the unloading of a slaveship – “a scene so intensified in all that is horrible that it almost defies description.”

He recounted going aboard one ship, and finding that “the whole deck, as I picked my way from end to end, in order to avoid treading upon them, was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me to be a species of ape which I had never seen before.”

Despite this recent memory and the associations it must have had for islanders, he was able to comment in his tunnel report on the “good building ground” to be found in Rupert’s Valley.

Melliss’s own father, G W Melliss – the man who built Jacob’s Ladder in Jamestown – had drawn out a plan dividing the length of Rupert’s Valley into building plots.

Modern-day historian Nick Thorpe said he could not recall ever reading about Melliss’s report of the tunnel scheme.

In fact, the tunnel idea would emerge again in the 20th Century, according to a document held in the UK’s National Archives at Kew in London.

The record is dated 1932-1946 and headed: St Helena: construction of roads; proposed road tunnel from Jamestown to Ruperts Valley.

In the 21st Century, the need for a good road route between the two places has surfaced once again, with plans for Rupert’s Valley to become the main location for unloading goods brought by sea.

How Halley mapped the sky from St Helena

A plague commemorates Edmund Halley at the remains of his observatory. Picture by John Grimshaw
A plaque commemorates Edmond Halley at the remains of his observatory. Picture by John Grimshaw

The astronomer Edmond Halley – famous for Halley’s Comet – spent a year on St Helena, creating the world’s first map of the stars over the Southern Hemisphere. JOHN GRIMSHAW tells the story.  

While still a student at Oxford University, Edmund Halley began to observe the heavens with the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, John Flamsteed, only 10 years his senior, and published papers on sunspots and the solar system.

Influenced by Flamsteed’s project to compile a catalogue of northern stars, Halley proposed to do the same for the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, which had not at that time been observed.

St Helena was chosen being, then, the southern-most territory under British rule. King Charles II sent a letter to The East India Company desiring that Halley be granted free passage to St Helena and, without bothering to take his degree and aged 20, in November 1676, he sailed for Jamestown on the Indiaman Unity.

Halley took with him a great sextant specially constructed of five-and-a-half-foot radius fitted with telescopes in place of sights, his own two-foot quadrant, and several telescopes of different focal lengths up to 24 feet.

The weather in St. Helena proved less good for astronomical observations than Halley had hoped but despite this, by the time he returned home in 1678 he had recorded the celestial positions of 341 stars, which he published in his star catalogue on his return to England, along with a chart of the southern heavens.

On November 7th 1677 he also became the first astronomer to ever observe the complete transit of Mercury across the solar disc, but this came to naught when bad weather in England deprived him of the other half of the observations.

Even though he had left Oxford without a degree he quickly found himself considered among the top astronomers of the day. King Charles II decreed that the University of Oxford must confer a degree on Halley without him having to take the exams.

Later in 1678 he was also elected a member of the Royal Society and at the age of 22 one of its youngest members.

All these honours given to Halley did not sit well with John Flamsteed. Despite his earlier liking of the young college student, soon he considered him to be an enemy.

When, in 1720, he succeeded John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed’s widow was so angry that she had all of her late husband’s instruments sold so Halley could not use any of them.

He remained as Astronomer Royal until his death in 1742 at the age of 85, not surviving to see the predicted return of the comet, on 25 December 1758, which would later bear his name.

Halley returned briefly to St. Helena in 1700. Wanting more accurate magnetic charts of the Atlantic Ocean, their Lordships of the British Admiralty lent Halley a small sailing ship, the six-gun, three-masted, 52-foot Paramore, and instructed him to carry out a magnetic survey of the Atlantic Ocean and its bordering lands.

Perhaps considering this task an insufficient justification of the expedition, they also gave him a second one -“to stand soe farr into the South, till you discover the Coast of the Terra Incognita, supposed to lye between Magelan’s Streights and the Cape of Good Hope”.

The Paramore, the first ship built specifically as a research vessel for the Royal Navy, set out in October 1698 on what is regarded as the first sea voyage undertaken for a purely scientific endeavour, but was troubled by both leaks and by a personal conflict between Halley and the naval officer in charge of the ship.

Halley had the man arrested and turned the ship back to England, where a court of inquiry upheld him and gave him sole command of the ship.

The Paramore set out again in September 1699 and by 1 February 1700 the ship had penetrated the Antarctic Convergence to reach below 52 degrees latitude, only 90n miles north of South Georgia.

After this the ship continued to Tristan da Cunha, St Helena, Brazil, Barbados, Bermuda, Newfoundland and finally, at the end of August, back to England.

This article comes from John and Pauline Grimshaw’s collection of excellent St Helena pictures on the internet. See their flickr photostream, with historical notes, here

AUDIO: new St Helena Britannica is a tribute to island historian

Alexander Schulenburg presents Elisabeth Hearl with the first copy of St Helena Britannica
Alexander Schulenburg presents Elisabeth Hearl with the first copy of St Helena Britannica

The widow of the late St Helena historian, Trevor Hearl, has been presented with the first copy of a new book that brings together the results of his research over many years.

Click here to listen to Simon Pipe’s report from the launch

St Helena Britannica – Studies in South Atlantic Island History is published by the Friends of St Helena and was launched at the group’s annual meeting in Oxford on 8 June 2013. 

St Helena Britannica - selling well
St Helena Britannica – selling well

Another island scholar, Dr Alexander Schulenburg, has edited the book  into 30 chapters, beginning with the island’s first discovery and the mystique that grew up around it:

“As news of its existence permeated the ports, cities and centres of learning of Europe, the island gained an almost magical reputation from mariners’ yarns which, unlike the sightings of sea monsters in the encircling ocean, needed little enhancement from their imagination.”

St Helena Britannica can be bought for £25 from Ian Mathieson of the Miles Apart bookshop. Read more on the Friends of St Helena website. 


Slavery tourists to voyage into island’s dark past

Slavery is to become the theme of a educational cruise on the RMS St Helena, island tourism chief Cathy Alberts has revealed.

It will tie in with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery in December.

It will also draw on the excavation of the remains of 400 Africans from captured slave-running ships that were brought to St Helena. Those who reached shore alive endured harrowing conditions at a liberation depot in Rupert’s Valley.

Cathy told Saint FM presenter Tony Leo: “That is going to be the theme of the whole voyage.

“We will have archaeologists on board who will give talks. People will be able to go and see where some of the artefacts have been found.” 

In September 2012, executive councillor Bernice Olsson called for the island to become a place of commemoration for all Africans who were transported across the Atlantic on the notorious Middle Passage of the slave trade. 

She said: “These people are a reminder and a symbol of all those who, over 300 years, were enslaved and lost their lives in the journey from Africa to the Americas.

“Today, many people living on St Helena, and millions of others living in northern and suthern America, are descended from slaves who survived.

“Many would like to come to St Helena to learn about their ancestors, their families and the business of slavery.”

She also called for the urgent reburial of the human remains that had been exhumed to make way for airport works in Rupert’s Valley.

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, 2 December, marks the date of the  United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949. An estimated 21 million women, men and children are reported to be trapped in slavery around the world.

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