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How an absent governor returned to St Helena, 230 years on

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A chance discovery has led to a former governor of St Helena taking his rightful place on the island, 230 years after he sailed away with his St Helenian wife. Here, New Zealander DAVID NICOLL tells how he tracked down his ancestor’s portrait – and met relatives still living on St Helena. 

David Nicoll with the portrait of his ancestor, Governor Skottowe, at home in New Zealand

The story starts with the rekindling of a connection of one of my distant relations in New Zealand, Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter.  Dame Alison has visited St Helena twice to advise on legal and constitutional issues.  It was Dame Alison who told me about Governor John Skottowe (born 1725, died 1786).

Dame Alison also told me about a book about the Skottowe family called The Leaf and the Tree, written by Philip Skottowe and published in 1961.  I found the book online and had it sent to New Zealand. That book contains a black-and-white photograph of the original portrait of John Skottowe, painted in 1784 by David Martin.

John seemed quite a remarkable fellow, and so in 2011 I looked up further information about him on the internet.  To my surprise, a colour copy of John’s portrait appeared on the internet.  On checking further, I found that the portrait had been put up for sale through Christie’s of London in 2008.

I was disappointed to think that I had missed the chance to buy the portrait.  But some weeks later I emailed Christie’s in London to find out what happened to the portrait.  It was unsold, and still at their premises.

I went to London, bought it and had it shipped back to New Zealand.  The vendor of the portrait was not a family member.

Governor Skottowe married Margaret Greentree, soon after being posted to St Helena, and had four children.  One of their daughters is my ancestor.

I was fortunate to come to beautiful St Helena in January 2012, and met many family members on that trip – not least of which were Alice Greentree and son Adam Williams, even Captain Rodney on the RMS. Captain Greentree is also a relation, but I haven’t met him.

All our extended family on the island made us very welcome, especially Adrian Greentree; as did Basil George (not a relation) who guided us around the island.

My wife Rosey and I were also delighted to meet Governor and Mrs Capes at Plantation House during our visit.  It was on that visit that I promised Governor Capes to send a framed copy of the 1784 portrait of Governor Skottowe, which could hang in the corridor in Plantation House where there are many portraits of prior governors.

It was lucky that my father’s cousin, Tom Pickering, and his wife Sue also decided to visit St Helena this year, and so it was agreed that they would carry the copy of the portrait.

I wasn’t aware of the portrait being lost for a while in Cape Town!

In October 2012 I was in the United Kingdom and went to visit All Saints Church in Little Melton, Norfolk, where John Skottowe was baptised in 1725.  There were many memorials to the family in that small church.  Shortly after 1725, the Skottowe family moved to Yorkshire.

Another interesting connection is that John Skottowe’s father Thomas employed a labourer on his farm in Yorkshire. His son was apparently very bright, and so Thomas Skottowe paid for his education –as a schoolmate of his own son, John.

That labourer’s son turned out to be Captain James Cook.  There was at least one reunion between Governor John Skottowe and James Cook, including in 1775 when Cook, in the Resolution, called in at St Helena and spent time a happy week with Governor and Mrs Skottowe.

‘Missing’ portrait travels from Auckland… and goes missing

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