Saint Helena – prison island

Author(s) : O'BEY Susan
Share it


A place of confinement

The St Helena Herald for 17th September 2004 carried the following article;

Escaped prisoner still missingPaul Stroud, a prisoner sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for the importation of drugs, went missing last weekend. He remains at large.
 
The escaped prisoner remained at large for more than a week and was eventually recaptured after police intelligence revealed that he was hiding out in a garden in Jamestown not more than 200 metres from the prison. This was not the first time that a prisoner had managed to escape from Her Majesty's Prison Saint Helena. Another St Helenian had broken out of prison twice during the period 1999 to 2001 whilst serving time for arson and had been reported as telling the prison wardens that he could get out of prison whenever he felt inclined to do so. The situation was resolved when the authorities decided to release the prisoner earlier than his sentence allowed for good behaviour!
 
Perhaps the most daring and successful escape was made in 1994 by Dutch Captain and drug smuggler Willem Merk who had been imprisoned by the island authorities after they had discovered that his ship was carrying a huge quantity of illegal drugs. (1) The drugs were confiscated and the ship was later scuttled just off Lemon Valley. There are several rumours surrounding his escape from the island, some say that Merk escaped using soap to make copies of prison keys, which guards reportedly left out while they went to the toilet. (He apparently left an audiotape of himself snoring in his cell, and then set sail on a rough wooden boat, which it is rumoured that he'd paid an islander – whom he'd met on an extended exercise break – to make). Others say that he escaped with the assistance of a friend who had arrived at the island on a yacht a few days before. (2) It is known however that he reached Brazil and upon landing, he appealed to the Dutch embassy, which then repatriated him to Holland, a free man. (3)
 
It is difficult to imagine, after reading stories like these, that Saint Helena was once used by Britain as a penitentiary for such renowned characters as the Emperor Napoleon, Prince Dinizulu and the Sultan of Zanzibar. The island was also used to provide prison accommodation for nearly 5,000 Boer prisoners of war.
 
Saint Helena's destiny as a prison island was created when the Portuguese Nobleman, Fernando Lopez became a voluntary exile there in 1515. Geographically the island is ideally suited as a prison. There is no airport nor is there a breakwater where ships can easily dock. The precipitous cliffs encircling the interior make Saint Helena an almost impenetrable fortress.
 
The first record of a prison being built on the island is in the Saint Helena Records for 1683 when the East India Company issued a set of instructions to the Governor, John Blackmore, to build a Court of Judicature in the disused Market Place near Fort James. The Company appointed Mr. John Sich a free planter to be the island's first Sheriff and Mr. Thomas Bolton also a free planter, to be the Clerk of the Peace. The Company at the same time ordered:
 
That a Prison or Place for securing safely all offenders against the Law and Good Governt to be appointed and made in some convenient place in Fort James; The Soldjers distinct and separate from the Freeplanters and that a carefull Marshall or Prison Keeper be appointed wth such moderate fees as in such cases are usuall.
 
Although there is little known about the design of this first prison, the records refer to prisoners serving there. (4) For those needing to be kept under conditions of maximum security, the prison had a dungeon where such criminals were held. Conditions in this dungeon were appalling, an entry for 1698 states that it was a noisome hole underground and as capable of stifling a man as the Black Hole of Calcutta. prisoners in the Dungeon were normally kept in irons and chained to ring bolts. (5) It would appear from the records that the prison was used for civilians of all classes, although there is no specific reference as to whether they were all held under the same conditions. This first prison was eventually replaced by another in 1827, and this is still in use today. A report (6) on this prison for 1836 indicated:
 
From the great increase of prisoners the Gaol is not sufficiently capacious to allow of any classification, and consequently the most notorious characters are mixed with children and others who are imprisoned for trivial offences and there are no means of inflicting solitary confinement in any way sufficient to make it efficacious, no Officer of the Prison resides within it (7) and the prisoners after night may commit any offences upon each other, or suffer illness without the probability of their being heard – Five persons are confined in one Cell, some of which are only 10 feet in length & width. In summer the heat is intolerable, and 4 out of the 7 Cells being under ground are subject to damps from the run of Water, passing near the Prison and finding vent through the earth, to the walls.
 
The report went on to mention that it cost 4 shillings and eight pence (8) per week to feed each prisoner; if the prisoners were on a low diet (rice and water) then they cost only 3 shillings and 6 pence per week. The report concluded that:
 
The Prison is also so constructed that every facility is afforded for self-destruction, of which three instances have occurred in a few years.

There was also a prison erected at Rupert's during the period when Colonel Thomas Gore Brown served as Governor of the island in 1853. The new building was a model prison designed by Colonel Jebb and sent out from England. The cost for this venture was met by levying a duty on merchant ships of 1 penny per ton. This duty was also used to fund the local hospital where seamen were treated free of charge. The Rupert's Prison, constructed mainly of timber, was short lived as in 1867 a military prisoner who was confined there at the time burnt it to the ground. The records for 1795 also refer to a prison at Sandy Bay when the Churchwardens were informed thus:
 
Insane persons could not be permanently retained in Hospital. As a temporary measure they could be accommodated in the prison at Sandy Bay until provision could be made for them by the Parish.
 
It is paradoxical however, that whilst the island was seen as an ideal prison for Britain's political prisoners, Saint Helena has a tradition dating back to the 17th century, of sending many of her local prisoners (9) elsewhere to serve their time of imprisonment. The ringleaders of a mutiny, which occurred in October 1684 were banished to Barbados. In February 1690 Adroall and Bedwell, two men from Madagascar suspected as pirates after being found with a considerable amount of gold, were sent as prisoners to England. Even during the 20th century in the 1980s two men, convicted of murder and manslaughter respectively, were sent to Britain to serve their prison sentence. (10)
 
By the 18th century, in addition to being ideally located as a revictualling station for British ships en route to India, Saint Helena's geographical location was also proving to be of strategic use to Britain. During the early 1780's when British plans to seize the Cape of Good Hope were foiled by the intervention of the French, many Dutch and French ships were sent to the island as prizes of war. These ships often exchanged prisoners in return for food supplies and water. In the early 19th century when Britain was at war with France, 37 English prisoners of war were sent to the island from the Cape of Good Hope towards the end of July 1805.
 
The Governor (11) laid before the Board a Letter which he has received from General Janssons Governor of the Cape of Good Hope by the Eliza, American Brig which arrived this day under a flag of France from thence bringing 37 English prisoners of war, including four officers, who were part of the ships company of the Experiment Botany Bay Transport that was freighted to convey a Cargo of Teas from Canton to England, on account of the Honourable Company, and was taken off the Cape by the French Privateer Napoleon.
 
The prisoners were sent to the island after being given safe conduct by Monsieur Gaillard, Commissary and Agent for French prisoners at the Cape of Good Hope. It was intended that the prisoners would be exchanged at St Helena, however because the British naval ship, the Calcutta, under the command of Captain Woodriff, was in port at the time, it was decided to send the prisoners back to England under the custodianship of the Captain. Woodriff, who was being employed under the Transport Board in England, and who had previous experience in the receipt, delivery and disposal of prisoners of wars.
 
It is generally thought that Britain first used Saint Helena as a prison in 1815 when the island was chosen to be the place of exile for the Emperor Napoleon. The period of Napoleon's exile on the island has become Saint Helena's claim to fame and even today many people only know of the island because of its Napoleonic connection. However the records show that Britain had attempted to send prisoners to Saint Helena nearly a hundred years earlier in 1720.
 
A “Europe Portuguese man” sent to the Island as a Prisoner from Bombay for betraying his trust in an action against Cannojee Angria an Enemy to the English at Bombay.
 
On this occasion however the Governor (Edward Johnson) refused to receive the man referred to as the “one legged Portuguese villain” and sent him back. The island was used by Britain as a prison for political prisoners on at least another five occasions after the death of Napoleon.


The Zulu period 1890 – 1897

In 1890, after the defeat of the Zulus by the British (12), the chief of the Zulu tribe, Dinizulu, son of Cetowayo, was sent to Saint Helena, together with his two uncles Undabuka and Tchingana, their wives and servants.  The incarceration of the Zulus was to contrast strongly with that of the French exiles 75 years earlier.
 
The Emperor of the Zulus proved far more amenable than did the Emperor of the French.  He did what he was told, never quarrelled with the authorities, and wandered about the Island making friends with all he met. (13)
 
On the island the Zulus were first housed in Rosemary Hall, the house that had once been the residence of Baron Stürmer and Balmain the Austrian and Russian Commissioners who were on the island during the exile of the Emperor Napoleon. However as the rainy season set in, the prisoners found Rosemary Hall cold and damp and so the household was moved to Maldivia House in Jamestown.
 
Dinizulu was eager to learn and embrace the customs of his European Gaolers. He made excellent progress with his education and before long was able to read and write fluently. He was also very interested in music and learnt to play the piano during his captivity. The Zulu Chief became a devotee of European fashion and was very particular about the cut and fit of his clothes. He was also keen to have his family as well dressed as he was and whilst on the island he sent to England to have a fashionable outfit designed and made for each member. The Uncles however were not of the same temperament as their nephew and refused to adopt the western habits and style of dress, which Dinizulu so readily emulated. As his Uncles continued to make life difficult for Dinizulu, it was decided that he should be allowed to set up his own household away from them at Francis Plain. The Uncles grew more recalcitrant and unsociable as time went by. They refused to adapt to their surroundings and became increasingly set against all the conventions of the “white man”. They would not sit on chairs or sleep on beds or use tables, nor would they wear European clothes, except when they went for walks as they were forbidden to go out of doors unless dressed in European clothing. Some amusing anecdotes are recorded about the Uncles one being concerned with their education.
 
The vicar of St Paul's was their instructor, and Undabuka, finding he could not learn his lesson, asked what his teacher would do to an English boy to make him learn it.  The reply came – I should stand him on the form.  To his great surprise, on turning round, he found the huge Zulu standing unsteadily on the seat of a chair.  After remaining there some time, he quietly got down and again looked at the book; then, finding that he could not say anything more of the lesson, he upbraided his teacher for deceiving him, remarking “that he had no faith in him now.” (14)
 
Dinizulu was particularly liked by the Bishop and Clergy of the island and became an ardent convert to Christianity. (15) Towards the end of the period of the Zulu internment on the island Miss Harriet Colenso (16) visited them. In “Saint Helena” by Emily Jackson (1903) the author comments that in a report of Miss Colenso's visit she had stated that she found the chiefs in very poor health:
 
They suffered extremely from the climate.  The place where they were located was in a valley, or as they call it, a “pot,” and the heat was excessive.  The governor and the people generally were however very kind to them.  Until she brought someone to assist them in their reading, the chiefs sat on the verandah and wished they were somewhere else. To get out of the place where they were situated was like climbing a precipice.
 
Colenso's opinion on the conditions of the Zulu's imprisonment were obviously biased and no doubt tailored to add to her case for having them released and returned to Zululand. Jackson disputed Miss Colenso's allegations regarding the Zulu's on Saint Helena:
 
No doubt Miss Colenso was earnest in her efforts to obtain the release from exile of the Zulu chiefs, but she should not have made a statement from which an inference can be drawn far from the truth. “Maldivia” in which the prisoners lived, and which possibly Miss Colenso has, biased by her zeal for the Zulu cause, been brought to consider a “pot”, is the most healthy residence in Jamestown, and the “excessive heat” at no time registers 80 degrees in the shade. 
 
The Zulu prisoners left the island in December 1897. The party included Miss Colenso, Mr. Madden their interpreter, Chief Dinizulu, Undabuka and Tchingana with their wives, children and attendants. Jackson (1903) noted that:

During the time they were on the Island they were gradually weaned from their uncivilised and savage life, until at the time of their departure they were as much civilized and attached to civilized customs as could be expected in such a short time.  This can be said especially of the young Prince, who became more refined, his gentlemanly manners and bearing promising well for the tribe over which he might hold sway.  Dinizulu was liked by all who knew him and he left many friends and well wishers in the Island.
 
In addition to leaving many friends and well-wishers in the island, it is rumoured that Dinizulu also left several children which he had fathered to local women!
 
The departure of the Zulu prisoners placed the island deeply in financial straits, for during the seven years of their exile, they had spent about one thousand pounds annually on the upkeep of their establishments, and so poor was the island's economy that the loss of this trivial sum was felt acutely.


The Boer Period 1900 – 1902

From 1900 to 1902, Saint Helena was to enter into another phase in her role as Britain's Atlantic Prison, this time as the first overseas prisoner-of-war camp. The imprisonment of Napoleon 85 years earlier had been extremely difficult for Britain to manage and the fear of their captive escaping his Atlantic Alcatraz was ever present, now the island was presented with yet another challenge; how to “house” nearly 6,000 Boer prisoners of war. This was without doubt the greatest logistical challenge the island had ever faced (17) and the presence of the prisoners of war was to boost Saint Helena's economy considerably, this phase is one of the most prosperous times in the island's history up to 1902. The Boer period is well documented and the local newspaper “The Saint Helena Guardian” provides a fascinating insight into everyday life on the island during this time.
 
In April 1900 the Saint Helena Guardian (18) carried the following notice:
 
In a few days the troopship Milwaukee escorted by the HMS Niobe will arrive with prisoners of war.
 No unauthorized person will be allowed on the Wharf at the time of disembarkation.  The Police will assist, as far as they can, the Military acting under the orders of the Officer Commanding the Troops in keeping order.
 His Excellency the Governor expresses the hope that the Inhabitants will treat the prisoners with that courtesy and consideration which should be extended to all men who have fought bravely in what they have considered the cause of their Country and will help in repressing any unseemly demonstration which individuals might exhibit.
St. Helena, 5th April 1900.

 
This notice brought great excitement to the island. Since the departure of the Zulu prisoners in 1897, the island's economy had steadily declined and the news of the Boer prisoners of war was received eagerly; enterprising islanders saw the arrival of the Boers as an opportunity to make money.
 
We doubt if the Island has ever been seen in such a state of suppressed excitement. All common necessaries of life have been immediately raised in price and horseflesh, owing to the sharp practices of Island owners, has advanced considerably in value. Milk, butter, vegetables etc., are all going up in price, the prevalent idea being of course to sell quantities to the highest bidder without increasing the supply.
 
The first shipment of prisoners arrived on the 10th April 1900. There were 514 prisoners carried by the Milwaukee on this occasion, including General (19) and Mrs. Cronje. The prisoners had travelled in cramped conditions on board ship and there were four prisoners on board who had become ill with measles, but who were in a state of convalescence by the time the ship arrived. For this reason, the Milwaukee was temporarily placed under quarantine on arrival. (20) The voyage from Capetown took seven days and the prisoners had been reported by Captain Webster of the Milwaukee to be clean, civil and well behaved. The local press visited the ship once the Milwaukee was no longer under quarantine:
 
We were, by kindness of Captain Webster, allowed to go on board of the transport and see the prisoners, all of whom seem happy and contented, calmly smoking their pipes.  There are among them some splendid specimens of physical manhood; General Cronje is a fine looking man of medium height, while Colonel Schiel (21) is tall and well made, with dignified bearing. The same may be said of several other officers, of whom there are 21. (22)
 
The Boer General and his wife and their servants disembarked on 13th April at 11.00 am and were driven to the Castle (23) where they were received by Governor and Mrs. Sterndale. From there the group travelled upwards into Half Tree Hollow to Kent Cottage where the Cronjes were to stay for the duration of their time on the island. The following day (Easter Monday – public holiday) a huge crowd gathered at the sea front to witness the disembarkation of the remainder of the Boer prisoners. It took close to three hours to land all of the prisoners who were then marched to Deadwood Plain.
 
They were marched inside a line of guards via Napoleon Street to the Camp.  The line extended some hundreds of yards, and with the crowds of spectators who lined the streets on either side, presented a sight never witnessed in St. Helena by any of the present generation, and one not quickly to be forgotten – a motley crowd of beings of all ages, from boys of 14 to men of 60, some clean and decently clad, others poorly clad, dirty and unkempt, and sickly-looking, each with a dirty haversack, water kettle or bottle, or string of drinking pots and pans, some with bundles of clothing wrapped in blankets. (24
 
The march, despite the many halts, was a very tiring one for the prisoners who had been kept in close confinement for months, and a good number had to be picked up by the ambulance. The procession finally reached Deadwood after three more wearying hours and was met at the gate of the camp by the Drum and Fife Band of the 3rd West India Regiment, which played them in. The prisoners were led inside a fence of barbed wire several hundred metres square containing a good number of canvas tents in which they were to be housed for the duration of their stay on the island. The Boers were reported to be in good spirits; laughing, joking and playing games of all sorts. The following day they had a meeting among themselves where they elected one of their group to be a sort of Captain, to whom they could represent, and who would represent for them any grievance they may have.
 
Another instalment of prisoners arrived two weeks later on the 26 April along with the 4th Battalion Gloucester Militia. (25) The Boer Officers – 34 of them – were the first to land and were marched off to camp under guard. They were followed by the “Glosters” who were headed by their band and last of all the 360 prisoners were disembarked with a 100 guard. On this occasion, the weather being cooler, there were no casualties during the long march to Deadwood. On arriving at the Camp, there was much cheering and greeting among the prisoners old and new creating pandemonium for a short while. 
 
From the many remarks passed by the prisoners on the beautiful scenery to be seen on the road to the Camp, and the general healthiness of the climate, it may be judged that they regard their imprisonment in the open on Deadwood Plain in a much more favourable light than that recently experienced by them on board ship, and it is to be expected that the spread of measles and enteric, of which there are now nine and six cases, respectively, will be speedily stemmed.
 
Between April 1900 and February 1902, more than 5,000 Boer prisoners of war arrived on the island. In addition to receiving General Cronje, the island also hosted another important Boer General, Ben Viljoen, (26) who had been ambushed and captured towards the end of the war. Viljoen arrived at Saint Helena on 25th February 1902 on board the Britannic and recorded his first sight of the island: (27)
 
“The Rock” rose out of the ocean, bare and rugged, the imprisonment upon it offered a gloomy prospect. No animal was visible and foliage was wanting.
…I must confess that the feeling grew upon us that we were to be treated as ordinary criminals, since only murderers and dangerous people are banished to such places to be forgotten by mankind.

 
On arrival at Deadwood, Viljoen had a quarrel with the Camp Commanding Officer who refused to grant him an immediate pass to allow him to leave the camp. (28) Eventually it was agreed to allow Viljoen to stay in a small house outside the Deadwood Camp.
 
Among the prisoners were several foreign volunteers; French, German, Russian and Hollanders. Many of these foreign prisoners were seen as being more troublesome than the Boers. The British saw the Hollanders as troublemakers:
 
If our Home Govt should only know the evil influence of the Hollanders here upon the Boers and what their intentions will be, if they could return they would never allow them back in the country, where they have caused such mischief and will according to their nature and hate against England continue to do so. (29)
 
Others of them, being Europeans, formed relationships with the British captors based on a mutual understanding that was sometimes lacking between the British and the Boer prisoners. (30) Writing to his parents en route to Saint Helena, one of these prisoners, Daniel von Berg observed:
 
“I chatted with an English major who is a charming man. He treats us with great kindness and speaks French very well having studied at the Lycée St. Barbe.”


The prison camps

By 1902 (31) there were more than five and a half thousand prisoners of war on the island guarded by one and a half thousand troops. (32) The first arrivals were sent to Deadwood Camp, (33) the Camp Commandant was Major S.H. Marden. The prisoners were housed mainly in canvas tents, and huts which they later built themselves from biscuit tins. As time went on, disturbances occurred among certain of the prisoners at Deadwood. Some of the prisoners openly expressed a desire to become British Subjects; those who were bitterly against the British treated these men with great scorn and hostility. To prevent further conflict, the authorities were compelled to form a separate camp located apart from the general camp, the prisoners desiring to become British Subjects and subsequently desiring an end to the hostilities in South Africa, were segregated into “Deadwood No2” or “Peace Camp.”
 
Friction also developed between the “Freestaters and the Transvaalers” and the authorities decided to open another camp at Broadbottom, a broad shallow valley, about five miles from Deadwood. Here with certain exceptions, all the prisoners were burghers of the Orange Free State. This camp was opened in early 1901 and the Camp Commandant was Lieutenant Colonel H.O.P. Wright.
 
Several of the prisoners of war proved so intractable that the authorities decided to remove them from the other prisoners by confining them in High Knoll Fort. (34)
 
Despite the conflicts, the prisoners were generally mild mannered. Among them there were many skilled craftsmen and these were placed on various building projects around the island. (35) Commercial enterprise was encouraged; there were camp canteens run by prisoners. The Chief Censor's report for May indicated:

A rather large consignment of tobacco had been detained here owing to insufficient proof of being a free gift as according to your instruction. The import duty has been paid amounting to over £20 this month.
By the last mail boat a still larger quantity of tobacco and cigars arrived, also some articles such as cocoa, margarine and various other goods evidently for the purpose of trading.

 
Some prisoners of war were given permission to work in and around Jamestown. Certain of these, such as household servants cooks and grooms, were allowed to live in the homes of their British employers, provided that they remained well behaved. For those prisoners not provided for, a two-section camp was built in the Government Gardens and the Botanical Gardens in Jamestown to provide accommodation at night. The Officer in Charge of the prisoners of war at Jamestown was Captain Fisher. The more enterprising of the prisoners involved themselves in establishing a Coffee House, a Brewery, a pawnbrokers and another set himself up as an auctioneer.
 
Among the islanders, there continued to be great excitement, many cattle were killed to supply the garrison and the prison camp. (36) The arrival of the prisoners and the military establishments created such a stir among the local contractors and business people that had not been felt within the community for many years.
 
The advent of the first batch of prisoners has brought with it a wave of prosperity that has in the short space of a week made itself felt among all classes of the community, from the labourer to the producer, and now the additional increase of troops and prisoners, hundreds of tons of stores of all descriptions, with all the concomitant benefits accruing from the presence of an additional population not dependent upon the resources of the Island, and the employment of every class of labour, at the same time not forgetting the advantages in the way of trade derived from the presence in port of a first-class British cruiser and several steamers, have put the affairs of St. Helena on a footing that bids fair to rival the “good old days” we so often hear of before the opening of the Suez Canal. (37)
 
Once again the fortunes of the island were reversed; Saint Helena was plucked from somnolent obscurity and placed in the spotlight on the International stage, as the Anglo-Boer War progressed. With the island population numbering almost ten thousand by 1902, Jamestown became a hive of activity with hundreds of donkeys loaded with provisions for the Camps and numerous mule wagons and Bullock teams traversing the narrow streets.  There was regular importation of store and provisions of all sorts; the harbour was never without less than two steamships at anchor and on occasion with as many as five at a time. The constant demand for fresh fruit, vegetables and meat kept the farmers busy, employment was plentiful and the islanders responded to the calls on their enterprise with aplomb.

In 1900 the absence of rain was to cause tremendous concern for the local farmers. During that year rainfall was only half the quantity of the previous year. This meant that vegetables, especially potatoes became very scarce and prices of these scarce commodities were pushed beyond the pocket of the ordinary islander. In the prison camps however, the lack of rain was to prove fortuitous for there were a number of prisoners suffering from illness, (38) the majority from chest infections, (39) which would have been aggravated by wet weather.

The prisoners interacted well with the local people; at least two were allowed to marry local women. They established a string quartet, a piano trio, a brass band and a male choir. The camps boasted a debating society, a German club, an anti smoking society and many sports teams. (40)   Among the prisoners was accomplished artist Erich Mayer, a German volunteer captured at Elandlaagte, near Mafeking, shortly after the war broke out in 1899, and interred on Saint Helena, the paintings and sketches he produced provides an intriguing glimpse into the life of the Boer prisoners of war. Mayer was responsible for the fine artwork on the finely lettered Address, in pen and ink and signed by 37 prisoners of war, presented to the pro-Nationalist Irish activist and humanitarian worker Alice Green, who visited Saint Helena, bringing with her gifts for the men.

Despite the fact that the prisoners were generally well cared for and accepted by the local people, there were still among them those who felt the effect of their incarceration keenly and as a result plotted and connived to escape from the island. In February 1901 five of the prisoners (41) tried to escape in a boat, which they seized, from fishermen at Sandy Bay. The fishermen took away the oars and after a struggle the prisoners got into the boat and tore up the bottom boards to make paddles with, when they found that this did not work, they then tried to bribe the fishermen offering them money for the oars. In the meantime one of the fishermen had gone on to report the event and eventually a guard arrived and the Boers were taken into custody.

This was by no means the only attempt made by the prisoners to escape, (42) and possibly the most enterprising effort was that of a young Prisoner Of War, Andries Smorenburg, who fashioned a crate for himself, marked “Curios Only”, and “mailed” himself from Saint Helena on a passing ship. He prepared his crate by labelling it with a false address in London and then packed it with clothing, matches, and food and water for 20 days. Armed with a rough map of Southampton dock, he climbed inside and loaded on the northwards-bound ship. The trip was a nightmare. Although the crate was marked “With Care” and “This Side Up”, it was tossed about and overturned on board – proving that baggage handlers took as much care of fragile goods a century ago as they do today – and as a result Smorenburg was given concussion and lost most of his water. In the meantime back on the island, Smorenberg's absence had been discovered when he did not appear for roll call. The authorities on Saint Helena contacted Ascension Island and after five days at sea, Smorenberg was recaptured when the ship called at Ascension and returned to Saint Helena.

Early in 1902 the garrison on the island was increased by the arrival of the 3rd Middlesex Regiment of 570 men. These troops were encamped on Francis Plain (43) where it was proposed by the authorities to form another Prisoner Camp. There was consternation among the inhabitants at this idea; people expressed their concern for the health of the Town population at having a large number of troops and prisoners living directly at the source of their water supply. There was also a “right of road” across the Plain, which was almost certain to be denied to locals once a prison camp was established there. All camps were under martial law to prevent the public from trespassing or hanging about the camps at night, this led to a fear that danger would come to the more “ignorant class” (44) who if challenged by a sentry would not know what to answer, or perhaps being afraid, would run away at the risk of being fired at! There was also indignation among the locals at having their recreational area denied them and the editor of the Saint Helena Guardian in March 1902 suggested that perhaps His Excellency the Governor would place the lawn at Plantation House (45) at the disposal of the inhabitants to have their holiday sports on.
 
The island experienced another dry period and once again this affected the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables to both the camps and the inhabitants. There was outcry from the local population at the high price being demanded for fish, which was seen as the “poor man's” staple food. By May 1902, there was growing concern at the rapid spread of enteric fever among the prisoners and the troops. (46) Unlike the dry season of 1900 where it was felt that the absence of rain stemmed the spread of illness in the prison camps, this time it was felt that the continued dry weather coupled with very heavy winds were to some extent responsible for the increase of the disease. (47)  Islanders were also badly affected by the enteric fever epidemic; the Public Health Report noted that the death rate among the civil population was roughly 0.75 per cent for 1902. (48) The state of health in the camps was said to be the reason for an order that arrived on the island from Britain to the effect that during the next few months between twelve and eighteen hundred prisoners of war would be removed from Saint Helena and taken to the Island of Antigua. This news was greeted by many Saint Helenians, who were benefiting from the presence of the Boers by means of their increased revenue and a major source of cheap labour, with surprise and regret. The mail censor reported that some of the prisoners reacted to the news with pleasure; many more however were disheartened, preferring to remain on the island or to be sent back to their homes.
 
With the increase in the number of deaths in the camps caused mainly by enteric, (49) and the possibility of being transferred to yet another prison island, morale in the camps was low and this was indicated in the many letters plying between the prisoners and their families back in South Africa. This despair was compounded by the news from home of the “great immorality of their wives and daughters in the different concentration camps back in South Africa”. (50)  By June of the same year however, the possibility of the end of the Anglo-Boer War seemed in reach. The incoming letters from the Cape spoke unanimously of peace and seemed certain of a successful settlement, all were urging their relatives to become British subjects as soon as possible in order to return and look after their homes, the Chief Censor noted that there were “several touching letters from fathers written to their sons pointing out their folly”. By the end of May the dry season was relieved by rain. There was also a turning point in the enteric fever epidemic, which now showed signs of abating.
 
It is most satisfactory to learn that for the past few days there has been no cases reported sick at Deadwood Camp, and the assumption is that the epidemic of enteric fever has abated.  It is much to be hoped that this is so. The number of cases under treatment is about one hundred and forty, including thirty prisoners of war, a good many of which are convalescent.  This unfortunate outbreak is a sad blow to our proud boast of St. Helena's proverbial healthiness, but there is some consolation in the fact that although this has been by far the greatest period of sickness yet experienced in the Island during the retention of a large body of men in a crowded space, the percentage of cases is a long way below that constantly occurring in other camps; and that had our usual rains and winds of March come in the ordinary course, there is a strong probability that few, if any, cases of the dread disease would have occurred at all. The turning point seems to have been reached, however, and we hope to be able soon to report that all signs of disease have been eradicated. (51)
 
The Saint Helena Guardian of June 5th 1902 carried the headline “Peace, Perfect Peace” and expressed the hope that the peace would be a lasting one. It reflected on the events of the war and the effect that it (the war) had had on the island.
 
Luckily our isolated position in mid Atlantic shelters us from all such afflictions as unhappily have befallen our fellow subjects in South Africa since October 11, 1899, yet we have not been unmindful of the various phases of the War with all its concomitant evils, for even natives of this remote little Island have taken their places in the ranks and bled for the honour of our King and Country; nor can we forget that as one of the results of this long and terrible struggle our Island has been by law constituted a prison and made the receptacle of 6,000 Boer prisoners of war.
 
In the prison camps the prisoners at first received the news of peace with great excitement, seeing at last an end to their exile. However a day or two afterwards some of the prisoners began to feel doubt, whilst others disbelieved the report in its entirety and others still reserved their opinions until they could learn of more particulars.
 
On Tuesday 17th June 1902, the town was once more unusually crowded as some three hundred prisoners of war came to sign the Oath of Allegiance. Although there was reluctance on the part of some prisoners to sign the Oath initially, the lure of their returning to South Africa in a short while proved to be greater than their pride and on the 26th June 1902 the first batch of prisoners (470) embarked on the Canada for Capetown.
 
It is ironic to note that with the departure of the prisoners of war, the weather changed and there was abundant rainfall, which did much to improve the pastures and the farmlands resulting in a glut of vegetables throughout the island. By mid September, the prison camps were broken up and the contents sold by public auction. The last batch of prisoners left the island on the 21st October aboard the SS Golconda. The Saint Helena Guardian for the 23rd October 1902 reported on the departure of the prisoners and referred to the benefits that their imprisonment had brought to the island.
 
Let us not forget the benefits that have fallen on all, landowners, merchants, and farmers down to the boy of 10 who ought to have been at school instead of pocketing money working on the wharf or elsewhere.  Yes, money has been flowing into the Island fast, the Government has reaped a rich harvest from Customs duties, and with many, if not all, money has been more plentiful than ever before.  The imprisonment of Boer prisoners of war in St. Helena has indeed benefited the Island materially. (52


The Second Zulu Period 1907 – 1909

In June 1907 the Saint Helena Guardian carried a report of the arrival of 25 Zulu prisoners shipped to the island from Natal. These prisoners had been a part of the Zulu insurrection in Natal earlier that year and included among the number such men as Tilonko, Messeni, Ndhlove a son of Sigananda, and others who were identified by the Government of Natal as being the ringleaders of the rebellion. The prisoners were originally to be deported to Mauritius but because of an outbreak of beri-beri there, it was agreed with the British Government that they should be sent to Saint Helena instead.
 
The Zulus arrived on the steamship Inyati on 11th June 1907. The were landed the following day wearing khaki jackets bearing with the letter L and various other marks to indicate their sentences which ranged from “Life” to 10 years. The prisoners ranged in age from about 20 to 70 years and seemed in very poor health when they arrived.
 
They seemed in a half-starved condition and could hardly walk when landed. (53)
 
The prisoners were marched off under the escort of armed local police, to Ladder Hill Barracks which was to be their prison on the island and where the Royal Artillery Garrison was stationed. The Guardian Newspaper for that week listed the rations, which the Zulu would receive whilst in prison:
 
12 ounces of mealy meal for breakfast and 12 for supper, and 18 ounces of the same food for dinner with salt, and during the week some vegetables and 11lb of fresh beef per man per week will be issued. To tea, coffee, milk and tobacco they will be strangers.
 
The prisoners were also to be furnished with a blanket to lie on. The editor of the Guardian went on to speculate:
 
Whether making this Island, “known to the world” as the “Island of Historic Misfortune,” the prison for men such as the Zulus is a wise step or not, we await with interest to ascertain.
 
It would appear from this comment that some of the island was beginning to weary of their Prison role. These Zulu prisoners were certainly not greeted with the same enthusiasm afforded by the islanders to the Boer prisoners seven years earlier, nor was their time on the island to be as fondly remembered locally as was the imprisonment of Dinizulu in 1890. There is a dearth of material written about this period and their time on the island is barely recorded.
 
The editor's report on the arrival of the Zulus received a vitriolic response in the following week's Guardian by a member of the public who signed himself or herself as “Free Thinker”. This person questioned the sympathy shown by the editor to the Zulu's in his article and asked if he thought the prisoners should have been given feather beds to lie on, and mosquito nets to protect their “fair” complexion instead of the blankets they had been issued with. “Free Thinker” went on to point out that in their country, mealies supplied the staple diet of the Zulus and felt that the diet they were to receive in Saint Helena was adequate. The writer also hoped that the prisoners would be put to work on the island and in response to the editor's questioning the presence of the Zulus on the island suggested that their presence must certainly put some money into circulation ending by saying that the economic situation on the island was such that “the smallest benefit is better than nothing in the present day”.
 
The Zulus remained on the island for the next two years and worked mainly on the roads or in rock breaking in the local quarries. Many years later a local character by the name of “Chief” supposedly the son of Dinizulu by an islander, recalled how when the 25 Zulu prisoners arrived on the island his mother had hidden him away, for fear that he might be taken back to Natal when the prisoners were repatriated there in 1909.


The Sultan of Zanzibar 1917 – 1921

Saint Helena was given a brief respite from her prison role until August 1917 when the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash al Said, described in the Records (54) as the pretender to the Sultanate, arrived with his harem and several others totalling 25 people. (55)  There is no information available in the local archives on the prisoners of Zanzibar, according to the archivist; all newspapers and other records relating to Khalid were censored during that period. (56) Local people referred to the prisoners as the “Zanzibars”. As with the Zulu prisoners of 1907, very few people remember them being on the island, and the recollections of those who do, are very vague and of little substance. The prisoners were kept in Jamestown at the building on the Military Parade Ground. (57) They did not mix much with the Saint Helenians, some of whom remember that the prisoners were always very smartly dressed in long flowing silken robes, the women were described as having a beautiful appearance.

In 1921 the Sultan and the rest of his group were removed to the Seychelles where they remained until 1925 when he was released and allowed to settle in Tanganyka and later in Kenya. He died at Mombassa in 1927.


The Prisoners of Bahrain 1957 – 1961

It was to be another thirty-six years before Britain was to call on Saint Helena's services as a prison island one more time, on this occasion to detain three Bahrainis. The three men had been prominent members of a Committee of Nationalists in Bahrain. They had been tried by the court of the ruler of Bahrain for offences against the state after disturbances, which took place there early in November 1956, and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The ruler of Bahrain (58) had asked Britain for assistance in removing them to a British Territory and it was subsequently decided that they should be sent to Saint Helena. The British Government in this case applied the conditions of the Colonial prisoners Removal Act, 1869 and after consultation with the Saint Helena Government, the prisoners arrived on the island on the 27th January.
 
The three prisoners were housed under guard at the former searchlight station at Munden's Point, which had been specially prepared for the purpose. They were cared for by local male servants and kept very much to themselves. In March 1959, one of the prisoners, Abdul Rahman applied to the Saint Helena Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus (59) he challenged the Governor, to show that the imprisonment was lawful. Since the Governor who at that time was also the Chief Justice of Saint Helena, could not be expected to direct the issue of a writ against himself, Mr. Justice Brett (later Sir Lionel Brett) of the Federal Supreme Court of Nigeria, was appointed Chief Justice and brought to the island from Lagos with three Barristers from London and a Foreign Office Adviser. Abdul Rahman's application which was based on technical matters concerning the Queen's Jurisdiction in Bahrain, the applicability of the 1869 Act to the prisoners sentenced by a court other than a British Court and the procedure followed by the various Governments in applying the Act, was dismissed by the Supreme Court; his appeal to the Privy Council, which was heard in the first half of 1960, was also dismissed.
 
In June 1961 another of the three men, Abdul Aziz Shemlan, made a similar application. On this occasion Mr. Myles Abbott, formerly of the Nigerian Federal Supreme Court, three barristers and Shemlan's solicitor came for the trial, and this time the application was successful. As the circumstances were identical in the cases of the other men, all three were immediately released from custody and left for England by the next ship. (60
 
The success of this application of the writ of habeas corpus is interesting, especially as there had been several attempts made by various people (61) to gain a writ of habeas corpus (62) for Napoleon more than a hundred years earlier. The British Government anticipating such a move had hurriedly arranged for Napoleon, who was at that time on board the Bellerophon, to be transferred to the ship Northumberland in readiness for his departure to Saint Helena. This still did not prevent Bonapartists from continuing to work for his release and in 1816 the British Parliament decided to pass a special law to deal with the case of Napoleon. To prevent lawyers, acting on his behalf, from bringing proceedings for his release on the grounds of unlawful detention, Parliament passed an act specifically to render lawful the continued detention of Napoleon, notwithstanding the end of the Napoleonic wars, by deeming him to be a “prisoner of war” and so having no right to habeas corpus.
 
It is perhaps the greatest paradox therefore that the last occasion that Britain was to send prisoners to Saint Helena, was also to be the juncture where those very same prisoners would effectively challenge her authority to do so. With the successful application of the writ of habeas corpus, events had come full circle. The exile of Napoleon in 1815 had heralded the beginning of Saint Helena's function as a prison island and the departure of the Bahraini prisoners in 1961 signified the end of this obligatory role. Saint Helena was no longer of strategic importance to Britain; who would not again require the services of her Atlantic Alcatraz.

Notes

(1) Cannabis Resin
(2) The fact that this yacht left the island at the time of Merk's escape, lends credence to this rumour.
(3) Another rumour is that the local authorities could have apprehended Merk before he left the harbour, however they allowed him to go because the expense of keeping him on Saint Helena was proving too heavy for the island to sustain.
(4) John Long—(prisoner) complains of having Flux and prays to be excused work at the fortifications till he is better. Alexander and Goodwin think he ought to be allowed time to get better. Mr. Crispe is of opinion that the most effectual way to cure him is to hang him. (March 1736)
(5) In 1721 the authorities were amazed to discover that a Negro by the name of Peter, the property of the Widow Shreve, escaped from the Dungeon by working a ring bolt out of the Wall and making a hole big enough for him to squeeze through, he was recaptured and this time he was chained to a Ring Bolt fast in the Wall with a half hundred weight to his shackles, his hands fastened between his legs with handcuffs. Peter escaped yet again however and once again was recaptured and confined to the Dungeon this time with an iron collar about his neck with a chain from it to his handcuffs, from thence the chain was fastened to a ring bolt in the wall and his shackles rivetted with an Iron band and swivells fastened to an Andvill of about two hundred weight. Peter did not manage to escape after this recapture and was later hung as a warning to other prisoners and Blacks.
(6) St Helena Blue Book 1836.
(7) The Gaoler resided in two rooms about 75 metres from the Prison and entirely out of sight.
(8) Four shillings and eight pence is equivalent to about twenty-two pence in today's currency.
(9) These were prisoners whom the island authorities felt could not be contained on Saint Helena because of the nature of the crimes they had committed – usually crimes against the state, murder, piracy or treason.
(10) Both these men were recently returned to the island when it was decided that keeping them in prison in Britain was becoming too costly for the island to maintain. The cost of their imprisonment in the United Kingdom (£50,000 per man per annum) came out of the island's annual budget
(11) Robert Patton (1802 –1807)
(12) The first Anglo-Zulu War took place in 1879 after the British felt that the Zulus were hindering their policy of bringing together all the British, Boer and African territories under a common rule. As a result Zululand was eventually divided up into thirteen districts and from 1880 onwards a bitter civil war raged within the former Zululand. The Boers helped Chief Dinizulu against the neighbouring tribes and demanded a large slice of Zulu territory as a reward. Dinizulu appealed to the British for help against the Boers and the British decided to annexe Zululand in 1887 and place it under the Governor of Natal. As a result the Zulus rose up against the British and the second Anglo-Zulu war occurred.
(13) Jackson Saint Helena (1903). It must be remembered however that the conditions of the confinement of the Zulus were far different from those attached to the incarceration of Napoleon. The Zulus were not restricted in the same way and were allowed to move around the island fairly freely.
(14) Jackson Saint Helena (1903).
(15) Dinizulu practiced polygamy and had several wives. The clergy overcame this barrier by “officially” recognising only one of his wives and describing the other wives as attendants on the Zulu Chief and his children.
(16) The daughter of Bishop Colenso and champion of the Zulu Cause visited the island in 1897.
(17) During this period the population of the island increased to nearly 10,000.
(18) Saint Helena Guardian 12th April 1900.
(19) Boer General who besieged Mafeking and tried to prevent Lord Roberts relieving Kimberley. Cronje surrendered at Paardeberg on 27 February 1900.
(20) Until a doctor could certify that the prisoners were not contagious, the quarantine lasted no more than 3 days.
(21) Colonel Schiel, Colonel-Commandant of the German Freecorps South Africa, was alleged to have attempted to escape from the Milwaukee along with three other prisoners, in view of this it was decided to confine him in High Knoll fort until all other prisoners were landed.
(22) Saint Helena Guardian 12th April 1902.
(23) Official Government Building located in Jamestown.
(24) Saint Helena Guardian 12th April 1902.
(25) The Glosters were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Earl Bathurst, great-grandson of Sir Henry, the 3rd Earl of Bathurst (1762 – 1834), one of the British ministers responsible for taking the decision to send Napoleon to St Helena.
(26) Deputy Commandant-General of the Z.A.R. forces, he participated in the battles of Elandslaagte, Modderspruit, Ladysmith, Colenso, on the Tugela River, and at Spioenkop and Vaalkrans.
(27) In The Great Boer War, Byron Farwell (1977).
(28) On arrival, new prisoners were generally put into isolation for a short period, to prevent the spread of infectious disease. They were not allowed passes until local doctors had certified them free of disease.
(29) Chief Censor's report for April 1902.
(30) The French Colonel and the Boers 1899 – 1900, Roy Mc Mab (1975).
(31) The Philately of the Camps for Boer prisoners of war, B.J. Mabbett.
(32) Numbers of Boer prisoners (St Helena is a Tiny Island by J.H. Schoeman).
1900 = 2,007
1901 (February)  = 4689
1902 5778
(33) The Camp was situated on a windy plateau known as Deadwood Plain, which overlooks Rupert's Bay.
(34) One of the fortifications started under Governor Brooke during the latter part of the 18th Century and completed in 1874. The fort was built on the site of the original citadel erected by the Dutch during the 17th Century and was later used by the military as a detention centre.
(35) A water condensing plant at Rupert's opened in 1901, Kingshurst Community Centre and the Boer Road leading from Deadwood to Rupert's are some of these projects still in evidence today.
(36) The civilian population was invited to submit tenders to the Government, to supply various commodities to the garrison and the prison camps.
(37) Saint Helena Guardian April 1900.
(38) In 1901 there were 65 prisoners who had to be hospitalised, suffering primarily from chest infections, enteric fever and bowel complaints. It became necessary to turn the Officers Quarters in Jamestown into a hospital for the Boer patients. Saint Helena Guardian May 10th 1900.
(39) It is interesting to note that a number of soldiers who made up the local garrison during the time of the exile of Napoleon, suffered similar illnesses.
(40) The Great Boer War, Byron Farwell (1977).
(41) One of the five was Commandant Hans Etoff, the grandson of President Paul Kruger.
(42) Unlike the French exiles of 1815-1821, the Boer prisoners were allowed to move about the island fairly freely during the day, they were expected to be present at their camps for a roll call at the end of each day.
(43) Francis Plain, situated in the middle of the island, has been the main recreational site for islanders for more than a hundred years. Local sports, particularly football and cricket have always been played there.
(44) Saint Helena Guardian March 1902.
(45) Plantation House is the Governor's official residence.
(46) In one week there were upwards of one hundred case of enteric fever among the troops and prisoners, 75 per cent of these cases were among the prisoners.
(47) Saint Helena Guardian May 8th 1902.
(48) The Public Health Report for 1902 also indicated that there had been a steady increase in digestive diseases among the local population and attributed this to the change in their diet; staple foods such as fish and vegetables had become extremely scarce and far too expensive for most locals and therefore they resorted to tinned food, which they had never been accustomed to.
(49) The total number of deaths for the period of the Boer incarceration was 180. These were all buried at the Knollcombes cemetery, which today has become a Boer War Memorial site.
(50) Monthly Reports by the Chief Censor Baron CWW Von Arlefldt to the O/C Troops on the correspondence to and from Boer prisoners of war in 1902.
(51) Saint Helena Guardian 22 May 1902.
(52) Saint Helena Guardian 30th October 1902.
(53) Saint Helena Guardian 13th June 1907.
(54) Saint Helena 500 – Gill and Teale. It is interesting to note that in the records for 1917 the prisoner is described as the Pretender to the Sultanate and on his departure in 1921, he is noted in the same work as being the “former Sultan of Zanzibar.
(55) Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash claimed the Zanzibar throne on the death of his brother-in-law, 25th August 1896. Britain refused to recognize him and bombarded the palace, resulting in what is generally considered the shortest war in history (36 or 40 minutes, depending on what source you read). Khalid sought refuge in the German Embassy and remained there for 36 days a guest at the German Consulate. The British demanded he be turned over to them and surrounded the consulate with agents and soldiers so that he could not escape. After weeks of diplomatic wrangling between the two European powers on Oct. 2nd, the morning of an especially high tide when the sea lapped up against the wall of the German building, Khalid stepped directly from the German consulate to a small boat, never touching British controlled soil. From there he was conveyed to Dar es Salaam where he lived as a Prince in exile for more than 15 years when WW1 brought him again into conflict with the British Empire this time he was captured by the British and exiled to Saint Helena in 1917.
(56) It is assumed that the censure of these records was enforced due to their political sensitivity.
(57) The site of what is now Pilling Middle School, so called after Governor Pilling (1838 – 1941).
(58) Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
(59) Habeas Corpus – “have the body” can be reasonably translated as  “bring the prisoner to “court” so that a judge can hear the prisoner's reasons for saying that he is imprisoned illegally and the gaoler's reasons for denying this, and decide which of them is right.
(60) The case for Shemlan turned largely on the interpretation of the Colonial prisoners Removal Act 1869, which provides that a prisoner removed under the Act from the Country where he has been sentenced may be removed under the authority of a warrant. The Court found that the warrant under which the three men had been removed in HMS Loch Insh was invalid because it was put into operation before the application of the Act to Bahrain became affective, in that the men were delivered to the ship about six o'clock in the morning, while the notice of the application of the Act to Bahrain, which made the application of the Act effective, was posted in Bahrain two hours later. The Court having found that the men were not removed under a valid warrant held that this made their subsequent imprisonment in Saint Helena unlawful and therefore ordered their discharge. Saint Helena Wirebird 1961.
(61) Capel Lofft, Lord and Lady Holland.
(62) Napoleon & St Helena 1815 – 1816, Roger Morriss; Capel Lofft 1751 – 1824, Roger Meyenberg.
Share it