Schulenburg, A.H. (1999) 'St Helena Historiography, Philately, and the "Castella" Controversy', South Atlantic Chronicle: The Journal of the St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society, Vol.XXIII, No.3, pp.3-6

St Helena Historiography, Philately, and the "Castella" Controversy

By Alexander Hugo Schulenburg, Ph.D.
Of the United Kingdom

Far from being a tempest in a teapot (Skavaril 1999), the recent controversy about João da Nova [Castella] (Schulenburg 1997, 1998b; Williams 1998; Hearl 1998) has served to highlight serious deficiencies in St Helena historiography, past and present. A number of authors, myself included, have recently pointed out that within the St Helena literature the name of the island's discoverer has by and large been rendered incorrectly as João da (or Juan de) Nova Castella. Instead, it is argued, his name is João da Nova alone, the addition of 'Castella' being an error.

This debate may seem a long way from the concerns of most philatelists. However, given that St Helena can pride itself on repeatedly issuing stamps commemorating the island's eventful history, the island's Stamp Committee is not only dependent on sound historical research, but, by popularising the island's history, the Philatelic Bureau is itself engaged in St Helena historiography. Furthermore, the recent issue of a stamp commemorating João da Nova, without the 'Castella', has caused serious affront to at least one esteemed St Helena philatelist, Russell Skavaril, whose consequent article in the South Atlantic Chronicle (1999) has prompted this reply.

Nevertheless, I do not wish to confine my remarks to the João da Nova debate alone. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity take an extensive look at the state of St Helena historiography (also see Schulenburg 1998a) and, by implication, its consequences for St Helena philately .

Given the vast literature on Napoleon's exile on the island, texts on St Helena history proper are comparatively few and far between. Indeed, despite an abundance of archival sources, few general histories of the island have to date been published, although brief reviews of the island's past have commonly been included in general accounts of St Helena since the late sixteenth century.

The first monograph history of St Helena was Thomas Brooke's A History of the Island of St Helena, published in London in 1808. According to the Napoleonic historian Frédéric Masson, "There in detail could be found the most insignificant course of events in the administration, and this narrative is particularly tedious and dull" (1949:99). In fact, Brooke was the first of St Helena's few historians to make extensive use of the East India Company's records, access to which had been afforded to him by virtue of his position as Government Secretary. Brooke' narrative may well have set the tone for a number of subsequent publications, and his attention to detail in combing the old records provided some essential groundwork for future historian, however misleading (a substantially revised edition of Brooke's History, including new material, appeared in 1824).

Brooke's attention to detail was easily surpassed by Hudson Ralph Janisch's efforts to record the history of St Helena under the East India Company, the results of which were published locally and posthumously in his famous Extracts from the St. Helena Records (1885). As in the case of Brooke, Janisch's work was made possible by the access he had had to the government's records given his position as Governor of St Helena from 1873 to 1884. However, rather than providing extracts as such, Janisch's text is both a collection of quotations and a calendar, as a result of which his Extracts is not as reliable as one would like, although it continues to be an important guide to the 'St Helena Records'.

While Brooke (for obvious reasons) and Janisch worked with the East India Company's records only, the first work to provide extensive details of the island's history under the Crown was Emily Jackson's St. Helena: The Historic Island (1903), which covers primarily the period from Napoleon's exile to the turn of the century, including the captivity on St Helena of Boer prisoners of war. Although her work is much valued for its documentary extracts and photographs, the book as a whole is terribly ill-organised. For all intents and purposes, Jackson had done what the historian Finberg has called paying "homage to the muse of history after their fashion by serving up the contents of their notebooks in a kind of substitute for narrative" (1996:196).

The first author to make extensive use of the archival records of St Helena's Crown administration was G.C. Kitching, Government Secretary from 1932 to 1940, in his Handbook and Gazetteer of the Island of St Helena (1947a). Kitching was also the first to concentrate his research efforts on detailed studies of very particular aspects of St Helena's history, such as in his papers on the East India Company's St Helena regiments (1947b) and on the capture of St Helena in 1673 (1950). This research effort, as well as Kitching's encouragement, were essential to the writing of Philip Gosse's St Helena 1502-1938, published in 1938, which is still regarded as the best general history of the island (it was reprinted in 1990 with a new introduction by Trevor Hearl). However, Gosse is very close in style to Brooke, on whom the earlier parts of his history are based, although he included a large amount of new material for the period prior to 1673. It is this material, available only through the London archives, which was unavailable to both Brooke (and Janisch), who consequently ended up speculating about the island's early history.

The only two extensive histories of recent decades are Edward Cannan's Churches of the South Atlantic Islands 1502-1991 (1992) and Dorothy Evans' Schooling in the South Atlantic Islands 1661-1992 (1994), both of which deal primarily with St Helena. Other publications of recent years include studies by Ken Denholm (1994a, 1994b, and forthcoming), as well as, more significantly, works by Barbara George (1994 and forthcoming) and by Lady Margaret Field (1998). Furthermore, Trevor Hearl has over the years produced a steady flow of typescript articles and publications on a large number of island subjects (eg. 1996). Regular forums for St Helena history are provided by Wirebird: The Journal of the Friends of St Helena and, of course, by the South Atlantic Chronicle.

Nevertheless, despite this seemingly impressive output, the current state of St Helena historiography is not as encouraging as might at first appear. The reason for this is that existing histories of St Helena have essentially been antiquarian in character, that is, to use G.R. Elton's definition of 'antiquarianism', they can "be recognized by a devotion to detail for its own sake". Moreover, "the antiquarian wants to know, not to understand", leading him or her to focus on "the areas where many facts can be accumulated without straining the reasoning or synthesizing capacity of the student. In its proper place it should not be despised, but it should be seen for what it is. [] It is when antiquarianism pretends to be history that doubts must arise" (1967:152).

Indeed, Denholm's published works provide fairly elementary and rather selective coverage of their chosen subjects, while George's narratives are obscured by often quite unnecessary detail, although her fairly comprehensive documentary coverage and the provision of extensively annotated transcriptions of local government records will be of interest to future historians. Even more disappointingly, Cannan and Evans each present highly detailed but uncritical narrative histories of their chosen subject, which may not be so surprising, given that both books were written by people intricately linked with the island's Anglican church and its Education Department respectively.

On the whole, what all these works lack are contextualisation and comparison, as well as a critical or analytical approach to their subjects. Without these, however, it is impossible to gain any understanding of the course of the island's history, particular within the British Empire at large. There are now too many studies which fail by being neither good chronicle nor good history. Nevertheless, they are of interest at least in so far as they provide a limited number of primary sources, dates, names and other facts, although limited to the subject matter of any given study.

Fortunately, the potentials of contextualised, comparative and critical approaches to St Helena history are evident in a paper by a Nigerian scholar, A.E. Ekoko (1983/84), and, above all, in Richard Grove's wide-ranging Green Imperialism (1995), which includes a lengthy analysis of the island's key role in the early history of global environmentalism.

Nevertheless, the unavailability of a comprehensive and well edited collection of primary sources poses a serious obstacle to any researcher attempting the kind of contextualised and critical approach to St Helena history which I have advocated. Any attempt to write innovatively about the island on the basis of existing histories is bound to be flawed, as exemplified even by Grove's reliance on Janisch. Ultimately, any historian aiming at an insightful interpretation and overview of St Helena history still has to turn to the frequently barely legible and crumbling originals, for without a substantial effort at documentary research, any attempt at historical analysis is in danger of falling foul of inaccuracies and myths. Such primary research, however, requires considerable skill, as is evident from a comparison of Percival Teale's flawed publication of a manuscript account of a 1625 battle at St Helena (1975) with C.R. Boxer's use of that same document (1984) in a paper on Portuguese trade.

Furthermore, one of the greatest perils facing St Helena's historians is their neglect or even ignorance of the general scholarly literature on the history of the discoveries and the European empires, the British Empire above all. This neglect, or even disdain for that literature is supremely evident in Skavaril's misguided attempt to dismiss the arguments against the addition of 'Castella' to João da Nova. According to Skavaril, "the vast and extensive body of literature on St Helena lists Joao da Nova Castella as the name of the discoverer of St Helena; that body of literature cannot be ignored or set aside." In particular, Skavaril highlights "one of the oldest items in that body of literature", namely John Barnes' A Tour Through the Island of St Helena (1817), which both Hearl (1998) and I (1997, 1998b) have previously identified as the first publication to feature the addition of 'Castella'. However, if even an experienced author like Gosse can be guilty of serious bibliographical and historiographical carelessness (Schulenburg 1998c), John Barnes' use of "the most accurate account" (1817:2), a phrase misquoted approvingly by Skavaril, can hardly be trusted.

Alas, John Barnes, 'Town Mayor', is not generally known as an authority on sixteenth century Portuguese history, nor is Thomas Brooke, a member of the island's Council, who amended (or, according to Skavaril, 'corrected') the 'John de Nova' of his History's first edition (1808:35) to 'John de Nova, or Juan de Nova Castella' in its second (1824:46). Is one really to believe that John Barnes, writing 300 years after João da Nova's death in 1509, was the first to render the latter's name correctly? Indeed, is one to believe that both modern and early scholars and chroniclers of Portuguese history have been mistaken all this time? From João de Barros' Decadas de Asia (1552), the first history of the discoveries, to Duarte Leite's monumental História dos Descobrimentos (1960), not a single Portuguese author has ever written of the exploits of a 'João da Nova Castella', nor is any such individual known to the Enciclopédia Portuguesa e Brasileira (1945). Contrary to Skavaril, I consequently argue that the "vast and extensive body of literature on St Helena", to which he refers, must indeed be set aside. Instead, it is the extensive Portuguese literature on this subject which just cannot be ignored.

Indeed, early English writers on St Helena were far more astute readers than today's. While Thomas Herbert's account of St Helena (1638) appears to be the first in English to mention "Iohn de Nova" by name (albeit without reference), John Campbell's extensive Political Survey of Britain, which also covered overseas settlements like St Helena, states that "it is generally asserted that this Island was discovered by Juan de Nueva, a Gentleman of Galicia, in the Service of Portugal", listing the "Decades [de Asia] of John de Barros" amongst his extensive references (1774:590,587).

In a sense, St Helena historiography became a victim of its own meagre success, for following the publication of a number of general monographs in the early 1800s, culminating in the second edition of Brooke's History in 1824, St Helena historiography became insular. Instead of looking further afield, writers came to rely on a newly created, but flawed, St Helena canon, to which Gosse's similarly unreliable St Helena (1938) has since been added.

Skavaril's argument does not gain credibility from his one attempt to take recourse to matters Portuguese, namely his claim that "Castella, (of the castle), [] could possibly be an appellation relating to the discoverer's title as 'Alcaide' (in charge of the Alcacer, fortress) and is roughly equivalent to mayor or governor." This supposed appellation or title appears to be without precedent, nor is it one which has ever been applied to João da Nova by Portuguese writers and historians. João da Nova himself evidently did not use this supposed title when naming after himself an island off the West Coast of Madagascar.

Ultimately, Skavaril's intransigence arises from his having a vested interest in defending the addition of 'Castella', for he is after all Treasurer of our very own St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society, sponsors of the 'Castella Award'. This problem of vested interests has plagued much recent work by the Bishop of St Helena's Commission on Citizenship, whose research focuses on a charter by Charles II, by which he granted St Helena to the East India Company in 1673. Rather than inquiring openly into the charter in question, the Commission has been trying to prove a political and legal point, the right of St Helenians to British citizenship (Turner and Hopkins 1996).

In the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, however, "it is essential for historians to defend the foundation of their discipline: the supremacy of evidence" (1998:358-9), especially when one deals with individuals and organisations whose "criterion of what is 'good history' is 'history that is good for us' - 'our country', 'our cause', or simply 'our emotional satisfaction'" (ibid:365). As Gerhard Schutte has noted in relation to debates on Afrikaner historiography, "tradition possesses authority and a standardization that allows for a narrow margin of interpretation and correction. It cannot be revised in any extensive way and should such revision be undertaken by academics, they are seen as blasphemous" (1989:220). In any case, "we can demolish a myth only insofar as it rests on propositions which can be shown to be mistaken. It is in the nature of historical myths, especially nationalist ones, that usually only a few of its propositions can be so discredited" (Hobsbawm 1998:362).

Fortunately, an absence of such propositions did not pose a problem in my recent debate of the well known and popular claim, in the words of Brooke, that "after the year 1666, the island received a considerable increase of inhabitants by the dreadful fire in London, which ruined so many families, and, like other public calamities, induced numbers to seek relief in distant climes" (1808:50). This 'Great Fire Myth', as I choose to call is, is of interest to philatelists not least because it received official approval in 1967, when the 300th anniversary of the settlers' arrival was celebrated with a commemorative issue of four stamps, bordered by the caption 'Tercentenary of the arrival of settlers after the Great Fire of London, St. Helena 1667-1967' (Hibbert 1979:107-8). Alas, there is no evidence whatsoever that any victims of the Great Fire had ever settled on St Helena. Moreover, during the years in question the East India Company experienced serious difficulties in engaging any settlers at all for its island of St Helena.

In dismissing the myth in question, I was able to show that it did indeed rest on false propositions. However, in doing so I did not negate the principal meaning of the myth, the English origins of St Helena's settlement, and it is in this respect, that I do not consider my own research on St Helena to be "revisionist", as Skavaril claims in respect of my argument contra 'Castella'. If I was engaged in revisionist history as such, I would be challenging previous interpretations of the available evidence, rather than the evidence itself. To challenge the evidence is no more than sound historical practice.

What is needed now is a critical engagement with the classics of St Helena historiography, even if it means abandoning one or other cherished 'fact' or narrative pertaining to the island's past.


Barnes, John (1817) A Tour Through the Island of St Helena (London: J.M. Richardson)

Barros, João de (1552) Asia de João de Barros, dos Feitos que os Portugueses Fizerão no Descobrimento e Conquista dos Mares e Terras do Oriente, Decada I (Lisbon)

Boxer, C.R. (1984) 'On a Portuguese Carrack's Bill of Lading in 1625', reprinted in C.R. Boxer, From Lisbon to Goa, 1500-1750: Studies in Portuguese Maritime Enterprise (London: Variorum Reprints)

Brooke, T.H. (1808) A History of the Island of St. Helena (London: Black, Parry and Kingsbury)

Brooke, T.H. (1824) History of the Island of St. Helena, From Its Discovery by the Portuguese to the Year 1823 (London: Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allan)

Campbell, Joseph (1774) A Political Survey of Briatin, Vol.II (London)

Cannan, Edward (1992) Churches of the South Atlantic Islands 1502-1991 (Oswestry: Anthony Nelson)

Denholm, Ken (1994a) South Atlantic Haven: A Maritime History for the Island of St Helena (St Helena)

Denholm, Ken (1994b) From Signal Gun to Satellite: A History of Communications on the Island of St Helena (St Helena)

Denholm, Ken (forthcoming) Island of St Helena: The Flax Industry 1874 - 1966 (St Helena)

Ekoko, A.E. (1983-4) 'The Theory and Practice of Imperial Garrisons: The British Experiment in the South Atlantic 1881-1914', Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol.XII, Nos.1&2

Elton, G.R. (1967) The Practice of History (Sidney: Sidney University Press)

Enciclopédia Portuguesa e Brasileira (1945) (Lisbon: Editorial Enciclopédia)

Evans, Dorothy (1994) Schooling in the South Atlantic Islands 1661-1992 (Oswestry: Anthony Nelson)

Field, Margaret (1998) The History of Plantation House - St Helena (Penzance: The Patten Press)

Finberg, H.P.R. (1996) 'How Not to Write Local History', in Carol Kammen (ed), The Pursuit of Local History: Readings in Theory and Practice (London: Altamira Press)

George, Barbara [writing as Barbara Montgomerie] (1994) The First 'St. Helena': The East India Company Schooner St. Helena, 1814-1830 (Bristol: Printsetters)

George, Barbara (1995) Jacob's Ladder: The Fascinating Story of St. Helena's Famous Landmark, Originally Built as a Railway (Bristol: Printsetters)

George, Barbara (forthcoming) The Chinese Connection: The History of Chinese Indentured Labourers on St. Helena, 1810-1836 and Beyond (Bristol: Printsetters)

Gosse, Philip (1938) St Helena, 1502-1938 (London: Cassell & Co.)

Grove, Richard (1995) Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hearl, Trevor (1996) 'Baptist Pioneers of St Helena: A Sesquicentennial Survey', The Baptist Quarterly: Journal of the Baptist Historical Society, Vol.XXXVI, No.5

Hearl, Trevor (1998) 'Everyone Knows Joao da Nova Castella Discovered St Helena or Did He?', South Atlantic Chronicle, Vol.XXII, No.1

Herbert, Thomas (1638) Some Yeares Travel Into Africa & Asia the Great (London)

Hibbert, Edward (1979) St. Helena Postal History and Stamps (London: Robson Lowe)

Hobsbawm, Eric (1998) On History (London: Abacus)

Jackson, E.L. (1903) St. Helena: The Historic Island From its Discovery to the Present Day (London: Ward Lock & Co.)

Janisch, Hudson Ralph (1885) Extracts from the St. Helena Records (St Helena)

Kitching, G.C. (1947a) Handbook and Gazetteer of the Island of St Helena (typescript)

Kitching, G.C. (1947b) 'The St. Helena Regiments of the East India Company', Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol.XXV

Kitching, G.G. (1950) 'The Loss and Recapture of St Helena, 1673', The Mariner's Mirror, Vol.36, No.1

Leite, Duarte (1960) História dos Descobrimentos (Lisbon)

Masson, Frédéric (1949) Napoleon at St. Helena 1815-1821, translated by Louis B. Frewer (Oxford: Pen-in-Hand)

Schulenburg, Alexander (1997) 'João da Nova and the Lost Carrack', Wirebird: The Journal of the Friends of St Helena (Autumn)

Schulenburg, Alexander (1998a) 'St Helena: British Local History in the Context of Empire', The Local Historian, Vol.28, No.2

Schulenburg, Alexander (1998b) 'Letter [More on João da Nova Castella]', South Atlantic Chronicle, Vol.XXII, No.3

Schulenburg, Alexander (1998c) 'Note. Philip Gosse and the Discovery of St Helena', Notes and Queries, Vol.45, No.4

Schulenburg, Alexander (1999) 'Myths of Settlement: St Helena and the Great Fire of London (Parts I & II)', St Helena News, 12.2.1999 and 19.2.1999

Schutte, Gerhard (1989) 'Afrikaner Historiography and the Decline of Apartheid: Ethnic Self-Reconstruction in Times of Crisis', in Elizabeth Tonkin, Maryon McDonald and Malcolm Chapman (eds), History and Ethnicity (London: Routledge)

Skavaril, Russell V. (1999) 'Amid Controversy, the Question is: Castella or Not?, South Atlantic Chronicle, Vo.XXIII, No.2

Teale, Percival (1975) Island of St Helena, 1625: The Battle for Chapel Valley (typescript)

Turner, Nicholas and Cathy Hopkins (1996) St. Helena: The Lost County of England, A Report by The Bishop of St. Helena's Commission on Citizenship (St Helena)

Williams, J. Edgar (1998) 'Letter [João da Nova Castella]', South Atlantic Chronicle, Vol.XXII, No.2

© Alexander Hugo Schulenburg 1999