Many people are asked what they would do if they landed on a tropical island. Though this is exactly the question that the East India Company found themselves asking when they began to develop the remote Atlantic island of St Helena. On it they would experiment with botany, agricultural techniques and the problems associated with establishing a fully functioning plantation economy.

Discovery of St. Helena is generally attributed to the Galician explorer João da Nova in 1502.[1] He would have found an island full of plants, trees, and birds, but no indigenous population or human interference. After its discovery, the island was used extensively as a refreshment stop for ailing crew members by the Portuguese, Dutch and English throughout its history. It is conveniently located along trade winds that took ships past the island when travelling from the East and round the cape to Europe. The ability of the island to provide fresh water and produce was noted by travellers. The Dutch admiral Wittert, in 1608 found enough oranges, pomegranates and lemons to supply 5 or 6 ships. He also saw plenty of parsley, black mustard, sorrel and camomile, that they believed was good to cure scurvy.[2] Its healing properties had been used by the Portuguese, who left sick crew members to recover. They had introduced goats to the island, so ships may have a source of meat upon their stay. Those that were left build a few houses and a small church, but it was no permanent settlement.

While the Dutch supposedly held possession of the island between 1645 and 1650, many contemporary travellers accounts reported the island deserted.[3] The East India Company (EIC) colonised St. Helena from 1659 after a charter granted by Cromwell. It was a frequent port of call for Company ships returning from the east. The push for development was based on the wider political aspirations from the Company. Phillip Stern (2007) has brought attention to the sovereign ambitions of the Company, and argued that development of St. Helena is indicative of their global ambitions to become sovereign. This can be seen in the possession and rule over a dominion early in the Company’s history, west of the Cape where their charter did not permit them to settle.[4]  The colony was to form part of a world system of trading stations in association with Run, Bombay, and Bencoulen.


Dominion was established initially by building fortifications and settling a population. In the 1660’s ships carrying trees, roots, poultry, cattle and sheep were sent over with a number of planters.[5] The Company had difficulties however encouraging settlement, and the problem of population was frequently reported to the EIC’s Court of Committees. A French traveller reported the population in 1666 to be fifty men, twenty women and six slaves.[6] The colony failed defensively in 1673 after it was briefly occupied the Dutch. It is after 1673 that the colony was developed on a large scale and EIC aspirations are visible. Its population rose to more desirable levels after certain initiatives. This included the guarantee of twenty acres and two cows for families, and groups of single women who were shipped over on the promise of a new life.[7]

The directors seem to have envisioned a fully functioning plantation economy similar to that of Barbados or other Atlantic colonies. Slave labour was considered essential to the success of early factories of the East India Company. A series of letters sent from the  to show a multiplicity of plans and suggested crops for the island. By 1683 this include cloves, cedar, ‘Cyprus’ trees for ship repair, wheat, nutmegs, olives and pistachios. In 1684 slaves were sent, five or six on each ship, along with cotton seeds and orders to grow sugar. Instructions were also given on producing salt to stimulate the fishing industry. This combination of sugar and salt was expected to enable the EIC ‘to be paid in time for our vast disbursement unto that island, especially if you can teach our planters how to raise ginger, Indico, cotton and alloes.’[8]

The forced movement of labour was intrinsically linked to the transfer skills and knowledge, as well as for cheap labour. Kapil Raj (2007) has brought attention to the collaborative approach used in mapping in India, utilising the skills and talents of indigenous peoples.[9] Winterbottom (2016) has used this collaborative approach of knowledge generation and circulation when understanding the link between transportation and transplantation. She considered forced labour central to the ‘circulation’ involved in making knowledge in the early modern period.[10] Their training of slaves in agriculture and crafts, and use of their linguistic and medical skills is notable. When slaves were sent with particular crops, there is an understanding that the labour was somehow connected to the plants they cultivated.

6103025520_ebdf9c41e0_bA number of agricultural and ecological tests were carried out on St. Helena. The Company used a wide range of experts and the Royal Society both to enact authority and practice agricultural innovations on colonies. Winterbottom (2016) has looked at how Robert Knox’s Historical relation of Ceylon (1681) was used to help the Company transplant species and agricultural techniques from east and west.[11] Within the book, Knox describes a kind of rice that ripens without standing in water. The picture is his illustration of rice cultivation on Ceylon, which is now known as Sri Lanka. Knox’s account encouraged the directors to attempt rice cultivation on St. Helena’s high plains. In 1684 the directors instructed agents in Surat to acquire a few bags, and specifically stated it was for seed at St. Helena.[12] Around the same time, orders were given to the colony to attempt to attempt a range of other produce including saltpetre, iron, coconut oil, limes, pepper and betel.[13] Experts were occasionally entrusted by the company to introduce agriculture in the way they saw fit. Knox was instructed to acquire any plants, roots, seeds or fruit from his to visit to Madagascar that he saw fit for growth on St. Helena and deliver them ‘to be propagated for the benefit of our island’[14] He also carried with him a rule book from Barbados, to be consulted by the governors for advice in managing the Company slaves.[15] Henry Cox was another expert, as a previous overseer of sugar production on Barbados, he was sent to St. Helena in 1684 to stimulate sugar cultivation on the island.[16] The directors were evidently aware of the potential profitability illustrated by other Atlantic island colonies in this period.

To focus entirely on these travelling experts however, makes it possible to over state their impact. In a letter sent to London in 1709 regarding failed production of sugar and Henry Cox, they claim ‘We can’t find that ever he made an experiment and by his discharge he was an idle, drunken fellow.’[17] It is fitting to understand agriculture as a collaborative endeavour between slaves, the colony, and the Company rather than one perpetrated by experts.

The change in tone regarding pressures on the environment in the early eighteenth century is also notable. Some traces of environmental management can be found in consultation books and letters to London, and derives from a local power structure rather than the Company itself. The picture below is an extract from the records of consultation on St. Helena. It is from 1678, and orders the preservation of lemon trees and their fruit.[18]

from Jamestown, St. Helena Consultation Records 1678-1683, in Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/3/1

The Company directors in London were informed in 1708, of a possible plan to stopping people taking from the ‘great wood’ by fencing it in and encouraging people to plant their own supplies.[19] This was futile however, as in 1723 they reported; ‘Wood at this time very scarce on the Island and the Inhabitants enjoined to plant.’[20] Environmental historians such as Grove (1995), have attempted to draw attention to the systems of management in islands such as St. Helena and how these initiatives helped to develop conservation practices across empires.[21]

The array of suggestions made in the 1680’s suggests a level of hope, perhaps desperation, but certainly that the Company did not know how best to use the colony. With this is mind, it is clear that the EIC attempted to experiment with different methods of production and enacted them in a variety of different ways involving a combination of experts, planters, local power structures and slaves. The Colony failed to realise the hopes of the Company in almost every way, and a change in tone is quite visible at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The early governors faced many difficulties with crime, justice and social control. This was from the planters and slaves alike. For more information, read this post.


[1] Gosse, Phillip, St. Helena 1502-1938, (London: Cassell and Co. Ltd., 1938) p.3

[2] Wittert, Baron von F., Journal de l’amiralWittert 1607-1610, (Liége: J.Gothier, 1875) pp.22-25: 16th may 1608

[3] includes Tavernier (1649), Sier de Flacourt (1655), and Peter Mundy (1656) who also described searching in vain for letters to indicate previous settlement. From Foster, Sir William, ‘The Acquisition of St. Helena,’ English Historical Review, 34, (1919)p.281

[4]Royle, Stephen, The Company’s Island; St. Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavour, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007) p.52

[5] ibid p.24

[6] ibid pp.44-55

[7] Brooke, T.H., History of the Island of St. Helena, from its discovery by the Portuguese to the year 1823, (London: Kingsbury, Parbury and Allen, 1824) p.63

[8] Royle, Stephen, The Company’s Island; St. Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavour, p.27

[9] Raj, Kapil, Relocating Modern Science; Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[10] Winterbottom, Anna, Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) pp.163-195

[11] ibid

[12] Letter from London to Surat dated 7th April 1684 in Winterbottom, Anna, Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World p.157

[13] r Royle, Stephen, The Company’s Island; St. Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavour,  p.27

[14] Winterbottom, Anna, Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World p.156

[15] Royle, Stephen, The Company’s Island; St. Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavour, pp.84-103

[16] ibid p.27

[17] Letter from St. Helena to London July 26th ,1709 in Janisch, Hudson Ralph, Extracts from the St. Helena Records, (St. Helena: Benjamin Grant, 1885) p.101

[18] It was based upon an escalation policy of fines. 24th February 1678 Jamestown, St. Helena Consultation Records 1678-1683, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/3/1

[19] The cost was estimated to be around 1000 pounds, and was not carried out. Letter from St. Helena to London Nov 1708, in Janisch, Hudson Ralph, Extracts from the St. Helena Records, p.96

[20] Letter from St. Helena to London, March 5th, 1723, in Janisch, Hudson Ralph, Extracts from the St. Helena Records, p.175

[21] Grove, Richard H., Green Imperialism; Colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860, (Cambridge: Cam. University Press, 1995)

Jennings, Benjamin R. J., ‘Building a colony; environmental experimentation on the tropical island of St. Helena 1659-1709’, stuff that happened, 18th Dec 2016. url: <;