The British colonial territory of Saint Helena consists of three small volcanic islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean—Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, and Ascension. Saint Helena, the largest of the three, lies 1,150 miles west of ANGOLA. Tristan da Cunha is about 2,500 miles to the southwest, and Ascension is 700 miles northwest of Saint Helena. Jamestown, a small port town on Saint Helena, is the colony’s capital.
Rocky cliffs dominate the coast of Saint Helena. The fertile volcanic crater in the island’s center is dotted with small farms growing mostly potatoes and vegetables. The islanders also fish and raise LIVESTOCK. Until the mid-1800s the economy was based on hemp, wool, flax, and crafts sold to passing ships. But after the SUEZ CANAL opened in 1869, shipping routes changed and the island has grown steadily poorer. Aid from Britain and money from relatives overseas now supply most of Saint Helena’s income.
The two smaller islands have few inhabitants. Tristan da Cunha contains one settlement, and a colonial official and the crews of American and British weather and satellite stations are the only residents of Ascension. Like Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha relies on money from abroad to supplement its farming income.
All three islands were uninhabited before their discovery by Portuguese navigators between 1501 and 1506. The Portuguese controlled the islands for about 150 years until the Dutch took over briefly. In 1659 the British East India Company gained possession of Saint Helena, using the island as a place to restock ships sailing to and from the Far East.
Saint Helena is most famous as the island to which Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Since that time the British Crown has assumed responsibility for the island and a British governor has ruled the colony. Over the years attempts to grant the territory independence have met with resistance. The people prefer the islands to remain a colonial possession, and the economy is too weak to support an independent nation. (See also Colonialism in Africa.)