What is St. Helena?

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St. Helena is a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean known for exiling Napoleon Bonaparte and Boer settlers. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and later claimed by the British in 1658. Its economy relied on New Zealand flax and agriculture. St. Helena is also associated with Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, both of which are dependencies of the UK.

Saint Helena is an isolated island in the South Atlantic Ocean with a surface area of ​​420 square kilometers (160 sq mi). St. Helena is known as the place of exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, famous military leader and Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, Dinuzulu kaCaetshwayo, King of Zululand from 1884 to 1913, and over 5,000 Boers, European settlers from South Africa who they revolted in the late 1890s when the British Crown attempted to annex their land. Historically, St. Helena has been an important geopolitical strategic point, as ships traveling from the East passed through the area on their way to the United States or Europe. About 4,200 people live on the island today. St. Helena is more than 2000km (1200 miles) from the nearest landmass, Africa.

St Helena was first discovered, uninhabited, by the Portuguese in 1502. They found it had plenty of fresh water and trees, and they imported goats, fruit trees and vegetables for farming. Rather than permanently inhabiting it, the island was used as a stopover and meeting place for those traveling east from the Middle East or East Asia. The trade winds pass right through the islands, making it an ideal location for sailing vessels. For over a century, the Portuguese have been able to keep the location of the island a secret, using it themselves.

In the late 1590s, the English discovered the island’s location and began attacking Portuguese trading ships in the area. The Portuguese gave up their claim to the island when English and Dutch sailors began killing all their livestock and desecrating their chapels. In 1658, the British, especially the East India Company, claimed the island, making it the second British colony after Bermuda. From then until 1981, the island was a colony of the United Kingdom, administered through a governor and used as a commercial and military base. After 1981, St Helena officially became a dependent territory of the United Kingdom and residents of the island lost their right to British citizenship.

For most of its history, St. Helena’s economy relied on a single crop: New Zealand flax, used for rope and twine. Otherwise, the island was supported by its own agricultural plots and external inputs. Like many islands, most of the island is rugged and volcanic, with only a minority offering flat land suitable for agriculture. When Europeans first arrived on the island, it was covered in tropical forest, but now most of the plants on the island are introduced species. St Helena has a high percentage of plant species found nowhere else and today many of these are endangered.

Two other island systems are associated with Saint Helena, Ascension Island to the north and Tristan da Cunha to the south. These other islands are dependencies of St Helena which is itself a dependency of the United Kingdom. Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated inhabited island in the world.

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