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The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768–1771 [Volume Two]

Some account of St Helena

Some account of St Helena

This small Island, which is no more than twelve miles long and seven broad, is situated in a manner in the Middle of the Vast Atlantick Ocean being 400 Lgs. distant from the Coast of Africa and above 600 from that of America. It appears to be or rather is the summit of some immence mountain which towering far above the level of the Earth (in this part of the Globe very much depressd) elevates itself even considerably above the surface of the Sea, which covers its highest neigbours with a body of water even to this time unfathomable to the researches of Mankind.3

3 The researches of mankind have been active since Banks's time. St Helena lies towards the western edge of what oceanographers call the West African depression, in which the depths vary from between 16,000 and 17,000 feet to between 19,000 and 20,000.

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The higher parts of all Countreys have been observd almost without exception to be the seats of Volcanoes while the lower parts are much seldomer found to be so. Etna and Vesuvius have no land higher than themselves in their neigbourhood; Heckla is the highest hill in Iceland; in the highest part of the Andes in South America volcanoes are frequent; and the Pike of Teneriffe still is on fire.1 These still Continue to burn, but numberless others have been found to shew evident marks of Fires now extinct and which have been so from the times of Our Earliest traditions.

That this has been the Case with St Helena and that the great inequalities of the ground there have been originaly causd by the sinking of the ground, easily appears to an observing eye who compares the opposite ridges, which tho seperated always by deep and sometimes by tolerably broad Valleys, have such a perfect similarity in appearance as well as direction as scarce leaves room for a doubt that they formerly made a part of a much less uneven surface; and that this sinking in of the Earth has been occasiond by subterraneous fires the stones Abundantly testifie, as they universaly shew marks of having been some time or other exposd to the effects of a great degree of heat.2 Some are Evidently burnt almost to a cinder, especialy those which are found near the bottoms of Valleys, as may be seen in going up Side Path and probably Ladder Hill also; others shew small bubbles as is seen in glass which has been urgd almost to fusion; again others which perhaps from their situation on the tops of Ridges have been exposd to a far less degree of heat or from their own apyrous qualities shew scarce any signs of having been in fire: yet in many of these if carefully examind are found small peices of extraneous bodies such as Mundics3 &c which have submitted to the fire, tho it was not able to make any alteration in the appearance of the stone which containd them.

1 A few years later the Forsters, who enjoyed contradicting Hawkesworth, fell on his rendering of this passage. See, e.g., George Forster, in his Voyage, II, p. 562, n. ‘These [i.e. the Forster] observations do not agree with those in Dr. Hawkesworth's Compilation, vol. III. p. 795. That volcanos are always seated in the highest mountains of the country where they are found, is an opinion contradicted by many facts; and the correspondence of angles in opposite mountains, is not more evident to critical observers, than landscapes on Florentine marbles. Dr. Hawkesworth has generally been unfortunate in his remarks on Nature, as well as in his philosophical digressions, and often misunderstood M. Pauw and de Buffon, from whom he has freely copied without making the least acknowledgment….’ Poor Hawkesworth had been dead four years when this onslaught was made, and so could not lament the fidelity with which he had followed the ‘remarks on Nature’, and the free copies from ‘M. Pauw and de Buffon’, which he had found in Mr Banks.

2 Banks was perfectly correct on the obviously volcanic nature of St Helena—Diana's Peak is the northern rim of a great crater; but the gorges are water-cut.

3 The Cornish miners’ name for pyrites.

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Thus much for these Suggestions, fit only for those who can beleive a Babilonian Chronology.1 I Pass now to the present state of the Island, a subject which would afford much entertainment to a contemplative mind and more food to an inquisitive one than the shortness of my stay gave me opportunity to collect.

Making it as we did and indeed most ships do on the windward side it is a rude heap of Rocks bounded by precipecis of an amazing height, composd of a kind of half friable rocks which however shew not the Least sign of vegetation, nor does a nearer view apear more promising. In sailing along the shore ships come uncommonly near it so that the huge Glifts seem almost to overhang and threaten destruction by the apparent probability of their giving way: in this manner they Sail till they open Chappel Valley where stands the small town. Even that valley resembles a large trench, in the bottom of which a few plants are to be seen, but its sides are as bare as the cliff next the Sea. Such is the apparent barrenness of the Island in its present cultivated state, nor do you see any signs of fertility till you have penetrated beyond the first hills; then the Vallies begin to be green and tho every where inconceivably steep produce a great deal of good herbage. Among these are the planters houses, near each of which is a small plantation of Gocos, the only vegetable they seem to labour much in the Cultivation of.

The Town stands just by the sea side, very small and except a few houses ill built. The Church which originaly has been a very-poor building is now almost in ruins, and the Market house is advancing by quick steps to the same situation.

The White inhabitants are almost to a man English, who as they are not allowd to have any trade or commerce of their own live intirely by supplying such ships as touch at the Place with refreshments, of which however to their Shame be it spoken they appear to have by no means a supply equal to the extent as well as fertility of their soil, as well as the fortunate situation of their Island seem to promise. Situate in a degree between temperate and warm their Soil might produce most if not all the vegetables of Europe together with the fruits of the Indies, Yet both are almost totaly neglected. Cabbages indeed and garden stuff in general is very good, but so far from being in plenty so as to supply the ships who touch here a scanty allowance only of them are to be got, cheifly by favour from the greater people who totaly monopolize every article producd

1 ‘Babylonian’, I take it, in the sense of huge or vast; aeons of time are needed for such changes.

page 266 by the Island, excepting only beef and mutton which the Company keep in their own hands; and tho there is a market house in the town yet nothing is sold publickly, nor could either of the three Kings ships that were there get greens for their Tables except only Captn Elliot the Commanding Officer who was furnishd by order of the Governor out of his own garden.

Here are Plantains, Peaches, Lemons, Apples, Guavas and I beleive scarce any other fruits, tho probably very few kinds exist in either Indies which might not be cultivated here and brought to at least a great degree of perfection. But while their Pastures lay as they realy do as much neglected as their Gardens there can be little hopes of Amendment; in short the Custom of the Indias Captains, who always make very hansome presents to the families where they are entertaind besides paying any extravagant prizes for the few refreshments they get, seem to have inspird the People with a degree of Lazyness: were refreshments cheap they would probably upon the whole receive not much more money for them by the year and the present would be the same, so at least they seem to think. In short the Cape of Good Hope, which tho by nature a mere desart supplys abundantly refreshments of all kinds to ships of all nations who touch there, contrasted with this Island, which tho highly favourd by nature, shews not unaptly the Genius's of the two nations in making Colonies: nor do I think I go too far in asserting that was die Cape now in the Hands of the English it would be a desart, as St Helena in the hands of the Dutch would as infallibly become a paradise.

Small as this Island is and not raisd very much above the surface of the Sea it enjoys a varity of Climates hardly to be beléivd. The Cabbage trees, as they are calld, which grow on the highest ridges can by no art be cultivated on the lower ones where the red wood1 and Gum wood2 grow, both which in their turns refuse the high ridges,3 and neither of the three are to be found in the Vallies, which indeed are in general coverd with European plants or the more common ones of the Indies — in all probability originaly brought here by ships, and the more so as much the largest proportion of them are natives of England, among which I may recon the Meadow grass Anthoxanthum odoratum4 which is the cheif covering

1 Melhania erythroxylon Ait.

2 Commidendron robustum DC., once the most abundant plant on the island.

3 George Forster again contradicted Hawkesworth, over both the statement about variety of climates and that on the places where different trees grew.—Voyage, II, p. 563, n.

4 Hemsley says this grass is common on the island; Banks and Solander evidently did not preserve a coll. of it from St Helena.

page 267 of their pastures and to which I am much inclind to atribute the verdure of the Island, which far exceeds any thing I have before seen in equaly low latitudes. The Furze also, Ulex Europeus, the seeds of which were brought over in the beginning of this Century, Thrives wonderfully and is highly praisd by the Islanders as a great improvement, tho they make no use of it except heating their ovens.

Barley has been sown upon this Island about 40 years ago. It producd sufficient to supply itself without any being sent from home; its cultivation was however suddenly drop'd, for what reason I could not find out, and since that time has never been atempted. Yams, the same as are calld Cocos in the West Indies, is what they cheifly depend upon to supply their numerous slaves with provision: these however are not cultivated in half the perfect[i] on that I have seen in the South Sea Islands, nor have they like the Indians several sorts many of which are very palatable, but are confind to only one and that one of the Worst.

All kinds of Labour is here performd by Man, indeed he is the only animal that works except a few Saddle Horses nor has he the least assistance of art to enable him to perform his task. Supposing the Roads to be too steep and narrow for Carts, an objection which lies against only one part of the Island, yet the simple contrivance of Wheelbarrows would Doub[t]less be far preferable to carrying burthens upon the head, and yet even that expedient was never tried. Their slaves indeed are very numerous: they have them from most parts of the World, but they appeard to me a miserable race worn out almost with the severity of the punishments of which they frequently complaind. I am sorry to say that it appeard to me that far more frequent and more wanton Cruelty were excercisd by my countrey men over these unfortunate people than even their neighbours the Dutch, fam'd for inhumanity, are guilty of. One rule however they strictly observe which is never to Punish when ships are there.1

1 Banks does not seem ever to have been held to account for his criticisms of St Helena; but they got Cook into trouble. Hawkesworth, writing in the first person in Cook's name, incorporated them in his final pages, and in due course the damning print reached the island. When Cook in his turn reached it again, on the home stretch of his second voyage in May 1775, he was treated to a very good view of wheeled vehicles. He writes, ‘The next day [18 May] the two Mr Forsters and my self dined with a party at the Country house of one Mr Masons, at a remote part of the island which gave me an oppertunity to see the greatest part of it, and I am well convinced that the island in many particulars has been misrepresented. It is no wonder that the account which is given of it in the narrative of my former Voyage should have given offence to all the principle Inhabitents. It was not less mortifying to me when I first read it, which was not till I arrived now at the Cape of Good Hope… . In the narrative, my Country men at St Helena are charged with exercizing a wanton cruelty over their Slaves, they are also charged with want of ingenuity in not having Wheel Carriages, Wheel Barrow's and Porters Knotts to facilitate the task of the labourer… . How these things came to be thus missrepresented, I can not say, as they came not from me, but if they had I should have been equally open to conviction and ready to have contridicted any thing, that upon proof, like this, appeared to be ill-founded, and I am not a little obliged to some people in the isle for the obligeing manner they pointed out these Mistakes’. He also conscientiously points out that ‘Within these three years a new Church has been built, a neat edifice and sufficiently large’. Cook's own criticism, made on this second visit, was that more crops might well be planted, ‘articles that are always wanting to Shipping, and where they would meet with a good market and reward the Planter for his industry’.—II, pp. 661–3. Cf. George Forster: ‘There are many wheel-barrows and several carts on the island, some of which seemed to be studiously placed before captain Cook's lodgings every day’.—Voyage, II, p. 560, n. Also, ‘Mrs. Skottowe, the sprightliest lady on the island, displayed to advantage her witty and satirical talents, from which there was no other escape left, than to lay the blame on the absent philosophers whose papers had been consulted’.—ibid., pp. 560–1.

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Nature has blessd this Island with very few Productions either usefull for the support or conducive to the Luxury of Mankind. Partriges and Doves1 are the only animals except possibly rats and mice, much more probably brought here by ships. Among vegetables Purslain, Celery, Water Cresses, wild mint and Tobacco, tho now common among the rocks, I doubt much whether they were so before people came here as none except the last are found in paralel latitudes; the first indeed is found on Ascention and many Parts equ[a]ly unlikely to have originaly producd it, but that [is] accounted for by the ancient custom of the Portugese, who finding this herb particularly beneficial in complaints contracted in long voyages made a point of sewing it wherever they went ashore, a custom from whence all nations have since reapd no small benefit. Amongst its native products however Ebony2 must be recond, tho the trees that produce it are now nearly extinct3 and no one remembers the time when they were at all plentifull, yet peices of the wood are frequently found in the vallies of a fine black Colour and a hardness almost equal to Iron; these however are almost always so short and so crooked that no use has yet been made of

1 Partridges: according to J. C. Melliss (Ibis, 1870, p. 170) the Indian Chukar, Alectoris gracca chukar (J. E. Gray) had been introduced into St Helena and had become abundant as early as 1588, when Cavendish mentioned it in his Travels. Sclater (Syst. Av. Aethiop. 1924) also records it as an introduced species. The doves may have been the European Rock Dove, Columba livia Gm., also recorded in St Helena by Melliss as both a wild and domestic species, probably introduced.

2 Melhania melanoxylon Ait.

3 Melliss saw the last living Ebony trees in 1850, and in 1875 ornaments made of its wood were fetching good prices. He remarks, ‘That this tree once formed a considerable portion of the vegetation clothing the Island in those parts that are now quite barren, is strongly evidenced by the many references to it in the local records’. St. Helena (London 1875), p. 245. Ebonywood was used to burn lime with. Its bark and that of the related redwood were both used in tanning leather. Melliss quotes an Ms record of 1709 that their destruction was hastened ‘by the Tanners, that for lasieness never took the paines to barke the whole trees but only the bodys, leaving the best of the bark on the branches, by which means has [sic] destroyed all those trees, at least three for one …’ .—ibid., pp. 226–7 n.

page 269 them. Whether the tree is the same as that which produces Ebony on the Isle of Bourbon and its adjacent Islands is impossible to know as the French have not yet publishd any account of it.1 Other species of trees and plants which seem to have been originaly natives of the Island are few in number.2 Insects there are also a few, and one species of Snails who inhabit only the tops of the Highest ridges and probably have been there ever since their original creation.3

Had our stay upon the Island been Longer we should in all probability have discoverd some more natural productions but in all likelyhood not many. Secluded as this rock is from the rest of the World by seas of immence extent it is dificult to imagine how any thing not originaly created in that spot could by any accident arrive at it; for my part I confess I feel more wonder in the finding a little Snail on the top of the Ridges of St Helena than in finding people upon America or any other part of the Globe.

As the benefits of the Land are so limited the Sea must often be applied to by the natives of this little rock, nor is she unmindfull of their necessities which she constantly supplies with immence plenty and no less variety of Fish. She indeed would be culpable did she do otherwise: she never met with a calamity equal to that of the earth in the General Deluge, and her sons have moreover the advantage of a free intercourse with all parts of the globe Habitable to them without being driven to the Necessity of tempting the dangers of an element unsuited to their natures — a fatal necessity under which too many even of us Lords of the Creation Yearly perish, and of all others through the wide bounds of Creation how vast a proportion must. The seed of a thistle supported by its down, the Insect by its weak and the Bird by its more able wing, may tempt the dangers of the sea, but of these how many milions

1 Milbert (Voyage pittoresque à l'Ile de France (1812), II, p. 127), describes the Mauritius ebony under Diospyros ebeneum, distinguishing four principal ‘species’ under that name. J. E. Smith discusses the problem of identities on different islands under ‘ebony’ in Rees’ Cyclopedia.

2 J. D. Hooker recognized ‘about’ 50 indigenous spp., of which 40 were endemic ‘with scarcely an exception [lacking] very close specific allies of any other plants at all’. Seventeen genera were endemic. Once one of the most singular insular floras of the world, it is now, through its destruction by vandals, fuel-gatherers and goats, a mere vestige.

3 It does not seem possible to identify this snail. Melliss (St. Helena, p. 121) remarks on ‘The great extinct Land Snail of St. Helena’, Chilonopsis aurisvulpina (Chemnitz), as a ‘true native’, found only in a semi-fossil condition at an altitude of 1611 feet. But in Banks's next paragraph he talks of ‘a little Snail’. No specimens from St Helena are in the Banksian shell collection discussed by Wilkins, and we do not know whether Banks found a living or a fossil snail. E. A. Smith (Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond., 1892: 258–70) lists 27 species of endemic snails, 18 of which have become extinct since the destruction of the forests.

page 270 must perish for one who arrives at the Distance of twelve hundred miles from the place of his rest; it appears indeed far more dificult to account for the passage of one individual than to bel[e]ive the destruction of all that ever may have been by their ill fate hurried into such an attempt.

Money of all nations passes here according to its real intrinsick European value, therefore there is no kind of trouble on that head as in all the Dutch Settlements.

4. Saild after dinner in company with 12 Indiamen and his Majesties ship Portland, resolvd to steer homewards with all expedition in Order (if possible) to bring home the first news of our voyage, as we found that many Particulars of it has transpird and particularly that a copy of the Latitudes and Longitudes of most or all the principal places we had been at had been taken by the Captns Clerk from the Captns own Journals and Given or Sold to one of the India Captns. War we had no longer the least suspicion of: the India men being orderd to sail immediately without waiting for the few who were not yet arrivd was a sufficient proof that our freinds at home were not at all apprehensive of it.

6. Pleasant breeze but our ship very far astern; she certainly sails worse than any one of the fleet yet as she keeps up with [them] at least in sight hope they will not get home much before us.

7. Still kept company and today were abreast of the headmost ship. Many flying fish were seen and some few Birds.

10. This day we saw the Island of Ascencion which is tolerably high Land; Our Captn however did not chuse to anchor unwilling to give the fleet so much start of him. Those who have been ashore upon this Island say that it is little more than a heap of Cinders, the remains of a Volcano which burnt even since the discovery of the Indies. Osbeck1 who was ashore upon it found only 5 species of plants but I am much inclind to beleive that there are others which escapd his notice, as he certainly was not on the side of the Island where the French land, in which place I have been informd

1 Pehr or Peter Osbeck (1723-1805), a Swedish naturalist and theologian, was a pupil of Linnaeus, on whose recommendation he was appointed chaplain of a vessel of the Swedish East India Company, in which he visited China and Ascension on a voyage from 1750–52. He makes the remarks Banks refers to in his Dagbok öfwer en ostindinsk Resa med anmärkn. uti Naturkun digheten … (Stockholm 1757), p. 298. Solander must have had a copy of this on board. Osbeck followed the rules laid down by Linnaeus for reporting on every aspect of a foreign people, but natural history was his strong point. His book appeared in 1765 in a German translation; from this J. R. Forster made an English version with additions by Osbeck, which appeared in two volumes in 1772. Linnaeus did him the honour of calling a genus Osbeckia.

page 271 is a pretty wide plain coverd with herbage among which grows Cactus Opuntia, a plant not seen by that gentleman.1

11. Pleasant weather. Saw Holothuria Physalis which our seamen call Portugese man of war for the first time since we left these seas in going out.

12. Rainy misty weather, the air very damp and unwholesome, the breeze however continues. was seen.

16. Caugh[t] a small Shark.

17. Struck one bonito weighing near 20 pounds.

18. Our trade wind gone to day, the winds variable and very light.

19. Squally with frequent calms, such weather as ships never fail to meet with in passing from one trade wind to the other: to make the most however of this disagreable weather we went on Board the Portland and spent the day with Captn Elliot.3

23. Calms still continued. Dind on board the Portland with Captn Elliot; while on board her saw a common house martin flying about the Ship.

26. Heavy rain and frequent squalls from the Ne gave us great reason to expect the trade very quickly. During the day we were very much ahead of the Fleet, at night however they came up with us fast.

27. In the night the wind settled at Ne and in the morn to our great [surprize]4 we had no sight of the Fleet even from our mast heads so were obligd to jogg on by ourselves.5 A bird something

1 15. Our trade begins now to slacken very much. A man of war bird2 Sereno Watson reported 16 vascular spp. collected on the U.S. Eclipse Expedition of 1889.

2 Possibly the Ascension Frigate Bird, Fregata aquila (Linn.).

3 Banks's dates have now again become quite unreliable, and he ignores one or two events which we should have thought him naturally susceptible to, such as the fate of Hicks. Cook records no visit to the Portland on this day, but says (p. 470), ‘Hoisted a boat out and sent on board the Houghton for the Surgeon Mr Carret in order to look at Mr Hicks who is so far gone in a Consumption that his Life is despaired of’. The visit to the Portland, according to Cook, was in a calm on the 21st, to inspect a ‘Machine’ which excited his curiosity. It is possible of course that Banks experienced Captain Elliot's hospitality more than once—see his next entry for the 23rd; but on the 23rd the two ships do not seem to have been in touch.

4 Word omitted in Ms, and supplied from S and P.

5 Cook's entry corresponding to this is for the 24th. His entry for the 26th, ‘about one oClock in the pm’, records the death of Hicks; and for the 27th, the promotion of Clerke, who had become very friendly with Banks.

page 272 like a gannet but darker1 was seen about the ship which settled upon the water and remaind there till out of sight.

29.2 Fresh trade which quickly releivd every body from the depression of spirits &c. which is the constant companions of the Damp Calms we have now passd through.

30. Trade very fresh indeed with a heavy sea, so that the Ship pitchd and tumbled very disagreably to us whoom a continuance of fine weather has made almost unfit for a Gale.

1 An immature Sula sp.

2 Banks is now back again to the correct dates.