“A hot dinner and a bloody supper”: St. Helena’s Christmas Rebellions of 1783 and 1811

By Felix Schürmann

Did news of revolutions in the Atlantic world spark revolts on a South Atlantic island in 1783 and 1811, or did a combination of alcohol and Christmas festivities drive soldiers to rebellion? During the Age of Revolutions, the exchange of news and rumors between seamen and members of the lower classes ashore constituted a key factor in spreading rebellion throughout the Atlantic world and beyond. Research on such communication at port facilities, in taverns, or in brothels has largely focused on Central and North Atlantic regions,[1] while the South Atlantic receives far less attention. To explore how far these maritime flows of information reached and what impacts they had at the southern periphery of the Atlantic, it is worth focusing attention on one of the world’s most remote islands — St. Helena.

About 120 square kilometers in size, St. Helena is located almost 2,000 kilometers from southern Africa and more than 3,000 from South America. The nearest island, Ascension, is more than 1,000 kilometers away. Precisely because of its remoteness, St. Helena played a significant role in the history of imperial and global interconnections. Since its occupation by the English East India Company in 1659, the previously uninhabited island served as a strategic foothold for the British maritime empire, as a shipping hub for merchant, naval, and whaling vessels, and as a scene of ecological devastation that brought Britons to consider the environmental impacts of their imperial policies.[2]

From the beginning of its rule, the company deported East Africans as slaves to St. Helena in order to supply a small community of British settlers with cheap labor. As in other colonies whose enslaved population lived scattered in small groups, the island never saw a large slave revolt. The more serious threat to the rule of the company emanated from discontented soldiers, whose numbers swelled from 105 men in 1706 to 1,250 in 1811, seeking refuge from the monotony of barrack-life in the bottom of tumblers and bottles — in alcohol.[3] To contextualize these figures, the civilian population of St. Helena increased from 731 (320 settlers and 411 slaves) in 1719 to 2,550 (700 settlers, 1,400 slaves, and 450 ‘free people of colour’) in 1813.[4]

The vast majority of vessels arriving at Jamestown in the era of company rule were coming from the Indian Ocean, usually having rounded the Cape of Good Hope on their way back from British colonies in South and Southeast Asia.[5] The southeast trade winds discouraged vessels coming down from the north from approaching St. Helena, and only very few ships sailed latitudinal routes connecting the island with South America or Africa. The network of maritime routes that linked Jamestown with other ports in essence represented a trans-oceanic British imperial space, which is why the dynamics on this Atlantic island could not be sufficiently explained within an Atlantic history framework.

Acts of insubordination and insurrection, often by drunken members of the garrison, challenged the company’s authority from its early days. In 1674, a group of soldiers overthrew the governor. In 1684, about 50 soldiers and settlers attempted to take the company’s castle by storm. In 1693, when news about England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 finally reached the island, 15 soldiers headed by Henry Jackson, officer of the watch, murdered Governor Joshua Johnson, ransacked the company’s treasury, and escaped from the island on a hijacked merchant vessel. The following year, the court had eleven slaves executed, accusing them – rightly or wrongly – of having plotted to follow the example of the ‘Jackson Conspiracy’, killing their masters and fleeing from St. Helena.[6]

Although these revolts came to a halt at the turn of the century, St. Helena remained an unsettled place during the following decades, and the excessive consumption of alcohol played a vital part in that. In the course of various failed attempts to turn St. Helena into a cash-crop colony, settlers had acquired techniques of distilling sugarcane molasses and potatoes to produce arrack. Mixed with wine, sugar, and fruits, arrack-based punches enjoyed great popularity in Jamestown, the island’s capital and only harbor. As early as the 1690s, the authorities identified the burning of wood for arrack distillation as a major factor in the advancing deforestation of the island.[7]

The punch houses in lower Jamestown formed the nucleus of a hedonistic culture that established St. Helena’s reputation among seamen as the principal place of amusement in the South Atlantic. They also seem to have represented the principal contact zones where seamen, soldiers, prostitutes, and other subalterns met and exchanged news and ideas. The island’s court spent a substantial portion of its sessions with cases of polygamy, brawls, and sodomy. Although women could be severely punished for extramarital sexual intercourse, prostitutes regularly served soldiers, seamen, and settlers. Not least because of these conditions, which its leaders interpreted as moral decay, the company in the early eighteenth century considered abandoning St. Helena.[8]

Facing violence and sex crimes, refusals to obey orders, as well as a high rate of sickness and mortality related to the excessive consumption of alcohol, Governor Daniel Corneille in late 1783 prohibited all military personnel from entering the punch houses. Soldiers henceforth were to buy alcoholic beverages exclusively in the controlled environment of an official garrison canteen – only at certain times, only in limited rations, and without common rooms for drinking sessions.[9] Corneille’s scheme was preceded by a series of desertions and rumors about imminent riots by seamen and soldiers during the years of the American Revolution. Soldiers protested during the Christmas season, but found Corneille relentless. On December 27, 200 drunken soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets attempted to seize the gun battery above Jamestown, which would give them control of the entire city. By making concessions, Corneille persuaded the men to retreat. However, although they regained access to the punch houses, the mutinous group on December 29 made a further attempt to occupy a gun battery, this time that at the Alarm House located southeast of Jamestown. Loyal units of the garrison won a night battle against the insurgents. In the aftermath, the court sentenced 99 soldiers to death, but only executed ten men. Having failed to enforce his restrictive line, Corneille left the island.[10]

 

St. Helena: a physical, historical, and topographical description of the island ... The botanical plates from original drawings by Mrs. J. C. Melliss
“St. Helena: a physical, historical, and topographical description of the island … The botanical plates from original drawings by Mrs. J. C. Melliss” (London, 1875).

Tensions did not ease. In 1811, a new attempt by the government to reduce alcohol-related sickness and mortality in the military, particularly through a rationing of wine and beer, sparked another Christmas-time rebellion. On December 22, someone graffitied, “A hot dinner and a bloody supper” down from the walls of Jamestown’s church . On the gate of the castle, the message, “This house to let on Christmas-day” was found. About 250 members of the infantry corps made their way to the governor’s summer residence on the night of Christmas Eve, intending to drive him from the island. Having been warned, the governor had stationed 130 heavily armed militiamen all over the house and its environs. At daybreak the mutineers became aware of their disadvantageous position, and surrendered. The court sentenced the twelve alleged ringleaders to death, six of whom were executed on Christmas Day.[11]

Putting these most significant revolts in the history of St. Helena in their local contexts, it seems that revolutionary fervor fueled by news from events in other parts of the world formed a latent factor rather than a primary cause. Similarly, though Christmas did not spawn the events, the striking coincidence points towards a recurring relation between revolts and festivals that historians have observed on events such as the Eggnog Riot in West Point (New York) of 1826, the Jamaica Christmas Rebellion of 1832, or – in view of the twentieth century – the Notting Hill Carnival Riot of 1976. Besides the social dynamics of festive cultures in confined environments such as barracks or slave quarters, the connections between intoxication and holiday-related clusters of emotions remain a promising subject of further research.


Felix Schürmann is leading researcher on the history of maritime cartography at the Gotha Research Centre of the University of Erfurt. He specializes in African, maritime, and global history and tweets @FelixSchurmann.

Title Image:Geographical Plan of the Island & Forts of St Helena (1817)

Further Readings:

Stephen A. Royle, The Company’s Island: St Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavour (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007)

Kathleen Wilson, “Rethinking the Colonial State: Family, Gender, and Governmentality in Eighteenth-Century British Frontiers” The American Historical Review 5/2011, pp. 1294–1322.

Endnotes:

[1] Julius S. Scott’s pioneering research on the Caribbean Sea, completed in 1986, has just been published: Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind (London/New York: Verso, 2018). Major follow-up studies include Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker, The Many-headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

[2] The significance of St. Helena for the formation of early modern environmental thought is demonstrated in Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995).

[3] Hudson R. Janisch, Extracts from the St. Helena Records (St. Helena 1885), 217; Stephen A. Royle, The Company’s Island: St Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavour (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 176.

[4] Philip Gosse, St. Helena, 1502–1938 (London: Cassell & Co., 1938), 150, 259.

[5] Trevor W. Hearl, St Helena Britannica: Studies in South Atlantic History (London: Society of Friends of St Helena, 2013), 63–75.

[6] Gosse, St. Helena, 105–109; Janisch, Extracts, 59–61, 89; Royle, Company’s Island, 97–99, 113–125, 186; St. Helena Government Archives (SHA), St. Helena Records 1693–1696, pp. 1–9, 22–35, 237–260.

[7] Gosse, St. Helena, 120; Royle, Company’s Island, 63; Grove, Green Imperialism, 109.

[8] Kathleen Wilson, “Rethinking the Colonial State: Family, Gender, and Governmentality in Eighteenth-Century British Frontiers” The American Historical Review 5/2011, 1294–1322, pp. 1307–1312.

[9] SHA, Letters to England 1785–1789, 20 January & 03 July 1786.

[10] Gosse, St. Helena, 206–210; Janisch, Extracts, 202f.

[11] Gosse, St. Helena, 247–254; SHA St. Helena Records 1811–1812, 23 & 30 December 1811, 04 January 1812.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s