Impressions of the St Helena Regiment, 1845

Source: Camp and Barrack-room; or, The British Army as it is, by a late Staff Sergeant of the 13th Light Infantry [John Mercier McMullen]. London: Chapman and Hall, 1846, pp. 257-60.

Note: Some contemporary essays and articles contain language and characterizations which may have been in common use at the time the articles or stories were written, but which are no longer acceptable. These articles do not reflect the opinions of the transcriber or web site owner.

  After resting myself, I paid a visit to the barracks, which will accommodate between 400 and 500 men; but the square is so small, that a company can scarcely be manœuvred on it. The present St. Helena regiment, embodied some three years since, and formed of volunteers from other corps, is composed of five companies, of seventy-five men each, who are mostly under thirty, yet dissolute and disorderly in the extreme, no less than fourteen of them having been transported since their formation, while one-half their number have been tried three or four times over by court-martial. They are said, however, to be harshly and unwisely treated. On one occasion I was told that some sergeants went into a cell where several drunken men had been put, and irritating language being used by them, they were struck. Courts-martial followed as a matter of course, and the men were transported, or severely punished. Were they in India, Sir Hugh Gough would in all probability have reduced the sergeants.

  One company of the St. Helena regiment is stationed in the fort on Ladder Hill for six months in turn, where they are trained to work the guns: they seemed to like being quartered there very well, many of them saying they should be quite glad when their turn came round again. With respect to their rations, the men are allowed fresh meat brought from the Cape twice a week, and salt meat the remaining days with fresh bread and vegetables, the latter being grown by themselves on a farm given them in the interior of the island, having besides a daily allowance of wine. For these they pay sixpence per diem, their tea, sugar, &c. costing them threepence more, so that their clear pay, when other expenses are deducted, is a mere trifle. Their wives and children receive rations from the government stores, the same as the men, with the exception of wine alone.

  In St. Helena I found the necessaries of life were excessively dear, potatoes sometimes selling so high as a pound per hundred weight, their average price being usually about twelve shillings; beef is tenpence and a shilling per pound, and milk a shilling per bottle; goats sell for two, three, and even four pounds; and cows, sheep, and horses are dear in the same proportion. English goods rate higher than in any part of India. Labourers receive from three to four shillings per diem, and even at this pay it is difficult to get the islanders to work, for they are excessively lazy, and will idle as long as they can get a little rice and fish, their staple article of provision.

  Like Bombay, St. Helena formed a part of the dowery of the Infanta Catherine of Portugal, and was ceded to the Company with the former island. It is only valuable as an intermediate and watering station for ships sailing to and from the East, the greater part of which touch there. Twenty years ago the number of ships which annually watered there, was about 150; now, however, 2000 vessels of different nations touch there in a single year; and the coin of every maritime country in Europe, as well as those of America, may be procured in St. James's town.

  The productions of St. Helena are of a very trifling character, although the soil is a dark loam and rich looking, but at the same time so very shallow that the sun penetrates through it to the stratum of rock beneath, which, retaining the heat, prevents vegetation to any extent. Hence the island has a barren appearance, and is very unlike what Cavendish represents it to have been in 1587, being then, according to him, extremely fertile in corn; the growth of which other writers subsequently stated to have been abandoned, owing to the vast number of rats which infested it.

  The water on the island is considered good; it is, however, strongly impregnated with chalybeate and other minerals, and from this cause cannot be boiled for washing clothes, the steam being highly injurious to the sight, and producing blindness in a little time. Ships are supplied with it in a very expeditious manner by means of tank-boats, from which it is pumped through a hose into the casks in the hold.

  For a place lying within the tropics, St. Helena is exceedingly healthy; dysentery is the most prevalent distemper, yet it is by no means of an acute character when looked to in time. Occasionally small-pox makes its appearance; and when there was a depôt for negroes taken from the slavers on the island, it made considerable ravages among them.

  5th.——During the morning some flying fish were brought on board, measuring upwards of a foot and a half in length, they were the largest I had ever seen before, and were very plump. Having no inclination to go on shore, my feet being blistered with walking already, I amused myself for the better part of the day in conversing with the islanders who came on board. One of them, an old man, told me that times had altered much for the worse on the island, since the death of Buonaparte. "While he lived," he said, "there were always two regiments lying there, and these, with the sailors of the guard-ship, and the men of war constantly cruising about, spent a great deal of money in the town, its inhabitants reaping a golden harvest. ["]But now," added he, "there is only the St. Helena corps with us, and they are more trouble than profit; volunteers never do well in colonial regiments, being generally a reckless, desperate class, fond of change, whereas here they only get an occasional march up to Ladder Hill and down again, and are all as heartily tired of us as we are of them. Few men of war ever touch here, and their stay is short; and as for the merchant sailors," he continued, "they seldom have much money to spend."

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See also: Timeline for the St Helena Regiment, 1842–1849.

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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