Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Portuguese Church, 1571

“Where the English settle they first build a Punch house, the Dutch a Fort and the Portuguese a Church.” Janisch 1885 April 7 1711, Jackson 1903 p.181, Gosse 1938 p.135, and Cannan 1992 p. 23.

On the 21st May 1502 Joao da Nova returning to Europe from India discovered St. Helena.  Gosse relates that “according to several early legends a large carrack, one of the fleet, was either wrecked or else became so unseaworthy that the Portuguese broke her up and drew on shore her weather-beaten sides and all the armoury and tackling, building with the timber a chappell in this valley, from thence is called Chappell Valley”
By the time Thomas Cavendish set foot on St Helena on the 9th June 1588, the early wooden church had been replaced by one of stone.

Linschoten's drawing of the Stone Church and The Santa Cruz flying the Portuguese Standard, May 1589
About two or three of the clocke in the afternoone wee went on shore, where wee found a marveilous faire & pleasant valley, wherein divers handsome buildings and houses were set up, and especially one which was a Church, which was tyled & whited on the outside very faire, and made with a porch, and within the Church at the upper end was set an altar, whereon stood a very large table set in a frame having in it the picture of our Saviour Christ upon the Crosse and the image of our Lady praying, with divers other histories curiously painted in the same. The sides of the Church were all hanged with stained clothes having many devises drawen in them.
There are two houses adjoyning to the Church, on each side one, which serve for kitchins to dresse meate in, with necessary roomes and houses of office: the coverings of the said houses are made flat, whereon is planted a very faire vine, and through both the saide houses runneth a very good and holsome streame of fresh water.
There is also right over against the saide Church a faire causey made up with stones reaching unto a valley by the seaside, in which valley is planted a garden, wherein grow great store of pompions and melons : And upon the saide causey is a frame erected whereon hange two bells wherewith they ring to Masse ; and hard unto it is a Crosse set up, which is squared, framed and made very artificially of free stone, whereon is carved in cyphers what time it was builded, which was in the yeere of our Lord 1571.
The Portuguese fleet had left the island, for Europe, twenty days before Cavendish’s arrival.
We found in the houses at our comming 3. slaves which were Negros, & one which was borne in the yland of Java, which tolde us that the East Indian fleete, which were in number 5. sailes, the least whereof were in burthen 8. or 900. tunnes, all laden with spices and Calicut cloth, with store of treasure and very rich stones and pearles, were gone from the saide yland of S. Helena but 20, dayes before we came thither.

The Stone Church and Linschoten's Fleet, May 1589
Linschoten's drawings were made as the Santa Cruz circled the Island arriving and departing

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611) was a Dutch Protestant merchant, traveller and historian who spent from 1583 to 1588 in the employ of the Portuguese in Goa.  He piloted the Portuguese East India fleet which left Cochin on January 1st 1589 and visited St. Helena in May of that year, eleven months after Cavendish’s visit.
When the ships come thether, everie man maketh his lodging under a tree, setting a Tent about it: for that the trees are there so thicke, that it presently seemeth a little towne or an armie lying in the fielde. Everie man provideth for himself, both flesh, fish, fruite, and woode, for there is enough for them all: and everie one washeth Linnen. There they hold a generall fasting and prayer, with Masse everie daye, which is done with great devotion, with procession, and thankesgiving and other Himnes, thanking God that hee hath preserved them from the danger of the Cape de Bona Speranca, and brought them to that Iland in safetie.

Linschoten also reported on the apparent vandalism by the English:

About foure monthes before our arrivall, there had beene an English ship which came to the Iland of Saint Helena; where they tooke in fresh water and other necessaries, and beate downe the Alter and the Crosse that stoode in the Church, and left behind them a Ketle and a Sword, which the Portingales at our arrival found there, yet could they not conceive or thinke what they might meane.

Gosse tells of other acts of vandalism by Dutch and Portuguese and in 1610 Francois Pyrard discovered on landing the bad state of the chapel, which he had seen in good condition nine years previously. A white marble cross brought from Portugal was broken in pieces, done in revenge, said Pyrard, by the Dutch.

The French traveller Tavernier visited in 1649 and though Gosse cautions that not too much reliance should be placed on his tale continues “There is only a little settlement near the sea where a chapel was once built but this chapel is now half a ruin.
Linschoten's two drawings of St Helena were reproduced as the endpapers in Gosse, part used on the cover of Edward Cannan's "Churches of the South Atlantic Islands" and on the obverse of the St Helena One Pound note, which was replaced by a coin in 1984 and is no longer in circulation.

The same image was also used on the 3p stamp, one of a set of six, issued in 1978 commemorating the 1613 sinking of the "Witte Leeuw" in James Bay.

Captain John Dutton arrived in May 1659 to take possession of the island for The East India Company and the next church to be built would be an Anglican one.

Cannan, 1992, Churches of the South Atlantic Islands 1502-1991 Nelson, ISBN 0 904614 48 4

The Linschoten drawings and more information can be accessed on Barry Weaver's web site St Helena Virtual Library and Archive at:


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