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Philip Gosse and the discovery of St Helena.

His well-known work on piracy aside, Philip Gosse also had an ardent interest in one of Britain's oldest colonies, the still most extensive history of which, St Helena 1502-1938, he published in London in 1938. Respecting the island's discovery in 1502, Gosse writes that a Portuguese fleet under the command of Joao da Nova

anchored opposite a deep valley on the leeward and sheltered side of the island, where Jamestown, the little capital, now stands. [. . .]

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 armory and tackling, building with the timber a chappell in this valley, from thence is called Chappell Valley'.(1) Although this chapel and a stone one built afterwards by the Portuguese have long since disappeared, the valley in which Jamestown stands still goes locally by the name of Chapel Valley. [Gosse's original reference:(1) Osorio, Narrative of the Voyage of Joao Da Nova in 1502. Translated by J. Gibbs. 1752.](1)

Despite its reference, this account does not agree with the extensive Portuguese literature on this subject.(2) Instead, the factual errors of Gosse's narrative, which have hitherto gone unnoticed within subsequent St Helena historiography,(3) are the result of an intriguing case of bibliographical and historiographical carelessness.

I shall begin with a closer look at the reference which Gosse provides to the source of his account of the loss of one of da Nora's carracks: 'Osorio, Narrative of the Voyage of Joao Da Nova in 1502. Translated by J. Gibbs. 1752.' Alas, no such narrative or translation exists. Instead, Gosse must have been referring to James Gibbs's The History of the Portuguese during the Reign of Emmanuel, a translation of Osorio's De Rebus Emanuelis (Lisbon, 1571), which was indeed published in London in 1752.

The erroneous reference may well have arisen from Gosse's use of T. H. Brooke's 1824 History of the Island of St Helena, where Brooke writes:

'This island,' says Osorio in his account of De Nora's voyage, 'standing by itself [. . .].(4)

Brooke's turn of phrase might explain the otherwise mystifying origin of Osorio's Narrative of the Voyage of Joao Da Nova in 1502. But while Brooke quotes Osorio correctly, Gosse does not, for Osorio's account includes no reference whatsoever to a wrecked Portuguese carrack and hence cannot be the source of Gosse's quote.

Nevertheless, Brooke also writes that the island's discovery

is stated by several writers to have been accompanied with the loss of one of the fleet, a large carrack; but whether from having accidentally runaground, or intentionally broken up as unseaworthy, seems uncertain.* [Brooke's original reference: *Dr. John Fryer's voyage.](5)

Brooke, however, misreads Fryer, who claims that the island's discovery itself was the result of the wreck of a lone carrack.

The Portuguals first found it out, as is said, by an unhappy Accident; one of their great Carracks being cast away here, or not able to proceed further, they drew on shore her weather-beaten sides, and all the Armory and Tacklin, Building with the Timber a Chappel in this Valley, from thence called Chappel- Valley [. . .].(6)

It is from this passage that Gosse gleaned his quote about drawing on shore the carrack's 'armory and tackling' and which he ascribes to a non-existent narrative by Osorio.

Incidentally, Brooke's use of Fryer constitutes a revision of the first edition of his History, where he had referred his readers to Roggewein's voyage,(7) when writing that

The event was attended by the loss of one of the fleet(*), which a tradition (now nearly forgotten) states to have happened off Deep Valley. [Brooke's original reference. *Roggewein's Voyage.](8)

This 'early legend', as Gosse calls it admittedly, does indeed stem from the wreck of a Portuguese carrack at St Helena, but not in 1502. Instead, the wreck in question was that of the ship Nossa Senhorn da Conceicao in 1626.(9) Evidence of this shipwreck was found by Peter Mundy during his visit to St Helena in 1634, eight years after the wreck of the Conceicao.

[. . .] one of their Carracks (there being 3 in Company) proved Leakie and not able to proceed was heere hailed ashoare and her goods landed, where they remained till other shipps from Portugall came and brought all away, dwelling heere in the mean tyme and fortifying themselves against English Dutch or any other that should offer to molest them. Many of the Ribbs of the Carrick were yett to be scene and abundance of Iron work all over the Strand.(10)

It is this shipwreck and Monday's account thereof, which appear to have been wrongly associated by later writers with the island's discovery in 1502.


1 Philip Gosse, St Helena 1502-1938 (London, 1938), 2 3.

2 For the two earliest published, but contradictory, Portuguese accounts of St Helena's discovery see G. B. Ramusio. Delle Navigationi et Viaggi, I (Venice, 1550), 145, and Asia de Joao de Barros. dos Feitos que os Portugueses Fizerao no Descobrimento e Conquista dos Mares e Terras do Oriente, Decada I, Book 5, Chapter X, folios 66 7) Lisbon. 1552). For discussions of the merits of these accounts, see Duarte Leite, Historia dos Descobrimentos, 11 (Lisbon, 1960), 61-6, 186, and Damiao Peres, Historia dos Descobrimentas Portugueses (Coimbra, 1960), 528 32.

3 Percival Teale, Saint Helena: A History of the Development of the Island with Special Reference to Building Civil and Military Engineering Works (Natal, 1974), and Edward Cannan, Churches of the South Atlantic Islands 1502-1991 (Oswestry, 1992).

4 T. H. Brooke, History of the Island of St. Helena, 2nd edn (London, 1824), 48.

5 Ibid., 47.

6 John Fryer, A New Account of East India and Persia being Nine Years' Travels 1672 1681 (London, 1915), XI, 182.

7 Reprinted in Robert Kerr, A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels (Edinburgh, 1814), 192.

8 T. H. Brooke, A History of the Island of St Helena (London, 1808), 35.

9 For details on the voyage and fate of the Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, see C. R. Boxer's From Lisbon to Goa, 1500-1750 (London, 1984), 176-200.

10 Quoted in Richard Carnac Temple (ed.), The Travels of Peter Mundy. in Europe and Asia. 1608-1667 (London, 1914), II, 329.
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Author:Schulenburg, Alexander Hugo
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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