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Rich Histories, New Challenges

Brent R. Fortenberry, Ph.D., RPA (Assistant Professor of Architecture, Texas A&M University) writes on the heritage of Saint Helena, it's past and it's future.


St. Helena boasts one of the most impressive British built heritage landscapes in the South Atlantic. While the island is most often associated with Napoleon’s tenure, St. Helena boasts a rich built heritage from the late 17th century onwards from coastal fortifications to domestic architecture in Jamestown and its environs. In January 2019, the Texas A&M Center for Heritage Conservation partnered with Napoleon 200 to undertake a preliminary documentation and architectural conservation assessment of the island’s principal heritage sites using digital documentation technology including terrestrial laser scanning and ground- and aerial-based photogrammetry. These tools allowed us to accurately and quickly document the surviving elements of the island’s built heritage. Documented heritage sites were then subject to an intensive architectural conservation assessment to understand their current condition, and the various agents of decay impacting surviving historic fabric.

Over six days, eight sites were documented comprising a mix of fortifications and domestic structures dating from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. Five fortifications were documented including Cockburn’s Battery on Egg Island, likely the only St. Helena fortification purpose-built for Napoleon’s arrival on the island. Not much of this fortification survives, and due to its isolation, little active management will take place moving forward. High Knoll Fort was also documented as a part of this project. While it pre-dates Napoleon’s arrival, the complex was garrisoned while he was on the island. High Knoll Fort is also one of the most heavily visited heritage sites due to its monumentality and its proximity to Jamestown. High Knoll Fort, however, is under significant stress as a heritage site. In 2004, a major portion of the southwestern wall collapsed, and continued to deteriorate. The rehabilitation of this section of wall will be critical to the long-term conservation of the site. The upper sections of Munden’s Battery were documented and assessed with a particular emphasis on a southern battery positive, and a support structure on the north side of the ridge. More work needs to be done on the lower sections of the battery, but these all post-date St. Helena’s Napoleonic period. Further to the north, Banks’ Battery is likely the oldest-surviving fortification complex on the island with character-defining ramparts and arched tunnel; the lower section is supplemented by an upper half-moon battery which commands the northwestern coast of the island. The lower section of Banks’ Battery is in desperate need of conservation, with much of the southern section of the curtain wall, already lost to erosion and structural failure. While Banks’ Battery is relatively remote, preserving the island’s oldest fortification is a priority for the heritage sector. Jacob’s Ladder was the final fortification-related heritage site documented during the field season. While the ladder complex, which is a remnant of a track railway system to shuttle goods between Jamestown and Ladder Fort above. The stairs remain in good condition but require light conservation intervention to ensure the ladder’s integrity and safety.

Beyond fortifications, several domestic sites were investigated. Napoleon’s resident at Longwood was investigated and documented using aerial-based photogrammetry. Few interventions were needed at this major heritage site. Still too, Napoleon’s Tomb was investigated however, it is well maintained by the French Consul. Finally, the architectural remains of “Toby’s Cottage” a kitchen-quarter associated with the Briar’s Estate, to the east of Jamestown. Toby’s Cottage is named for an enslaved member of the estate when Napoleon stayed there before his move to Longwood. The building, which now stands as an architectural ruin is one of the only known surviving buildings directly associated with enslaved lifeways on St. Helena. The heritage stakeholders are making the conservation of Toby’s Cottage, its rehabilitation, and interpretation, of the structure, a centerpiece of the first wave of heritage conservation on the island. Through this work, stakeholders and the wider public a deeper understanding of the subaltern histories of St. Helena.

This field season was the first step in a long-term commitment to building heritage capacity on St. Helena, to ensure the durability of the built past for present and future generations. While the raw digital models are now freely accessible through the Bicentenary’s website, in the future, a digital and physical heritage trail will developed among the stakeholders to provide both a remote and on-island heritage landscape. The conditions reports produced by the field team will be used as a part of future conservation management plans for these sites, once bricks and mortar stabilization and rehabilitation efforts begin. This will be accomplished through conservation workshops, hosted through a consortium of international heritage actors to train local artisans and craftspeople in appropriate heritage conservation techniques.


Catch up with our event with Brent - A Tour of Saint Helena:


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