Alexander Hugo Schulenburg

Ph.D. Thesis (University of St Andrews, 1999)

Transient Observations:
The Textualizing of St Helena Through Five Hundred Years of Colonial Discourse


This thesis explores the textualizing of the South Atlantic island of St Helena (a British Overseas Territory) through an analysis of the relationship between colonizing practices and the changing representations of the island and its inhabitants in a range of colonial 'texts', including historiography, travel writing, government papers, creative writing, and the fine arts.

Part I situates this thesis within a critical engagement with post-colonial theory and colonial discourse analysis primarily, as well as with the recent 'linguistic turn' in anthropology and history. In place of post-colonialism's rather monolithic approach to colonial experiences, I argue for a localised approach to colonisation, which takes greater account of colonial praxis and of the continuous re-negotiation and re-constitution of particular colonial situations.

Part II focuses on a number of literary issues by reviewing St Helena's historiography and literature, and by investigating the range of narrative tropes employed (largely by travellers) in the textualizing of St Helena, in particular with respect to recurrent imaginings of the island in terms of an earthly Eden.

Part III examines the nature of colonial 'possession' by tracing the island's gradual appropriation by the Portuguese, Dutch and English in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century and the settlement policies pursued by the English East India Company in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Part IV provides an account of the changing perceptions, by visitors and colonial officials alike, of the character of the island's inhabitants (from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century) and assesses the influence that these perceptions have had on the administration of the island and the political status of its inhabitants (in the mid- to late twentieth century).

Part V, the conclusion, reviews the principal arguments of my thesis by addressing the political implications of post-colonial theory and of my own research, while also indicating avenues for further research.

A localised and detailed exploration of colonial discourse over a period of nearly five hundred year, and a close analysis of a consequently wide range of colonial 'texts', has confirmed that although colonising practices and representations are far from monolithic, in the case of St Helena their continuities are of as much significance as their discontinuities.

© 1999