Beginnings: The South African Saint Helenian Association

  • Posted on January 19, 2011

Merle Martin Merle Martin
“I think it’s important [for people to know their history and ancestry] because… the knowledge is good, especially for a person’s self worth, I think, to know that where you are today is through all those generations back. Like someone said to me once, we don’t realise that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. People who are not so fortunate as perhaps you and I, they don’t realise how much their ancestors have contributed to society and how they fit into the picture, even whether you are a labourer or a minister or a president… and what an important role you as a person play in society”. So says Merle Martin in a conversation we had in her home on 18 November 2010. Merle is the founder of the South African Saint Helenian Heritage Association. Work towards establishing the Association began in 2008. In 2006 Merle had begun research on the history of her family. Having been told by her father that her grandmother was from St. Helena, Merle was surprised to hear it said at her grandmother’s funeral that she was from Elim in the Western Cape. She has since applied to the Department of Home Affairs for her grandmother’s unabridged birth certificate, but this has yielded no results. It appears as though the spelling of Merle’s grandmother’s surname may have changed with a change in orthographical standards.

The trouble of getting to grips with the story of her grandmother notwithstanding, Merle has continued her attempt to establish how St. Helena and the Cape are connected through the stories of families. Her pursuit has been driven by stories in her own family that maintain that she has connection to the island on both her mother’s and her father’s sides. So in 2008 she put a notice in newspapers such as the Constantiaberg Bulletin asking people whose ancestry was from St. Helena to get in touch with her. She has had over 200 responses to date and is keeping a database of all those who have responded . The connections that have been made so far are remarkable: whereas Merle initially anticipated responses from Coloured people, she was surprised to hear from white people as well who trace their ancestry to St. Helena. She puts this down to the diverse range of people who settled on the island from Europe, those who were taken there as slaves from Africa and India, as well as Chinese labourers who were recruited after the end of slavery.

Other connections that have been made span the globe in a different way: the St. Helena diaspora is in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand. People in some of these diverse countries have discovered that they are connected by the same ancestor.  The surname Knipe is one example: it was brought to the island by somebody from England. It has spawned a diaspora in different countries. Somebody even wrote to Merle from England saying people in the United Kingdom tend to claim their European ancestry that connects them to St. Helena, but most are not so keen on identifying themselves with ancestors who were slaves.

With her database established and growing, Merle’s next move is to establish a website for the Association. She regularly attends heritage events to make the organisation more visible. She and I first met at the annual Heritage Display of the Cape Town Family History Society in September 2010 where she had a display on the work of the Association. She also hosts talks to which she invites professionals working in heritage to share ideas and experiences with community members and grassroots organisations like the South African St. Helenian Heritage Association.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Archival Platform Ancestral Stories Coordinator

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  • Dear Mbongiseni

    It is not widely known that women who participated in the Sekhukhune uprising in the 1950s, particularly against Kgoshi Kgoloko in Madibong, ner Jane Furse, were sent to Saint Helena.

    It is still common for naughty children to be told: ‘If you continue to behave like that, I will send you to Saint Helena.’ (Of course, the name Saint Helena is given a form in Sepedi, as with many names from other languages).

    If you want to know more about the oral history of the women from Sekhukhuneland who were exiled to the island, contact Professor Sekgothe Mokgoatsana, sekgothe@gmail.com.



    By Tony Harding on 24/01/2011
  • Dear Tony

    Thank you for the information about the exiling of women from Sekhukhuneland to St Helena. I am certainly going to get in touch with Prof. Makgoatsana with whom we at the Archival Platform are already acquainted from last year’s conference of the Oral History Association of South Africa.

    By Mbongiseni Buthelezi on 30/01/2011
  • Hi there Merle,

    I’m developing a keen interest in St Helena and would like to talk to any Saints that are living here in South Africa. I interested in the life style that they have experienced. Could you possibly put in contact with any of them? I look forward to your reply.

    Many thanks.

    Steve Marais

    By Steve Marais on 02/09/2012
  • I live on St Helena and the good news is that the process of digitising the archives for public access has now started. I am also following through on a family of my namesakes - 53 names all descended in 5 generations from one British soldier who came here. Sadly the name has now died out here, but some of the Hillmans left to S Africa, and I am in touch with their descendants in Canada. I hope in time it may give us a window onto one family here that is a mix of the British military and the slave population of the island before, during and after emancipation.
    Sincerely, with best wishes - Chris

    By Chris Hillman on 27/09/2012
  • i there Merle acouple of years ago I tried to trace my grandfather.I am not sure if he was born
    On the island or if his parents immagrated to therre the only informat I’ll n that I have is his name
    His name was Nick Williams. I had a search dond by the records in St Helena and paaid 21pound
    Unfortunately I do not have a birthday for him. He was married to Anne Williams born 11/03/1895
    My fathers name was Gilbert d.b 11/08/1916

    By diana sass on 02/10/2012
  • Dear Steve Marais, Chris Hillman and Diana Sass. Please email me so that I have your email addresses to send you all a reply. Many thanks. Merle Martin, South African St Helenian Heritage AAssociation: saint.helena.island@gmail.com

    By Merle Martin on 02/10/2012
  • Dear Chris Hillman. I wonder if you do not share the same ancestor with Patric Mellet. Patric runs a blog called cape-slave-heritage. He has a Caper-Hillman. St Helena connects quite a number of people across the globe via progenitors such as John Knipe, Nathaniel Solomon, Orlando Bagley,  RRichard Alexander, etc, etc. Regards Merle

    By Merle Martin on 02/10/2012
  • Dear Merle, I lost contact but I’m back on track. I contacted the youngest stepsister of my mum Gertrude Hendry and now have the marriage certificate of my grandfather to his second wife which states that he was a St Helenian.But where to from here. This came after much searching while I was in Cape Town May this year.I am trying to add the grandparents of both parents to my tree so help me please. Sheila

    By Sheila Gooding on 03/10/2012
  • Hi Sheila. Good to hear from you again. You will need your granpa’s date of birth in order to request info from St Helena archives, else they won’t be able to assist with your query. They charge in pounds, app 20pounds+  Email them: archives at sainthelena.gov.sh. All the best and keep at it. Regards Merle

    By Merle Martin on 03/10/2012
  • Hi
    My late grandmother used to speak about her farther who came from an island called st Helena. She was a lady Brown. After the media coverage of the building of the airport, I started reading more about the island. It seems that there are some Brown families on the island.

    By Deon Scheepers on 12/02/2013
  • Deon Scheepers - there is still one Brown family in the telephone directory here - Steve and Pat Brown. There is also Brown’s Video Library. Both are in the main town of Jamestown. I could try to get you in touch with them if you are interested? Best wishes - Chris

    By Chris Hillman on 16/02/2013
  • I do not have a birthdate of my grandfather and my last connection has passed on so I am trying to contact a grandniece. What else can I try I would love to know who my maternal grandmother is.

    By Sheila Gooding on 18/02/2013
  • I do not have my grandfather’s birthdate I hope that someone knows of him. He is Edward George Hendry and was from St Helena. He has three connections I think they are all three his daughters though I have my doubts its Gertrude known as Gerty, Ethel and Violet known as Violy.
    What now?

    By Sheila Gooding on 18/02/2013
  • I am wondering where I could photocopy a page out of the Capetown telephone directory?  I’ve tried searching the web and can’t find an image of a whole page.  Thanks for any help—

    By Barb on 03/03/2013
  • Why is Rose Island road named such? Was or is there a special species of rosé on St. Helena Island? Or is it a colloquial name for a species of plant indigenous to St. Helena Island?

    By William P on 13/07/2013
  • I am awaiting the unabridged birth certificate of my mother hopefully it will throw more light on the name of my grandmother.Would love to hear from any HENDRY’s.

    By sheila Gooding on 15/07/2013
  • I am trying to find whether ” Island Rose” means something uniquely St. Hellenism. Any help would be appreciated.

    By William on 30/07/2013
  • Keep this going please, great job!

    My weblog :: click here

    By Dan on 03/05/2014
  • Hi Merle
    My grandmother"s name was Mary Elizabeth Hendry.Her mother"s name was Rose Mary was born in 1908.I"m not sure whether she was born on the Island.My mother died very young and did not give us much information.I remember calling herself a st.helena when i was a child.
    Any information will be much appreciated

    By ingrid gobey on 08/05/2014
  • My grandfather is Edward Hendry born in 1880 in St Helena. My mother is Gertrude Hilda Hendry born in 1910. There is a Ethel and Violet. I have no knowledge of my grandmother or why they came to the Cape.

    By sheila Gooding on 09/05/2014
  • Good day Merle

    How lovely to stumble upon this sight and read the many comments.  I am practically moved to tears at the possibility that I might also discover my ancestral roots.

    My grandmother (Mabeline - not sure of her maiden surname) also hails from St. Helena. She came to South Africa and married my grandfather John Case (originally from Breda’s Dorp) in South Africa.  Two sons were born to them 1) Roy Case and 2) Desmond John Case.  I am unable to obtain more details as all of the above has passed on.

    My grandmother conversed eloquantly in English with me, as this was her native language.  She was petite in stature and passed away when I was about 10 years old.

    Apart from applying for an unabridged certificate from the Dept of Home Affairs in South African, where do I go from here to find out more about her and my ancestors.

    Your assistance is appreciated.


    By Desiree de Kock on 14/05/2014