It’s a Disaster! The Rollers of 1846

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View of James Town and the Harbour, Saint Helena. Taken from the Harbour Master’s Office during the Rollers of the 17th February 1846. The image was created from an eyewitness view by Frederick Rice Stack, a lieutenant with the St. Helena Regiment. (Accession# LP1200/1937.1569.01)

It’s time for me to admit something—I have a sick fascination with historical disasters—especially those related to natural phenomena. I don’t know why. I just do. Some of the prints and engravings we have in the collection are really unique so I thought I would share one of my favorites: The February 1846 “rollers” at St. Helena.  This image has fascinated me for years! The first time I saw it my immediate question was—what the hell are “rollers.” Now obviously they are waves but why did these particular waves deserve a different designation? (And no, they are not related to an earthquake or tsunami.)

The islands of Ascension and St. Helena (the island where Napoleon was exiled) in the South Atlantic are periodically plagued by waves that seem to occur for no readily apparent reason–one moment the seas are calm, little waves start rolling ashore and before long waves big enough to surf are hitting the north facing side of the island.  One source described the waves as “the rollers for which St. Helena has ever been celebrated.” Really? I find it hard to believe anybody was celebrating after looking at this image because in this instance the consequences of the “rollers” were so catastrophic the event was recorded for posterity.   Read more