"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Recluse of St. Helena

St. Helena stamp commemorating Fernao Lopes

History is full of “castaway” stories.  However, few are as remarkable as the life of a now little-remembered man named Fernão Lopes.  He made Robinson Crusoe look like a day-tripper.

Lopes was born into the Portuguese aristocracy sometime around 1480.  He grew up during Portugal’s Golden Age, when the country was expanding its influence throughout Europe.  Among the areas colonized by the Portuguese was Goa, a state on the southwestern coast of India.  

Lopes first entered history in 1506, when he set out for India as part of the 8th Armada, led by one Tristao da Cunha.  It’s believed that Lopes was a converted Jew.  At the time, Jews were suffering severe persecution, but considering that Lopes was performing active military duty for his king, he was granted a certain amount of immunity.  Also sailing with the Armada was a military commander named Alfonso Albuquerque, who carried with him secret orders to become Goa’s new viceroy.  Albuquerque was a skilled general, but brutal and ruthless, and there are some hints that an immediate friction developed between him and Lopes.

Lopes would come to deeply regret that.

When the fleet arrived at Goa, Albuquerque had little trouble asserting his authority over the region.  After a time, he moved on to deal with other matters, leaving Lopes and other troops to guard their fort.  In 1512, the king of Bijapur sent an army to reconquer Goa.   Their leader, Rasul Khan, launched a siege of Goa, cutting off food supplies to the Portuguese soldiers.

The Portuguese soon found themselves in an utterly miserable situation.  They had not been paid in months, and were now facing imminent starvation.  To save themselves, Lopes and around 70 other soldiers defected.  They converted to Islam and joined the Bijapur army.  (It has been suggested that as Lopes and many other Portuguese soldiers were married to Goa women, this also influenced their decision.)

When Albuquerque heard of this disaster, he naturally launched a counterattack, which resulted in a military stalemate.  The peace terms included the requirement that the turncoat Portuguese men be handed over to Albuquerque, on the condition that their lives were spared.  

Albuquerque, technically speaking, followed this agreement.  He did not execute the renegade soldiers.  Instead, he did something even worse.  Lopes and his confederates were horrifically tortured for three straight days.  Half the men died.  As Lopes was considered the leader of the group, his punishment was the most savage of all.  In the public square, his ears and nose were cut off, along with his right foot and left thumb.  His hair and beard were scraped off by clam shells and pig excrement was spread over his body.  When the ordeal was finally over, Lopes and the few other maimed prisoners who were (arguably) unlucky enough to have survived were cast out to fend for themselves.

For the next two years, Lopes somehow managed to survive by begging for food.  (It is unknown what happened to his wife.)  After hearing of Albuquerque’s death in December 1515, Lopes decided it was safe to return home.  In early 1516, he boarded a ship bound for Lisbon.

Along the way, his ship made a stop at the island of St. Helena.  The island--which was so tiny and remote it was not discovered until 1502--was uninhabited, but as it was rich in trees and fresh water, the Portuguese armadas frequently made brief stops there for water.

As soon as Lopes’ ship arrived at the island, he made a fateful decision--whether it was one he planned in advance or did out of a sudden impulse can never be known.  He quietly sneaked off the ship and disappeared into the forest.  The captain, who had become friendly with Lopes, ordered that the island be searched for him, but the disfigured ex-soldier had hidden himself well.  The others had no choice but to leave him behind.  The captain left food and other supplies for Lopes, along with a note alerting any other ships that might stop by that the island had a new resident, and he should not be harmed.

For the next 14 years, Lopes lived on St. Helena in complete solitude.  His only companion at during this period was a rooster who had managed to swim ashore after falling off a ship.  It is said he domesticated the rooster as a pet.  His existence became known to other Portuguese ships that stopped at the island.  They would often leave Lopes provisions, including livestock and seeds, but he avoided any direct contact with them. 

If you’re going to divorce yourself from the human race, St. Helena is among the pleasanter places to do so.  The climate was temperate, the ground fertile.  Lopes planted various fruit trees and raised livestock.  Before long, the ships that stopped off at the island were able to get not just water, but fresh fruit and meat.  Lopes gradually became less fearful of visitors, occasionally talking to the sailors who came ashore.  Back in Portugal, the hermit of St. Helena became an almost legendary figure.  His mutilated body--symbol of his martyrdom--and insistence on solitude led him to be seen as an almost saintly figure.

Lopes’ fame became so great that in 1531, the Portuguese king, Joao III, requested a meeting with him.  Lopes was unhappy about returning to Lisbon, but he obviously had no choice in the matter.  After visiting the king and queen, Lopes traveled to Rome, where he met with Pope Clement VI.  The Pope absolved him of his earlier “sin” of apostasy, and issued a proclamation that Lopes should be granted his one request: to go back to St. Helena and be left quite alone.

By the end of 1531, Lopes was back at his island refuge, where he remained until his death in 1545.  It is not known if he was buried on St. Helena or in Portugal, but I think the former is much more likely.  It seems certain that this is what Lopes himself would have wanted.

There has been some speculation about why Lopes chose to spend the last 30 years of his life in isolation, but to me it seems obvious: after his horrific experience at the hands of Alfonso Albuquerque, Lopes must have had the mother of all cases of what we today would call PTSD.  After what humans did to his body and soul, it is small wonder that he would not want to have anything to do with them ever again.  He must have felt that the remote Eden of St. Helena was his only hope for safety and some measure of peace.  Perhaps even happiness.

From the little we know, it’s possible that this hope was fulfilled.


  1. Best hermit story ever. I have Marlin Bressi's book "Hairy Men in Caves" and none of the hermits described in it can top this story.

  2. In the end, Lopes may have been a lucky man, after all, finding something that made him happy, though it must have been terribly lonely at times.


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