The enormous cliffs, in many parts between one and two thousand feet in height, with which this prison-like island is surrounded, with the exception of only a few places, where narrow valleys descend to the coast, is the most striking feature in its scenery. We have seen that portions of the basaltic ring, two or three miles in length by one or two miles in breadth, and from one to two thousand feet in height, have been wholly removed. There are, also, ledges and banks of rock, rising out of profoundly deep water, and distant from the present coast between three and four miles, which, according to Mr. Seale, can be traced to the shore, and are found to be the continuations of certain well-known great dikes. The swell of the Atlantic Ocean has obviously been the active power in forming these cliffs; and it is interesting to observe that the lesser, though still great, height of the cliffs on the leeward and partially protected side of the island (extending from the Sugar-Loaf Hill to South West Point), corresponds with the lesser degree of exposure. When reflecting on the comparatively low coasts of many volcanic islands, which also stand exposed in the open ocean, and are apparently of considerable antiquity, the mind recoils from an attempt to grasp the number of centuries of exposure, necessary to have ground into mud and to have dispersed the enormous cubic mass of hard rock which has been pared off the circumference of this island. The contrast in the superficial state of St. Helena, compared with the nearest island, namely, Ascension, is very striking. At Ascension, the surfaces of the lava-streams are glossy, as if just poured forth, their boundaries are well defined, and they can often be traced to perfect craters, whence they were erupted; in the course of many long walks, I did not observe a single dike; and the coast round nearly the entire circumference is low, and has been eaten back (though too much stress must not be placed on this fact, as the island may have been subsiding) into a little wall only from ten to thirty feet high. Yet during the 340 years, since Ascension has been known, not even the feeblest signs of volcanic action have been recorded. (In the "Nautical Magazine" for 1835 page 642, and for 1838 page 361, and in the "Comptes Rendus" April 1838, accounts are given of a series of volcanic phenomena--earthquakes--troubled water--floating scoriae and columns of smoke--which have been observed at intervals since the middle of the last century, in a space of open sea between longitudes 20 degrees and 22 degrees west, about half a degree south of the equator. These facts seem to show, that an island or an archipelago is in process of formation in the middle of the Atlantic: a line joining St. Helena and Ascension, prolonged, intersects this slowly nascent focus of volcanic action.) On the other hand, at St. Helena, the course of no one stream of lava can be traced, either by the state of its boundaries or of its superficies; the mere wreck of one great crater is left; not the valleys only, but the surfaces of some of the highest hills, are interlaced by worn-down dikes, and, in many places, the denuded summits of great cones of injected rock stand exposed and naked; lastly, as we have seen, the entire circuit of the island has been deeply worn back into the grandest precipices.


There is much resemblance in structure and in geological history between St. Helena, St. Jago, and Mauritius. All three islands are bounded (at least in the parts which I was able to examine) by a ring of basaltic mountains, now much broken, but evidently once continuous. These mountains have, or apparently once had, their escarpments steep towards the interior of the island, and their strata dip outwards. I was able to ascertain, only in a few cases, the inclination of the beds; nor was this easy, for the stratification was generally obscure, except when viewed from a distance. I feel, however, little doubt that, according to the researches of M.

Volcanic Islands Page 52

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Charles Darwin

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