The dreaded underground cells
St Helena’s notorious underground solitary cells were designed to temporarily accommodate rebellious and disorderly prisoners. These musty, fetid and intentionally disagreeable boxes were reached by descending a flight of stairs below C wing.
They were completely dark. Not a ray of light entered them:
‘The eyes not only saw, but felt the absolute negation of their sense in such a place. Let them strain their utmost, not one luminous chink or crack could the sight detect. The body seemed to be positively encompassed with the blackness, as if it were buried alive, deep down in the earth itself’.
There were those who believed that a stretch in the dark cells was the most fearful form of punishment. Visiting Surgeon Hobbs commented in 1869:
‘The lash is humane treatment in comparison with being shut up in a black hole – in a solitary cell for a month, on bread and water. The lash is sharp, quick and decisive. To shut a man up in a black hole for a month is designed to drive him mad, besides which health suffers from the bread and water diet’.
By the 1880s there were twelve of them, each measuring 8 feet long, 3½ feet wide and 8 feet high. An obscure passage around the cells was used for exercising twice a day.
The absence of all light and meagre ventilation contributed to an environment which in time had a crushing impact on the physical and emotional well-being of the unruly prisoners confined there. In 1887, one observer noted that the two men locked away in there at the time had ‘a pallid, almost cadaverous look, which showed how the punishment had told’.
For many years, the dark cells remained the paramount form of punishment to be avoided at the island prison.