Africans freed from Slaver Ships to be Reburied in St Helena

By Craig Brewin,

On 18th January, the Liberated African Advisory Committee (LAAC) of St Helena announced plans for the reburial of the remains of 325 Africans who were rescued by the Royal Navy from slave traders, and who died in the refugee camps on the island. The remains were removed during excavations for the new airport thirteen years ago and have been kept in storage ever since. There is some contention about the profile of the ceremony and the cultural traditions to be used, but the reburial will go ahead with the full support of LAAC.

The deaths of those taken to St Helena is a horrendous historical event. Between 1808 and 1872, the Royal Navy seized more than 1,600 slave ships and freed about 150,000 African captives. St Helena set up refugee camps from 1840 when the island became the base for the squadron leading the Royal Navy's anti-slavery campaign. Twenty-six thousand enslaved people were brought to the island.

In 1849, Anglican bishop Robert Gray described a slave ship being unloaded on the island of St Helena. "I never beheld a more piteous sight," he observed of the people on board. Some were dead; many more were close to it. "They had a worn look and wasted appearance, and were moved into the boats like bales of goods, apparently without any will of their own."

The life expectancy of someone taken from a slave ship was not long, and it is believed that 10,000 may have died. The most likely causes of death; dehydration, dysentery and smallpox, do not leave any pathological trace. But the wide spread of scurvy could be identified on the skeletons, along with gunshot and other wounds.

It is now estimated that there are 5,000 people buried in the Ruperts Valley area. Their skeletons are to remain undisturbed. The valley was a known burial ground, and bones had been dug up there in the 1980s. The recent discoveries began in 2006 when two sets of human bones were unearthed during trial pit excavations in 2006. In 2008 archaeologists were brought in to assess the scale of what was believed to be a significant burial ground. Within weeks, hundreds of bodies had been dug up in the area that the airport works would disturb, many buried in groups.

An examination of the skeletons revealed that the vast majority were male and were predominantly young people, teenagers and children. Several were buried with personal effects, jewellery and identification tags related to the capture or release. Only five people were buried in coffins – one adolescent and four stillborn or newborn babies. The others had been buried in shallow graves. In some cases, mothers were buried with their children.

The story of the excavation is told in a book by one of the archaeologists, Dr Andrew Pearson, called 'Infernal Traffic - Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Ruperts Valley, St Helena'. Pearson described this as it takes the debate about the horrors of slavery from discussions about unimaginable numbers to personal consequences. "Because you have the mid-Atlantic stopping point, it is unique and hugely important," he said. "Nowhere else could have this — people straight off slave ships."

Each person unearthed will be reburied in a coffin in a mass grave. Students from St Helena's secondary school Vocational Education Programme will make the coffins. The Diocese of St Helena has donated the red stone from the original steeple on St James Church for the tomb slab.

Helena Bennett, the Chair of the Liberated African Advisory Committee, was quoted in a press release saying: "Reburying the excavated 325 persons who died under such tragic circumstances is finally happening. Thank you, St Helena Government and everyone who has helped us to this stage.”