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.