Slave burial ground excavated on St Helena
The tiny island of St Helena, 1,000 miles off the coast of south-west Africa, is best known for being the place of Napoleon’s exile after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 until his death in 1821. However, it also acted as the landing place for many of the slaves, rescued by the Royal Navy during the suppression of the slave trade between 1840 and 1872.
During this period a total of around 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, most of whom were landed at a depot in Rupert’s Bay. The appalling conditions aboard the slave ships meant that many did not survive their journey, whilst Rupert’s Valley – arid, shadeless, and always windy – was poorly suited to act as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers. At least 5,000 people are likely to have been buried there.
Not quite free
From the 1840s, the Royal Navy stationed a squadron at Jamestown on St Helena to suppress the slave trade and enforce Britain’s abolition of slavery and a court was established to bring to trial those pursuing the slave trade on the high seas. Captured slaver ships laden with what was called ‘Prize Slave Cargo’ were landed at St Helena, where ‘Prize Slaves’ had to perform a 14 year indentured labour period before being freed. At St Helena the ‘Prize Slaves’ were interned in special camps and referred to as ‘Liberated Africans’. However, soon these liberated slaves were so numerous as to strain the islands resources, so that those not locally indentured as servants and labourers were offered immediate freedom (without any indenture clause) and free passage to various destinations in the West Indies, on condition that they freely were prepared to leave St Helena. (1)
A chance to highlight the past
In 2008, as part of further investigative works prior to the construction of an airport on the island, a major programme of field work was undertaken – the first archaeological research to be carried out on the island. This included building recording across the entire airport development area and excavation in one specific location: Rupert’s Valley. The work was directed by Andrew Pearson in collaboration with Blackfreighter Archaeology and Conservation, with staff from AOC Archaeology and Bristol University, aided by volunteers from St Helena.
The excavations took place within part of a cemetery for ‘Liberated Africans’ freed from slave ships by the Royal Navy in the middle years of the 19th century. Much of the valley is occupied by these unmarked graveyards, and the archaeological works only uncovered a very small proportion of the total number of burials that are known to exist. Some 325 bodies in a combination of individual, multiple and mass graves were discovered. Only five individuals were buried in coffins: one adolescent and four still- or newborn babies. The remainder had been placed (or thrown) directly into shallow graves, before being hastily covered. In some cases mothers were buried with their presumed children, or sometimes the bodies were so close that there might have been a familial relationship.
Published results reveal a shocking picture
Now archaeologists, led by Dr Andrew Pearson of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, are publishing for the first time the results of their discoveries and the subsequent scientific investigations of the human remains and associated grave goods buried with them.
Osteological analysis shows that 83 per cent of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults – prime material for the slave traders who sought victims with a long potential working life. In most cases the actual cause of death is not clear, but this is unsurprising because the main killers aboard a slave ship (such as dehydration, dysentery and smallpox) leave no pathological trace. Nevertheless, scurvy was widespread on the skeletons; several showed indications of violence and two older children appear to have been shot.
Personal identity remains
Despite its horrific nature, the archaeology showed those buried within the graveyard as more than simply victims. These were people from a rich culture, with a strong sense of ethnic and personal identity. This is best evidenced by numerous examples of dental modifications, achieved by chipping or carving of the front teeth. A few had also managed to retain items of jewellery (beads and bracelets), despite the physical ‘stripping process’ that would have taken place after their capture, prior to embarkation on the slave ships.
In addition to the large number of beads, burial conditions allowed for the survival of textiles, including ribbons. A number of metal tags were also found on the bodies that would have identified the slaves by name or number.
Dr Andrew Pearson, director of the project, commented: “Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level, and in so doing, overlook the individual victims. In Rupert’s Valley, however, the archaeology brings us (quite literally) face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade.”
Professor Mark Horton said: “Here we have the victims of the Middle Passage – one of the greatest crimes against humanity – not just as numbers, but as human beings. These remains are certainly some of the most moving that I have ever seen in my archaeological career.”
Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level, and, in so doing, overlook the individual victims. In Rupert’s Valley, however, the archaeology brings us (quite literally) face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade. : Dr Andrew Pearson
Andrew Pearson comments that “What has been found is a stark reminder of the process and conditions of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas. It is dramatic and disturbing”.
Over 11 million people were transported across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, but Rupert’s Valley contains one of the few (and perhaps the only) graveyard of Africans rescued directly from the slave ships. Although remote in geographical terms, this small valley is therefore of immense cultural and heritage significance.
The artefacts from the excavations are currently at the University of Bristol and will be transferred to Liverpool for an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in 2013 before returning to St Helena. The human remains will shortly be re-interred on St Helena.
Source: Bristol University Press Release
All images are credited to Dr Andrew Pearson, University of Bristol.
- The research was supported by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Leverhulme Trust.
- The monograph detailing the excavations is published by the Council for British Archaeology: Pearson, Jeffs, Witkin and MacQuarrie, 2011, Infernal Traffic. Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena. CBA Research Report 169.
- Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean (website)
- British documents on slave holding and the slave trade, 1788–1793
- Teaching resources about Slavery and Abolition on blackhistory4schools.com
- (1) St Helena – A short history from 1502 – 2009, Cape Slavery and Heritage