Slavery is to become the theme of a educational cruise on the RMS St Helena, island tourism chief Cathy Alberts has revealed.
It will tie in with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery in December.
It will also draw on the excavation of the remains of 400 Africans from captured slave-running ships that were brought to St Helena. Those who reached shore alive endured harrowing conditions at a liberation depot in Rupert’s Valley.
Cathy told Saint FM presenter Tony Leo: “That is going to be the theme of the whole voyage.
“We will have archaeologists on board who will give talks. People will be able to go and see where some of the artefacts have been found.”
In September 2012, executive councillor Bernice Olsson called for the island to become a place of commemoration for all Africans who were transported across the Atlantic on the notorious Middle Passage of the slave trade.
She said: “These people are a reminder and a symbol of all those who, over 300 years, were enslaved and lost their lives in the journey from Africa to the Americas.
“Today, many people living on St Helena, and millions of others living in northern and suthern America, are descended from slaves who survived.
“Many would like to come to St Helena to learn about their ancestors, their families and the business of slavery.”
She also called for the urgent reburial of the human remains that had been exhumed to make way for airport works in Rupert’s Valley.
The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, 2 December, marks the date of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949. An estimated 21 million women, men and children are reported to be trapped in slavery around the world.
When a Lieutenant Wilcox declared that his men were too exhausted to haul the dead out to sea any more, it brought home the horror of St Helena’s role in ending the “depravity” of the slave trade.
The Lieutenant’s complaint is recalled in one of two audio podcasts produced for St Helena Online. They describe the island’s harrowing years as a liberation base for Africans found aboard captured slave-running ships.
The first details the excavation of more than 300 skeletons from barren Rupert’s Valley, just a few hundred yards from the colonial elegance of Jamestown. The archaeologists tell of their emotions on coming face to face with victims of a barbaric trade. As one said: “It was a moment of intense grief. Those were people. That was someone.”
As lead archaeologist Dr Andy Pearson explains in the recording, the African burial grounds lay in the path of a new road needed for airport construction traffic. The archaeologists’ job was to carry out the “sensitive exhumation” of any remains that might lie in its path.
They will be reinterred and given a memorial when the disruption is over – “not imminently,” he says. The airport is not due to be finished until 2016.
The finds have been momentous for historians, writes Dr Pearson in an article on his own website.
“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.”
Dr Pearson and his colleague have described their discoveries in a book, called Infernal Traffic: Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena.
It shares new insights into the history of the island, as well as telling the story of the long struggle to put down the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Information from long-forgotten archives brings to light the scale of the ordeal for both the Africans and those who tried to care for them.
St Helena was ill-equipped to cope with the 26,000 who arrived, many dead or dying, between 1840 and 1863. Smallpox and dysentery were rife.
The first camp was in Lemon Valley, with a ship anchored just off shore to quarantine the most sick.
On Christmas Eve, 1840, Dr George McHenry wrote of Lieutenant Wilcox’s refusal to allow his exhausted men to carry on their grim task of hauling the dead out to sea:
“…in consequence of which we will be obliged for the future to sink close to the vessel the bodies of such as may die. As the vessel is not very distant from the beach, the probability is that the bodies will be driven ashore and what the result may be I leave yourselves to judge…”
As a result, a new camp was established in arid Rupert’s Valley, just over the hill from the elegance of Jamestown. Over the next two decades and more, liberated Africans continued to arrive without warning, sometimes hundreds at a time. They were housed in inadequate tents made of sails from captured ships, which were usually broken up.
Andrew Gurr, who was governor of the island during the excavation, reflects on the story – “almost too painful and solemn” – in a foreword to the book:
“Awareness of what lay beneath the surface of Rupert’s Valley was sketchy to say the least, and in many ways it had been ignored.
“And yet the surprises unearthed by Dr Pearson and his team shout to us down the ages not only of the incredible cruelty of the slave trade, of the immense mountain of human suffering, but also of the absolutely pivotal role that St Helena played in helping to alleviate and eradicate such inhumanity.
“The sheer scale of the graveyards is both revealing and disturbing: standing by the excavated graves, it was not hard to imagine that this barren, steep-sided valley once contained a human conveyor belt that channelled relief and horror at the same time.”
Television archaeologist Mark Horton has described his emotion on coming “face to face” with the remains of slaves whose bodies were excavated from a mass grave on St Helena. They were among thousands of Africans brought to the island aboard captured slave-running vessels. “It was a moment of intense grief. Those were people. That was someone.”
A note from Simon: the launch of the new book about the excavation of the slave graveyard in Rupert’s Valley was fabulous and fascinating. Professor Mark Horton – sometime presenter on the BBC’s Coast series – said that the island’s role in the abolition of slave-running during its most savage era was of far greater significance than Napoleon’s exile at Longwood. I’ve recorded interviews with him and with Dr Andrew Pearson, the lead archaeologist, but pressure of my own university assignments means it will be some days before I can post a report on this site. Professor Horton did say the story needs to be heard “by millions”. A story put out by Bristol University has been picked up around the world.
For now, here’s a slideshow of images from the excavations, with thanks to Joy Lawrence for finding it. You need to scroll down the page a bit.