A human grave was disturbed during roadworks in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena Government has reported. Remains are likely to be those of liberated Africans, brought ashore when the island was used as a base for captured slave-running ships.
Basil Read, the airport contractor halted work as soon as the remains were found on 12 December 2014, further up the valley from the area where mass graves were carefully excavated in 2007, in readiness for constructing an access road to the airport site.
The government statement said: “All evidence points to these being further liberated African remains.
“Earlier finds under the airport project have been of scatter material (fragments left from earlier excavations). This find appears to be part of a previously undisturbed grave.
“It also appears to confirm earlier assessments by Dr Andy Pearson of Bristol University, that further liberated African graves might be located in Rupert’s Valley. Works on the access road have specifically avoided areas of known graves, whilst recognising the risk of further remains being uncovered.
“The archaeology protocol under the airport project specifically recognises this risk and sets out measures to be implemented should there be such a find. This protocol was immediately and effectively implemented, and all works have ceased in the area, which is now closed pending full mitigation measures.”
Further human remains could yet be disturbed as work continues on St Helena’s airport project, a source has cautioned.
It’s been confirmed that “a number of human bones” were found on Friday 14 September 2012, on ground being used by construction firm Basil Read as a laydown area for equipment and materials.
More than 300 skeletons were exhumed in Rupert’s Valley in 2008 when archaeologists cleared ground for the airport haul road – which opened recently.
Lead archaeologist Andy Pearson – who has coincidentally returned to the island on another project – had been asked to investigate parts of the valley that might be disturbed by airport construction works.
Rupert’s Valley contains many unmarked shallow graves of Africans who were put ashore on St Helena after being rescued from slave ships. Records of the location of slave graves are said to be very poor, though maps have been produced historically.
The latest set of bones was in material thought to have been excavated during building work elsewhere some years ago.
The St Helena Independent said “It is likely that the remains come from the excavation of the building site for the power station.
“It is known and accepted that during construction work in Rupert’s Valley in the 1980’s and before, a significant number of Liberated African’s graves were disturbed.
“Some disarticulated remains were taken to St Paul’s graveyard for burial but others were left in their disturbed condition in Rupert’s Valley.”
A protocol has been put in place for dealing with any other remains that come to light.
Initially, this means cordoning off the area while expert archaeological advice is sought.
Further investigations of the affected site would be carried out, or alternative areas of ground found for Basil Read’s use.
With most of the company’s construction vehicles now transported out of the valley, it was thought that cordoning off the area of the new finds would not have significant impact on operations.
Human remains have been found on the site of the bulk fuel farm in Rupert’s Valley, reports Saint FM.
The station says it is likely they had previously been unearthed at another site and “dumped” further up the valley.
They are almost certainly the remains of Africans who arrived on St Helena, dead or dying, when captured slave-running ships were brought to the island by the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron in the 19th Century.
Now questions are likely to be asked about how the remains for liberated slaves have been treated when they have come to light in the past.
Archaeologists excavated part of the extensive African graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, but only where it was in the path of the proposed haul road – now built – for construction traffic, working from maps of the burial sites.
The radio station says the discovery may hold up work on the airport.
If you missed Saint FM’s broacasts on the excavation of 300 human skeletons on St Helena, don’t worry: the programmes are still available as two podcasts on St Helena Online.
The discoveries in Rupert’s Valley in 2008 brought new insight into the horrors aboard slave-running “pirate” ships in the 19th Century.
The skeletons were those of Africans who were liberated on St Helena when captured slave vessels were brought to the island. Over more than two decades, 26,000 people arrived, many dead or dying. It is thought 5,000 were buried in the desolation of Rupert’s Valley.
Some 500 of the survivors stayed on the island, but lived apart, speaking their own languages. Traces of them vanish in the records.
The lead archaeologist, Dr Andy Pearson – who is returning to the island to catalogue its archives – says he has spoken to older St Helenians whose grandparents were alive at the time of the slave liberations, and who remember the tales they told. “We are within historical touching distance,” he says in the second podcast.
The first podcast, Human Traffic, the story behind the discoveries, and the effects on the team of “coming face to face with victims of slavery.”
The second, Saints and Slaves, examines what the finds mean for the island and its people. As former governor Andrew Gurr says, the history of slavery remains an international story, “and St Helena is right at the heart of it.”
They are based on interviews recorded by former BBC journalist Simon Pipe, editor of St Helena Online. They feature Pamela Ward Pearce and Colin Fox of the Friends of St Helena, as well as members of the archaeology team.
People in Rupert’s Valley on St Helena no longer need to boil water for drinking and cooking, says the island’s health directorate. A warning was issued on 6 September saying low levels of the the potentially harmful e-coli bacteria had been found in the valley’s water supply. Further tests show it is now free from contamination and no precautions are needed.
(11 September update: the water is now free of contamination)
by St Helena Government writer
Recent water samples from the Rupert’s Valley area have indicated low levels of e-coli contamination.
Water in homes and businesses should be boiled or sterilised before being consumed or used domestically. The same precautionary measures should be taken if intending to use the water supply at the shower and toilet facilities near the beach area.
It is intended that the network will be flushed and further sampling carried out on Monday next week. An update will be issued once the results are available.
Information about the e-coli bacteria and its effects was published on St Helena Online when a more-widespread case of contamination was discovered on the island in March 2012. Read it here.
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.”
Unique St Helena records dating back more than 300 years are to be rescued from possible “catastrophic loss”.
Many of the ancient documents in the archives at The Castle in Jamestown are already in very poor condition because of a lack of temperature controls, according to St Helena Government.
Some have been attacked by insects – probably the island’s notorious white ants.
With no digital copes of ancient documents, researchers and even casual visitors handle irreplaceable originals, running the risk of damaging them.
Andy Pearson, the archaeologist who led the excavation of the island’s slave burial ground in 2008, will arrive in September 2012 to start the rescue work on behalf of the British Library.
He will make digital copies of some of the oldest and most precious documents, going back to the Goodwins Abstracts of 1673-1707.
He will train Saints to carry on the protection work, and prepare the ground for a major funding bid.
Dr Pearson, of Bristol University, had trouble finding some documents when he was researching the history of the depot for liberated slaves in Rupert’s Valley.
The British Library has funded the first stage of the work on the internationally-significant records. They include local records of the East India Company, which ran the island from 1659.
A St Helena Government statement said:
“The archives document the history, people and daily life of the Island from the late 17th Century through to modern times.
“They provide an irreplaceable historical record for the island’s archaeological heritage, as well as vital shipping records. Many of the surviving documents have international significance and are absolutely unique to the Island.
“But housed as it is, on the ground floor of an historic building with no temperature control, the archive is at risk from deterioration due to humidity, and even from insect infestation.
“The condition of the records is very variable, from good to very poor, and there are no microfilm or digital copies of any materials. This means that all current research is carried out on original documents. The ultimate longer term aim is to provide modern and dedicated storage for these records.”
This pilot project will cover materials up to 1914, including colonial history, the exile of Napoleon and Chief Dinizulu, the island’s use as a Boer War prison camp, and the establishment of the Atlantic telegraph.
Dr Pearson will draw up a priority list of papers to be digitised during his six-week visit, from 12 September 2012.
Documents will be rated according to historic value, their condition, how much they are used and whether copies exist elsewhere – for instance, in London.
Training for local staff will include handling and display of documents, cataloguing and backing up data, which would be vital to any future research grant.
The archives relate St Helena’s pivotal role in the growth of the British Empire, as a staging post for ships sailing between Europe and the East.
Vice Admiralty Court records – which have not all been documented – also describe its role in the suppression of the slave trade after it was declared illegal in Europe. Captured slave-running ships were brought to the island. It is thought 5,000 liberated Africans who succumbed to the horrors of the trade are buried on the island.
East India Company records up to 1834 include correspondence with England, internal memos, land grants and legal proceedings.
The archive also contains Napoleon’s death certificate.
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.