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.”
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.
A small wreath rests on the grave of Samuel Ally, a St Helena slave boy who won his freedom, only to die as a teenager on an island far away.
The ring of ivy and bright flowers was laid in an Isle of Man churchyard, connecting Samuel once more with his homeland, 190 years on.
St Helena councillor Mervyn Yon was told Samuel’s story by the Speaker of the House of Keys – part of the Isle of Man parliament – when they met at a conference in Edinburgh.
The grave at Old Kirk Braddan Church is well-known on the island in the Irish Sea.
Councillor Yon promised to send a wreath to lay on the grave. It arrived some months later.
The grave was cleared by Mr Speaker and the Clerk of the Tynwald, and a conservator cleaned the headstone.
It tells of Samuel’s devotion to Colonel Mark Wilks, who gave him his freedom when he was governor of St Helena, then took him home to the Isle of Man. It says:
An African and native of St Helena. Died the 28th of May 1822 aged 18 years. Born a slave, and exposed to the corrupt influences of that unhappy state, he became a model of TRUTH and PROBITY for the more fortunate of any country or condition.
This stone is erected by a grateful master to the memory of a faithful servant who repaid the boon of Liberty with unbounded attachment.
The Speaker, the Honourable Steve Rodan, said: “This story is a moving one that highlights the loyalty of Samuel Ally and the humanity of Colonel Mark Wilks.”
Colonel Wilks had become Speaker of the House of Keys in 1822, the year of Samuel’s death.
He had been governor on St Helena when Napoleon arrived. The famous prisoner found him “affable”.
St Helena Online thanks David Jones for sending a photograph of the wreath.
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.
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.”
A cave system in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar has been put forward for World Heritage Site status, along with the UK’s famous Forth Bridge.
But a member of the original selection panel says St Helena’s own case for the accolade should be looked at again.
Dr Mike Pienkowski says new information about its role in ending the slave trade would make its case even stronger.
The island was one of 11 sites submitted to Unesco, the world cultural organisation.
Four other sites – including The Lake District and Chatham dockyard – were then put forward to a UK panel of heritage experts.
They then decided that the Forth Bridge and Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar – the last known outpost of Neanderthal Man – should be formally submitted to Unesco.
If selected, they will rank alongside wonders such as Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal – as well as Gough Island, in the South Atlantic.
St Helena remains on a “tentative” list of possible sites that could be put forward at any time in the next ten years.
It was chosen only for its natural wonders – which include 400 types of invertebrate and 45 plants found nowhere else in the world – but not for its human history.
The island’s connection with Napoleon Bonaparte and the unparalleled extent of its coastal fortifications were major parts of its cultural case.
It also played a crucial role in the establishing of the British Empire, by providing a refuelling post for ships bound for the Indies.
But the significance of the island’s role in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade has only been realised since the tentative list was drawn up.
Dr Pienkowski has told St Helena Online that the island’s heritage case should be reviewed in the light of information uncovered by archaeologists who excavated 300 graves of slaves who were buried in Rupert’s Valley.
They died as a result of their ordeal on slave-running ships that were captured by a British squadron, set up after the abolition of slavery by the UK. Some died at sea, others in the “liberated Africans” depot in Rupert’s Valley.
It is thought 5,000 Africans were buried in the valley in the mid 19th Century.
Dr Andrew Pearson and his team also discovered long-forgotten information in the island’s archives – overlooked by other historians.
Dr Pienkowski, honorary director of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, said: “I was one of the so-called expert panel deciding which sites should go on the tentative list for World Heritage status.
“It was proposed as cultural and natural site.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the site should be on for natural purposes. I’m not an expert in the cultural side but I was most impressed by the information given.
“I hope those with expertise in this area might consider revising the listing so it includes the cultural side as well.”
He said St Helena’s designation can be revised at any time while it is on the shortlist.
“It’s quite an elaborate procedure, but St Helena has so many friends in the natural heritage world and cultural heritage world, they ought to be able to pull in the advice to put it together.”
Recognition as a world heritage site would give a big boost to efforts to promote the island’s natural wonders and colonial history. But it would also bring extra pressure to maintain its cultural assets.
According to The Guardian newspaper, the United Nations has expressed concerns about modern development round Parliament Square and the Tower of London.
St Helena National Trust was complained that the island has no law to protect its built heritage.
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.