St Helena Online


Samuel Ally's gravestone with a lot of script engraved on it.

Life of a St Helena slave to be marked with a wreath

Samuel Ally's gravestone with a lot of script engraved on it.
The grave of Samuel Ally is a familiar landmark on the Isle of Man. Picture: Alan Rice

Samuel Ally was born a slave on St Helena but won his freedom – only to die, still a teenager, on another island 5,000 miles away. Now tribute is to be paid to his memory.

His story had been all-but forgotten on St Helena, though not completely lost. But on the Isle of Man, where he lived his last years as a servant, his grave is a well known landmark.

Councillor Mervyn Yon was told of his story when he met delegates from the Isle of Man parliament, the Tynwald, at a recent convention in Scotland – and he promised that a wreath would be sent to be laid on the grave.

St Helena Online understands that arrangements for the wreath-laying are still being made.

Isle of Man postage stamp shwoing Gov Wilks and Napoleon
A postage stamp recalled Governor Wilks’s connection with Napoleon

Samuel was granted his freedom by Governor Mark Wilks, who was in post when Napoleon arrived on the island as a prisoner.

The authorities in London decided that a military general should oversee the deposed emporer’s exile, and Governor Wilks – who was only a colonel – was relieved of his post and paid compensation for his disappointment.

He went home to an estate on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, and took Samuel with him.

When Samuel died, his employer paid for an expensive gravestone at Old Kirk Braddan Church. The text, some of it still legible after nearly 200 years, describes Samuel in lavish terms:

“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.”

Alan Rice of the University of Central Lancashire notes that there was an irony in Samuel’s “brief black presence” on the Isle of Man.

Councillor Mervyn Yon
Councillor Mervyn Yon

He writes: “The island’s links with the slave trade… had been at their height in the mid-18th Century, when Liverpool and Lancaster slavers stopped on the island to load illegal duty-free Rotterdam cloths.

“Manx maritime tradition provided captains and crew members to the trade, including one of its most famous exponents, Captain Hugh Crow.

“Ally’s grave is a physical marker of a history that hitherto has been buried in the footnotes of history.”

Nearly 200 years on, it seems Samuel Ally is to be restored to his place in St Helena’s history too, as a result of that chance conversation in Scotland.


Samuel Ally’s grave

Slavery expert is to rescue island’s ancient archives

Ancient bound volumes fills the shelves Inside the archives - with a young female student looking out from behind a pillar
The archives record St Helena’s history – but without protection, they could become history themselves

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.

Excavations, St Helena slave graveyard
Dr Andy Pearson led excavations of St Helena’s slave burial ground

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.

Painting of Napoleon's body leaving St Helena: soldiers line the wharf, a barge at the landing
Napoleon’s body leaves St Helena: his death certificate is in the archives

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.

Boer War prisoners
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Slavery role should boost World Heritage case, says expert

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.

AUDIO SLIDESHOW: ‘My intense grief for St Helena slaves’
‘Heritage damaged’ as Trust calls for new law

The Guardian: Forth rail bridge and Gibraltar cave in running for world heritage site status
UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum
World Heritage Sites