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.”
LISTEN: Human Cattle – Victims of the South Atlantic Slave Runners
Presenter: Simon Pipe Duration: 14.51 minutes
The second podcast, Saints and Slaves, explores what the finds mean for the island and for its people, who were confronted with a stark reminder of their own slave heritage.
LISTEN: Saints and Slaves
Duration: 14.23 minutes
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.”
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: ‘My intense grief for St Helena slaves’ (warning: includes images of skeletons)
Slavery role should boost World Heritage case, says expert