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Slavery expert is to rescue island’s ancient archives

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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.

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