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Bernice calls for tribute to Atlantic slave trade victims

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Scene of despair: Rupert’s Valley as it was when archaeologists exhumed more than 300 skeletons

The hundreds of thousands of Africans who died aboard slave traders’ ships in the Atlantic should be commemorated on St Helena, one of the island’s councillors has said.

It could bring people to the island who want to understand what their ancestors went through, said Bernice Olsson in an editorial in The St Helena Independent.

But she said that first, the bones of 400 slavery victims excavated on the island in 2008 must be respectfully re-buried – “not in seven years, but this year.”

The waterwitch memorial is a tall column crowned with an urn, and with an inscription on its square base.
Jamestown has a memorial to men who died in the fight against slavers

She said it was cruel and disrespectful to keep them in a store for several years.

More than 300 skeletons, along with the bones of another 100-of-so Africans, were exhumed from Rupert’s Valley to make way for a new road for airport construction vehicles.

Bernice said: “We need to re-bury the people with all the gentleness, dignity and kindness that we can find, making sure their culture is respected.”

Dr Andy Pearson, who led the excavations, told St Helena Online the main purpose of the excavations was the “dignified exhumation and reburial” of the dead.

The archaeologists were not responsible for deciding what should be done with the remains, but he said he suspected reburial was “not imminent” and would not happen until the “construction chaos” in Rupert’s Valley was finished.

Bernice’s comments appeared in The St Helena Independent – owned by husband Mike Olsson – under the headline, Some Dignity Would Not Hurt.

She wrote: “For four years the bones of a large number of people have been kept in boxes in the Pipe Store.

“The government has been asked why these people have not been respected and given a proper and dignified reburial. The reply has been that they are not a priority and they will not be reburied until the airport is finished, seven years after they were disinterred.

“In modern times this is a cruel, unacceptable and disrespectful way to treat people. We would not treat our own family ancestors in this way.

“Perhaps we should talk to the rest of the world about this shabby, inhumane treatment?

“We are also missing out on an opportunity. 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, as tourists, to learn about their ancestors, their families and the business of slavery.

“To benefit from these visitors, St Helena could establish an international monument to all those slaves who died, possibly near those who will be reburied. The monument would acknowledge what happened, and celebrate the strength and resilience of those who survived.

“If this happened, St Helena would have the only Atlantic-based slave memorial in the world.

“It would focus international attention on the island, attract resources and encourage the development of a unique tourism industry.

“Above all, it would make the island far more visible and tangible to the rest of the world.”

St Helena already has a memorial to crew members of the ship Waterwitch who died in the fight against illegal slave-runners. It stands in the Castle Gardens in Jamestown.

The St Helena Gazette describes how the ship chased down a slaver, whose captain threw 130 slaves overboard to lighten his load to try to outrun his pursuer. He then ran his ship ashore, leaving the boats of the Waterwitch to save his human cargo from drowning. Many died.

John Grimshaw cites the episode in an article on the Waterwitch memorial, here.

PODCASTS: Hear the story of St Helena’s anti-slavery fight

Some Dignity Would Not Hurt – read Bernice’s article in full

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