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The Slave Graves

A long way from home

They prophesied the day when the dry bones of the valleys of our land would rise up and become men and stand tall for freedom and dignity.{b}

Many of the ‘Liberated Africans’ did not survive

As explained on our page Attacking the Slave Trade, between 1840 and 1849 nearly 300 Slavers were intercepted and 15,076 captured people aboard, usually known as ‘Liberated Africans’, were landed on the island at Ruperts Bay. Sadly, in the region of 8,000 of these died shortly afterwards as a result of mistreatment by their captors. They were buried in Ruperts, but some of these graves were later disturbed…

SEE ALSO: Our other enslavement-related pages: Slavery was practiced on St Helena, as described on our page Slavery on St Helena. The effects of slavery on St Helena today are described on our page Slavery and the enslaved. St Helena’s role in ending the Transatlantic Slave Trade is described on our page Attacking the Slave Trade. The terrible treatment of the enslaved resulted in many ghost stories about them and their mistreatment also features on our page Titbits from the records.


On 24th November 2006, at the start of the Airport project, the following news item appeared in the local newspapers:

HUMAN REMAINS UNCOVERED: Two sets of human bones were uncovered during trial pit excavations carried out in the (new) Bulk Fuel Farm area in Ruperts Valley earlier today. The bones have been removed and have been placed in two suitable small caskets. The caskets will be kept at St. James’ Church until arrangements have been made for them to be taken to St. Paul’s Cemetery for interment.
Sharon Wainwright, St Helena Access Project Manager, 22nd November 2006.

Nobody seemed to know at the time the extent of the burials that would later be discovered, though why not is not clear, as is explained below. In May 2008 a team of archaeologists arrived on St Helena to work as part of the Airport construction project, their main focus being on Ruperts Valley and in particular on the graves that were known to exist there. The concern at the time was that the extent of the burials was apparently unknown and the airport works there{1} might disturb burials.

By June a large number of graves had been discovered and in August Andy Pearson and Ben Jeffs, archaeologists with the St Helena National Trust, reported on Local Radio that we’ve found a great deal more than we anticipated. We’ve more than a hundred bodies out of the ground now and there’s possibly as many as two hundred and fifty in all, just in the section that we’re lifting.

In the total of ten weeks of investigations a total of 325 complete skeletons were excavated. Thousands more skeletons are believed still to lie in Ruperts Valley, but no more digs are currently planned as there is no intention to disturb the other grave sites.

The skeletons were examined by a research team in Jamestown to determine their age, sex, life history and cause of death. The vast majority were males, with a significant proportion of children or young adults, some less than a year old. Often buried in groups, the individuals were occasionally interred with personal effects, jewellery and fragments of clothing, as well as a few metal tags and artefacts that relate to their enslavement and subsequent rescue. The dry conditions in Ruperts Valley contributed to an extremely high level of preservation; hair was found on some skulls.

Dr. Andrew Pearson’s book

In March 2012 one of the archaeologists, Dr. Andrew Pearson, published a book ‘Infernal Traffic - Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Ruperts Valley, St Helena’. Andrew Pearson observed at the time that one of the reasons the excavation in St Helena was so important was that studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers working on an impersonal scale and in so doing overlook the individual victim. In Ruperts valley, however the archaeology brings us face to face with the human consequences of the Slave Trade.

Slavery exhibition, Liverpool, UK

In 2008 there was no immediate plan for what to do with the disinterred bones. In the absence of a plan they were boxed up - appropriately marked to indicate their found position and date of disinternment - and placed in the Pipe-Store in Jamestown.

Finds from the excavation were for a long time on show at the International Slavery Museum, in Liverpool, UK, after which they were returned to St Helena.

Why were the graves a surprise?

It should be noted that the presence of African’s graves in Ruperts was known a long time before 2006. This notice appeared in the St Helena News Review on 11th January 1985 in connection with the construction of the new Power Station:

The Government of St Helena proposes to erect fuel tanks and other buildings relating to the construction of the Power House, on part or parts of the disused African burial grounds at Ruperts Valley.

If you have any objections to this proposal, you are invited to submit them to the Governor in writing by the l4th January. If submissions are made, the Governor, is empowered to appoint a Commission of Enquiry to consider the matter.

The bones removed were re-buried in the churchyard at St. Paul’s Cathedral (amid some controversy - some church-goers claimed the re-burial was improper because it could not be verified that the person had become a Christian before their death.)

Only a few graves were found at this time. The full extent of the burial ground was not discovered until 2008.

But actually the graves had been extensively documented in 1861 by Melliss. The map (below) was created for a planned re-development of the valley (that never happened). It documents the known burial sites for the ‘Liberated Africans’ - the area where the graves were disturbed is marked ‘Old African Grave Yard’ (upper, right) - and also the location of the ‘Depot’ (labelled African Establishment on the plan){2}:


Below: Island opinion, 2015Reburial PlanPipe-Store WreathActual Reburial1 year tribute

Island opinion, 2015

In 2015 the people of St Helena were asked what should happen to the remains dug up during the airport works. Here are the results of the survey:

Summary of Island response On the Future of the Liberated African Remains Removed from Ruperts Valley (11th May 2015)

Memorial to unknown African graves, 2020
Memorial to unknown African graves, 2020


Note: Using only St Helenian responses (171) provides similar results - 70% preferred reburial of which 49% wanted immediate burial; preferred location Ruperts for 97 respondents.

Conclusion: The response from the local consultation conducted in March 2015 gave the preferred option of immediate reburial of the liberated African remains removed from Ruperts back to Ruperts Valley. The report was (finally) approved by Executive Council in December 2018, but as there were no funds available to start work…

Reburial Plan

On 13th October 2020 Executive Council endorsed the ‘Trans-Atlantic Slave-Memorial’ plan, to build a memorial in Ruperts to the ‘Liberated Africans’ formerly housed there, but did not allocate any funding to do the work.

No budget has been allocated to implement this project and it is hoped that this Master Plan inspires interested parties to champion our mission to achieve this project, in particularly to respectfully lay to rest the exhumed Liberated African remains.{c}

You can download the plan.

The Pipe-Store Wreath

Pipe-Store Wreath, placed 21st May 2021
Pipe-Store Wreath, placed 21st May 2021

On 21st May 2021 a wreath was placed by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on the door of the Pipe-Store in Jamestown, where the remains of the ‘Liberated Africans’ disinterred during airport construction had been stored since 2008 pending reburial. Chief Executive Catherine Turner gave an address, as follows:

Good Afternoon

Thank you all for breaking into your day of fun and family to pay your respects to a group of people who form the backbone of St Helena’s cultural and genetic heritage.

This year St Helena’s day is about Cultural Diversity, which, as a Human Rights Advocate is at the heart of everything I believe - we are all different, we are all amazing - but we are all one family too. Genetic research has shown that every single person on this planet is descended from one of seven African women, so black/white, straight/gay, enslaved or billionaire we are all family. All equal, all due dignity and respect.

This island was largely built by enslaved people.

St Helena was colonised by the English in 1659, and at that time the use of enslaved people was common. One of the original Settler ships from England, the London, had orders to call at St Iago and there procure five or six ‘blacks’ (negroes), able men and women for St Helena. In 1659 the captain of the Truro was instructed to call at the Guinea Coast and there purchase ten ‘lusty blacks’, men and women, for St Helena. In just twenty years there were some eighty enslaved people on the island - about as many as there were settlers.

To a large extent this island was founded and built by these enslaved, who were used for unskilled manual labour in plantations, for road building and for domestic service. One of the more obscure jobs given to the enslaved was carrying ladies and visitors up the original zig-zag path to Ladder Hill (the charge of 1/6d - £0.075 - per trip went, of course, to the owners, not to the enslaved themselves).

Punishments for the enslaved were extreme. Whipping was common for even minor offences; execution for more significant ones (from theft to mutiny).

Happily, slavery on St Helena eventually ended. By 1st May 1836 the last of the enslaved had been ‘freed’, though they mostly remained Indentured to their former owners. But this was not the end of the island’s slavery story.

From 1840 St Helena played a pivotal role in the so-called liberation of slaves being shipped from Africa to the Americas. The conditions on those ships are well documented and still almost unimaginable, but I am going to ask you to try. Imagine you are a young girl or boy (most were boys in their early teens) growing up in a village in what-is-now Angola, the Congo or Namibia. You know little of the world other than your family and village. Then one day you are grabbed, bound and taken to the coast, held in a cellar with many other people who do not speak your language, not properly fed, unable to keep clean. You have never seen the ocean before. You are thrown into the hold of a ship, people around you sick, dying, starving. You are in the dark.

From the 1840s the Royal Navy intercepted these ships and released the captives aboard. Many of the captives that were liberated were brought to St Helena, landed at Ruperts and quarantined. Many died and were buried in the valley and it is estimated that around 8,000 or more are buried in this sacred ground. Others are buried in unmarked graves around the island. Some of those that survived, and the descendants of those slaves already here are the ancestors of todays Saints.

But the legacy of enslavement is still with us and with people of colour the world over, that attitude that being other than white is somehow less, not as worthy of respect and dignity still exists in the prejudice and racism that exists today. The historical implication of the slave trade is the discrimination dehumanization and otherization of people of African descent by the white western world.

Which brings us to today, and the reason we are stood here outside this very unassuming door to the old Pipe-Store, a room which is part of the building that also houses the prison. 12 years ago, as work began towards the airport, archaeological work was carried out to secure the bodies of those people whose remains would be disturbed by the construction of the haul road, they were to be examined and reburied. But 12 years on those bodies and those of others disturbed during the works - some 325 people, men, women and children, most of them young boys - are in boxes in this building. They remain unburied and disrespected in an old storeroom.

We all stand here today, to bear witness not just on behalf of St Helena but the descendants of these beautiful, noble people, in Africa, in the Caribbean and in America and across the world.

In a moment or two, we will have a minute’s silence, then Annina van Neel, the Chair of our Equality & Human Rights Commission, will read a poem. Then Elsie Hughs, who has traced her roots back to some of those we are here today to remember, is going to place this stunning wreath on the door of the store on behalf of us all here and the descendants of slaves everywhere. The message branch will be placed at the door by and we will light candles. Then you are all invited to add a message to the branch or pay your respects as you wish.

The wreath depicts a young African boy as a reminder of the humanity of those that were taken. The unknown boy represents all of the enslaved people who lived and died on St Helena. I would like to thank Sophia Joshua for making this wonderful work of art for us. While I am on the thank yous, I would also like to thank Derek Henry for granting us permission to hang the wreath, my colleagues at the EHRC for all they have done and everyone who has placed a message on our branch.

In a year where so much has been done to commemorate one man{3}, the EHRC calls on our Government to remember our 8,000+ family members and particularly the 325 in this building and to show them the dignity and respect they deserve. They are not just remains, bones or dust, they are people, they are our family. We will remember them.

The Actual Reburial

It wasn’t until 18th March 2022 that the bones were moved to the ‘#1 Building in Ruperts, the site of the new slavery memorial centre, to be prepared for re-burial.

Designated reburial site

In early August 2022 a revised plan to re-bury the remains was announced (ignoring the 2020 ‘Trans-Atlantic Slave-Memorial’ plan). An area between St. Michael’s Church and the Fuel Tanks was designated as the reburial site (right), and the plan announced was that the actual internment would take place on Saturday 20th August 2022, with a ceremony to be held the following day at the burial ground to honour those that had been laid to rest the day before. Sadly, because of the short notice and the inability to get a seat on a flight to St Helena{4} it was not possible for the many people across the world who had an interest in the event to attend. The coffins in which the bones were to be interred were made by students at Prince Andrew School.

It was later clarified that the rebuial site would not initially be marked, other than by a ring of stones{5} to delimit the area. No monument would be erected initially and no date or design for any monument was announced.

Here are some images of the reburial on Saturday 20th August 2022:

1 year tribute

On 20th August 2023, one year from the reburial, a tribute was held at the reburial site. 325 pebble stones were collected from Ruperts beach, to represent the 325 individuals that were reburied in August 2022, and placed on the site. Stones symbolise endurance, stability and permanence, representing the ability to be grounded and connected with the Earth. Individuals were invited to collect and add further stones to the memorial as a personal tribute. The result is shown below:


There was much interest in knowing where the people re-buried in Ruperts originated, before being captured as slaves. DNA Research published in 2023 in The American Journal of Human Genetics indicates that they most likely originated from diverse communities within the general area of northern Angola, the Congo, and Gabon (West Central Africa). This is entirely consistent with the patterns of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Slavery Commemorations

A number of annual days mark themes related to slavery, which are observed to varying degrees on St Helena:

For more annual events see our page This Year.

Read More

Below: Article: St Helena reburies liberated slaves with full honoursArticle: Archaeologists find graves containing bodies of 5,000 slaves on remote islandArticle: Genomes trace origins of enslaved people who died on remote islandArticle: The Bones of St Helena

Article: St Helena reburies liberated slaves with full honours

By Michael Binyon, The Times (UK), 7th September 2022{7}

Almost 200 years after they were released, the remains of 325 liberated African slaves have been reinterred with full honours on St Helena, the British territory in the South Atlantic that has the biggest slave graveyard in the world.

The reburials of men, women and children who were traded mostly to Brazil in the 19th century, were interred in a new burial ground in Rupert’s Valley, near Jamestown, the island capital. They join more than 8,000 other slaves who were rescued by Royal Navy ships patrolling the ocean in the long campaign to stamp out the slave trade.

The bones were exhumed in 2008 during excavations to build an access road to the new airport on St Helena. They were examined by archaeologists who were able to say where the slaves were captured from their teeth and bones and what diet they had. Most were young men but women were also captured to sell as breeding stock. Children’s remains were also found, together with amulets and sacred objects.

The bones were kept in a box in a storehouse next to the island’s prison while debate raged on how they should be honoured. Many on the island wanted a Christian ceremony but it was argued that this was inappropriate because none of the captives were Christians.

The remains were buried, each in an individual casket fashioned by secondary school pupils. Each set of bones was positioned next to the other found when exhumed. Solemn ceremonies were held on August 20 and 21. The British government paid for a memorial and interpretation centre and signage to commemorate St Helena’s role in stopping the slave trade.

From 1840 to 1872, 450 slave ships, mostly owned by Portuguese traders, were intercepted and taken to St Helena, a vital refuelling station for the Royal Navy and commercial sailing vessels returning from India. More than 25,000 liberated Africans were offloaded, with most sent to a quarantine centre.

Many were in extremely poor health, diseased and emaciated after being shackled for weeks in the holds and many died soon after liberation. The Royal Navy also removed the bodies of those already dead in the ships and they were buried in a mass grave.

Most slaves who recovered were sent on to the Caribbean or America as free labourers. Some remained on the island. Only a few were returned to Africa. Nobody spoke their languages so no one knew where they had been captured. Most of the Portuguese slavers were put on trial in St Helena.

The reinterments were held before the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, August 23. The issue is deeply emotional for the islanders because many can trace their ancestry back to slaves rescued from the ships or brought to St Helena before slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.

The burial site will be marked by donated red steeple stone. The ceremonies commemorated the slaves’ suffering in poetry, history and song.

Article: Archaeologists find graves containing bodies of 5,000 slaves on remote island

Published in The Guardian, 8th March 2012{7}

Skeletons buried in the slave graves

Some of the finds from the graves
Some of the finds from the graves

British archaeologists have unearthed a slave burial ground containing an estimated 5,000 bodies on a remote South Atlantic island. The corpses were found on tiny St Helena, 1,900Km off the coast of south-west Africa.

Those who died were slaves taken from slave traders by the Royal Navy in the 1800s. Many of the captives died after being kept on British ships in appalling conditions or in refugee camps when they reached the island.

The dig, held in advance of the construction of a new airport on the island, revealed the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.

The Middle Passage was the name of the route taken by ships transporting slaves from Africa to the new world. It was the second leg of a triangular journey undertaken by European ships. The first leg would involve them taking manufactured goods to Africa, which they would trade for slaves. After the Africans were delivered to the US, the ships would take raw materials back to Europe.

Experts from Bristol University led the dig. One of them, Prof Mark Horton, said: Here we have the victims of the Middle Passage - one of the greatest crimes against humanity - not just as numbers, but as human beings. These remains are certainly some of the most moving that I have ever seen in my archaeological career.

St Helena was the landing place for many of the slaves captured by the navy during the suppression of the trade between 1840 and 1872. Earlier in the century, St Helena was where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to. He died there in 1821. About 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, with most being landed at a depot in Ruperts Bay. Terrible conditions on the ships meant many did not survive their journey. Ruperts Valley - an arid, shadeless and always windy tract - was also poorly suited for use as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers.

The university archaeologists have so far unearthed 325 bodies - in individual, multiple and mass graves - and expect to find about 5,000. Only five individuals were buried in coffins - one adolescent and four stillborn or newborn babies. The others had been put directly in shallow graves before being hastily covered. In some cases mothers were buried with their children.

Dr. Andrew Pearson of the university said 83% of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults. Youngsters were often prime material for slave traders, who sought victims with long potential working lives.

Most causes of death could not be established on the bodies as the main killers - dehydration, dysentery and smallpox - leave no pathological trace. But experts found Scurvy was widespread on the skeletons and several showed indications of violence, including two older children who appeared to have been shot.

The team found evidence the victims were from a rich culture, with a strong sense of ethnic and personal identity. A few had managed to retain items of jewellery such as beads and bracelets, despite the physical stripping process that would have taken place after their capture. A number of metal tags were also found on the bodies that would have identified the slaves by name or number.

Pearson, the director of the project, said: Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level and, in so doing, overlook the individual victims. In Ruperts Valley, however, the archaeology brings us quite literally face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade.

Excavated artefacts will be transferred to Liverpool for an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in 2013. The human remains will be re-interred on St Helena.

Article: Genomes trace origins of enslaved people who died on remote island

By Ewen Callaway, published on Nature, 5th November 2019{7}

Former slaves left on St Helena were probably taken from west-central Africa, finds genome study.

Genomes from enslaved Africans who were freed and died on a remote Atlantic island in the mid-nineteenth century are offering clues about their origins in Africa. The findings come from the largest study of genome data obtained from remains of enslaved people and offer insights into the transatlantic slave trade, in which an estimated 12 million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in North and South America and the Caribbean.

Researchers analysed the DNA of 20 people from the British island territory of St Helena, who the British Navy had liberated and brought there. The research, posted on the BioRxiv preprint server last month, suggests that the people might have been captured in parts of west-central Africa, including present-day Angola and Gabon.

What DNA reveals about St Helena’s freed slaves

Pinpointing the precise origins of people trafficked in the transatlantic slave trade is not yet possible, largely because of gaps in genome databases of people living in Africa today. But researchers say that genetic studies such as this can offer insights into the history of people who were previously known mainly through shipping logs and other commercial records.

No island paradise

Genomes trace diagram

St Helena, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 2,000 kilometres west of Angola, occupies a unique chapter in the history of the transatlantic trade in people. After Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, its navy intercepted slave ships and sent an estimated 24,000 people to St Helena (see ‘The route to Rupert’s Valley’). They had been aboard ships heading largely to Brazil and Cuba between 1840 and the late 1860s.

Many of the people freed arrived in poor health and were housed in squalid conditions in an isolated coastal valley, and as many as 10,000 died on the island. In 2006, construction work for St Helena’s first airport uncovered mass burials. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of 325 people - more than half under 18 and many younger than 12.

Unlike cemeteries in the Americas, which tend to hold multiple generations of people who had once been enslaved, nearly all of the people who died on St Helena were likely to have been born in Africa.

Shipping records - the primary historical source on the African origins of people taken into captivity - tend to record only the ports where slave ships embarked, but other records suggest that many of the people were captured further inland.

To attempt to better trace the Africans who were left on St Helena, a team led by palaeogenomicist Marcela Sandoval-Velasco and ancient-DNA researcher Hannes Schroeder, both at the University of Copenhagen, tested remains from 63 of the people who had lived on St Helena for intact DNA. They managed to sequence partial genomes from 20.

Seventeen were male - backing up records indicating that, in its final decades, the transatlantic slave trade captured far more men than women. Analysis of the genome data found that none of the people were closely related, nor did they belong to a single African population.

Comparisons with genome data from thousands of modern Africans from dozens of populations suggest that the people from St Helena are most closely related to people living today in central Gabon and northern Angola. But the researchers caution that gaps in present-day genome data from potential homelands, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, make it difficult to say for certain where the people buried in St Helena were taken from.

Although it’s very hard to exactly pinpoint their origins, I think what we see in our results is that they are not coming from a single population, says Sandoval-Velasco.

This insight suggests that the liberated Africans taken to St Helena lived in a challenging multicultural setting where they might not have understood the language and customs of others left on the island. We hope that by illustrating the history and the condition of a few, we are at the same time illustrating the condition of the many, but it shouldn’t stop there, Sandoval-Velasco says.

Individual stories

Ancient-genome analysis is a powerful tool for shining a light on people exploited in one of history’s darkest chapters, says Rosa Fregel, a population geneticist at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands, who was not involved in the St Helena study. Usually it’s just about numbers - how many people from each country. Here, we are talking about particular people and their origin, says Fregel, who is applying ancient genomics to illuminate the histories of people captured in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Ancient DNA has the potential to tell their story.

The data lay a solid foundation for studies that could pinpoint the specific regions that the liberated people were from, says Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist at Howard University in Washington DC. The key to identifying the origins of enslaved people, she says, will be expanding data sets of modern Africans, as well as sequencing more remains. She and her colleagues have skeletal material from all 325 people that were recovered from the St Helena burial and hope to generate genome data soon.

David Eltis, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia who co-founded a database that collects information on 36,000 slaving voyages between 1514 and 1866, notes that most people captured in the transatlantic slave trade originated from south of the equator - where a paucity of genome data from modern inhabitants makes it difficult to trace the origins of enslaved individuals with any accuracy.

Reburial plan

Although working with human remains can be ethically fraught, particularly when there are no known direct descendants to consult, the work can have value when carried out with sensitivity, says Jada Benn Torres, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Memphis, Tennessee. (Several hundred of the liberated Africans later integrated into St Helena’s population, but it is not clear if they left any descendants.) Studies like this add another layer to the historical record, bringing to life the moving personal stories behind the slave trade, she says.

You don’t often hear about those who didn’t make it - usually the story ends with their death, says Benn Torres. This provides a perspective on those who weren’t able to make it home. This is important for the world to learn from.

Remains of the 325 liberated Africans that were excavated are in storage on St Helena. In 2018, the territory’s government endorsed plans to rebury them in the valley where they were first uncovered and to create a memorial at the site.

Additional reporting by Heidi Ledford

Article: The Bones of St Helena

By Diane Selkirk, PS Magazine, 10th January 2017{7}

Two cinematographers are capturing the secret history of a South Atlantic island full of the bones of ‘Liberated Africans’.

Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest
Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest

The bones aren’t in pizza boxes, despite what the rumours said - though it was this very rumour that drew filmmakers Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere of the British film company PT Film to a macabre mystery on the island of St Helena. The bones are actually in archival boxes, in an old storeroom attached to the prison, Curran says. But the rest of the story - forgotten corpses excavated from mass graves to make way for an airport, after which the bones languished - is all true.

Best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled and died, St Helena was in the news last year because of the awkward opening of its first-ever airport. (News reports said it was too windy for a lot of planes to land.) What most people still don’t know is that this island, located in the middle of the Atlantic between southern Africa and Brazil, is a physical link to the Middle Passage, the notorious route Slavers used to reach the New World with their human cargo.

Between 1840 and 1874, an estimated 30,000 ‘Liberated Africans’ were released into refugee camps on St Helena. When they died, an estimated 8,000 were buried in three vast graveyards in the shallow volcanic earth in Ruperts Valley and at the quarantine station in Lemon Valley.

Curran, de Vere, and soundman Oliver Sanders say that, while locals knew about the bones, few knew who they belonged to. These bodies didn’t represent ‘Saints,’ as locals are called - they weren’t seen as part of the island. One resident named Colin Benjamin told the film crew about using a skull and leg bone to play baseball: I’m sorry about that, but being kids that’s the way we grew up.

Bones sometimes just appear here, Curran says. We’re walking through an industrial area in Ruperts Valley, on the northwest of the island. Continuing up the valley, we reach a freshly paved road and the second designated graveyard, which was put into official use after the first burial ground was filled. It’s a scramble down from the road, through dry prickly bush, into the unmarked burial ground. I catch sight of a bone-white fragment and cautiously brush away the earth. It’s a piece of old china. The entire area, which stretches up a dry gully to where it meets graveyard number three, is scattered with rocks and debris.

Curran explains the road was built to bring fuel and supplies to the airport. It was during a geotechnical survey that workers discovered signs of the burials, and, in 2008, archaeologists led by Andrew Pearson, an independent archaeological consultant, excavated the bones of some 325 ‘Liberated Africans’.

Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s GraveButcher’s Grave detail
Left: Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave, Right: Butcher’s Grave detail

The archaeologists unearthed a combination of individual, multiple, and mass graves. Most contained children between eight and 12 years old; some were wearing ribbons or beads; in one case, a tiny copper bracelet.

Annina van Neel, chief environmental commitment officer of the airport construction company Basil Read, oversaw later finds. She told us about finding remains, and the sleepless nights it would cause her, Curran says. I cried for the first time when I watched van Neel cry. The humanity of it all just hit me.

Curran says that filming the documentary was like assembling a puzzle; every person they interviewed had a different relationship to the bones and was just a small piece of the story. As their interviews continued and the story took shape, de Vere and Curran began to realize how timely it was: There were times when the numbers of African refugees almost numbered residents, he says. The islanders would send word to England to say they needed help - that they were struggling to manage and care for the new arrivals - and then another ship would show up, and they had to cope. With an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond, the bones of St Helena today tell an urgent story.

Slavery and St Helena have been linked almost since the island was discovered, uninhabited, by Portuguese sailors 500 years ago. Five of the island’s earliest inhabitants were escaped enslaved people. By 1723 over half of the island’s 1,100 residents were enslaved. Slavery began its decline in St Helena in 1792, when local laws made it illegal to import new enslaved people. In 1832, slavery was abolished when the East India Company purchased the 614 remaining slaves from their owners for a sum of around £28,067 - and, soon after, the role of many Saints shifted from owner to ally.

One way that the denizens of St Helena helped fight slavery was by sea: De Vere explains that ships like the British HMS Waterwitch formed a blockade off the African coast. When they caught a Slaver, crews boarded it and brought it to St Helena, where the human cargo was released and the ship was broken up. During her years of service, Waterwitch captured around 40 Slavers, liberating thousands of captured Africans.

In April 1843 Waterwitch captured the Brazilian-flagged ship Conceição de Maria. Some 390 people had been loaded aboard the small boat in Benguela, Angola. After 22 days at sea, 349 captives, 60 percent of whom were children, were liberated in St Helena; 41 had died during the voyage. Many were buried in St Helena’s mass graves.

Beyond the sheer tragedy of the finds on this island, archaeologists say the importance of these lives can’t be underestimated. This is the only known assembly of large numbers of first-generation enslaved Africans in the world. They are thought to be the last trace of the estimated 1.8 million people who perished on the Middle Passage, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

Research opportunities have been limited by local politics, but bone fragments from the graves were part of DNA sequencing and radiogenic isotope analysis in the eurotast project. The project’s goal is to identify the origins of the people who were stolen during the slave trade. Simply put, knowing who is buried in St Helena may answer elusive questions about the people who arrived in the Americas.

St Helena is a magical place. Granite spires rise out of rolling green farmland on one part of the island, while, in other places, multi-hued volcanic cliffs drop abruptly into the sea. These days, the population of 4,000 relies on supplies brought by ship. But in 1850, the island’s farms, fishery, and water supply had to provide for a population nearing 7,000, the hundreds of ships that called each year, and the influx of African refugees.

One sunny afternoon, the island appears more pastoral than imposing. Curran suggests we sail the inviting waters toward the Liberated Africans Depot, the camp set up to house refugees, in Ruperts Valley. From aboard a 40-foot catamaran, he wants to film the sea route the captured Slavers would have taken before visiting the graveyards by land. Sitting on deck, listening to gentle waves, we’re entertained by swooping black noddies, and soon catch a glimpse of a huge Whale Shark as we approach the rugged red cliffs.

A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airportRuperts Bay
Left: A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airport, Right: Ruperts Bay

Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation HouseThe airport check the runway as part of their daily routineThe island’s interior
Left: Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House; Middle: The airport check the runway as part of their daily routine; Right: The island’s interior

Even beauty can’t obscure the truth: Experts argue about the true human cost of slavery, but estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database say some 12.5 million people were loaded aboard ships by European slave traders for the journey to the New World, and between 10 and 20 percent died during transport. Records tell us that people were packed into the dank hulls of ships, separated by sex, and kept naked and chained. When the Slavers arrived in St Helena, the captives were often near death thanks to dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, and violence.

In the Jamestown library, I come across one account of a ship’s arrival. The paragraph, written by the surveyor and engineer John Melliss in 1861, describes how horrified Melliss was at the brutalities endured by the Africans: The whole deck … was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape which I had never seen before. One’s sensations of horror were certainly lessened by the impossibility of realizing that the miserable, helpless objects being picked up from the deck and handed over the ship’s side, one by one, living, dying and dead alike, were really human beings.

Despite grave odds, for the three decades the Liberated Africans Depot was open, locals nursed thousands of the newly freed back to health. Over the years they offered English lessons, schooling, and church services to survivors. Hundreds of refugees opted to stay on the island. The remainder, speaking multiple languages and originating from far-flung parts of Africa, often couldn’t communicate where they were from, making it impossible to return them. Instead they were sent as Indentured servants to places including British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Walking through the dusty heat of graveyard number two, I can’t help but compare this dreary place with Sane Valley, the lush grove in the island’s interior where Napoleon was interred. Napoleon, whose body was returned to France in 1840, gets an annual remembrance ceremony. The nameless 8,000 Liberated Africans buried on St Helena don’t have a single memorial plaque or grave marker between them.

Curran explains that a memorial for the Liberated Africans will come - but because the bones are claimed by no one, islanders have argued over how best to commemorate them, and even who should be given a role in the decision. People have offered various ideas: immediate interment; plantings to beautify the area; an art installation; a tomb; or even sending the bones back to Africa. Until a decision is made, the excavated bones sit off-limits in a dilapidated storeroom, and the rugged graveyards remain unmarked, untended, and largely unknown.

I think it might not matter how the bones are memorialized, but simply that they are.

I recall that passage I read - Saints picking up the dying Africans one by one as they carried them to freedom - and about how the island’s small population did all it could to care for and bury the refugees, who just kept coming. I think about how deeply the archaeologists were moved during the excavations; and how the descendants of enslaved Africans may find answers to questions about their history within the DNA. I reflect on how the film crew is so committed to telling this story they simply can’t let it go.

And I wonder if maybe this story can serve to remind us of the value of human kindness and compassion in this new era of mass displacement, with so many souls in peril on the sea.

{a} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{b} Martin Luther King, Jr.{c} Liberated African Advisory Committee, August 2020{7}


{1} Extension of the fuel storage and creation of the ‘haul road’ from Ruperts to the airport site.{2} This latter area is where the ‘Container Park’ is, at the time of writing, being built.{3} The bicentenary of Napoleon’s death.{4} The island only removed Covid‑19 restrictions on 8th August and when the reburial announcement was made flights were already fully booked, mostly by saints wishing to visit home who could not get back sooner due to Covid‑19 restrictions.{5} Actually the remains of the spire of St. James’ Church.{6} In 2022 this was marked with an event outside The Cannister, linked to the recent reburial of the ‘Liberated Africans’ exhumed while Building St Helena Airport.{7} @@RepDis@@