Slavery and the enslaved

Part of what makes us what we are

Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
William Pitt the Younger, speech on the India Bill, 18 November 1783



WARNING: This page has content that some may find distressing.


Although St Helena is best known for the liberation of the enslaved, its earlier history is rather darker

Slavery (n): An institution or social practice of owning human beings as property, especially for use as forced labour.{a}

Below: Two PhasesEffects on St Helena todaySlavery CommemorationsRead More

Two Phases

Slavery and the enslaved

  1. From the arrival of the English in 1659 until liberation in 1834 St Helena kept and exploited enslaved people. You can read more about this dark period in our history on the page Slavery on St Helena.

  2. Six years after St Helena’s enslaved were emancipated, St Helena became the base for the Royal Naval operations aimed at disrupting the International Slave Trade carrying the enslaved to ‘the New World’ - the new colonies in the Americas. You can read more about this more positive period in our history on the page Attacking the Slave Trade.

Effects on St Helena today

Although many of the ‘Liberated Africans’ were relocated away from St Helena, around 1,000 also remained and integrated with the local population, together with the approximately 1,800 freed formerly enslaved people already here. Add to this around 2,400 people of European descent (settlers + troops), a few remaining Chinese and you have the population of St Helena in the mid-19th Century. It is therefore often said that the genetic makeup of modern-day Saints can be defined by the three ‘S’s - ‘Settlers, Soldiers and Slaves’{1}. One Saint has traced his lineage back to white settlers, enslaved people, a Chinaman and a Boer. Another identified genetic markers from Europe, various different parts of Africa, India, various parts of Asia and Scandinavia. Yet another came up with: 40.5% South Asian (Indian); 12.4% Nigerian; 7.7% Italian; 7.2% Iberian; 6.7% Filipino/Indonesian/Malaysian; 5.2% Finnish; 4.7% Kenyan; 4.4% Maasai; 1.7% Sierra Leonean; 1.5% Papua New Guinean and 1.4% Indigenous Amazonian. You can see the variety of ancestral origins in the saint faces shown below.

The following portraits were taken in the late 1970s and illustrate some of the variety of faces on St Helena{2}:

When the enslaved were freed they were often given as a surname the first name of their former owner. This explains the number of islanders with surnames like Benjamin, Duncan, Francis, George, Henry, Joshua, Lawrence and Leo.

Today Saints take an active part in work to eliminate slavery from the modern world. The Equality & Human Rights Commission runs awareness campaigns on slavery today. The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2nd December is actively celebrated here, as was the 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire.

Saints have also been active in opposing the plan to industrialise Ruperts because of the impact it will have on the ‘Liberated African’ sites and monuments in the valley.

Slavery Commemorations

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

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 were being stored 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.

Read More

Below: WikipediaArticle: New slavery exhibition in Museum of St Helena



Article: New slavery exhibition in Museum of St Helena


By Andrew Turner, published in the St Helena Sentinel 10th September 2020{4}

A topic like slavery can often spark a lot of emotions. [And] for St Helena, it’s huge [ⵈ] many Saints can claim descendence from former slaves, which is something to be quite proud of.

An exhibition detailing St Helena’s history with slavery has recently launched in the Museum, Jamestown.


The exhibition covers St Helena’s history prior to the British Slavery Abolition Act (1833).

[St Helena was] part of the problem, but we weren’t unique as this was going on in every British colony, Museum Director Adam Sizeland told The Sentinel. From the very beginning of settlement there was an order that as [the settlers] came down to the island, they had to pick up slaves in West Africa to help grow things for the island.

Looking at it from a cultural and social point of view, many Saints can claim descendence from slaves, which is something to be quite proud of. These people went through centuries of oppression and managed to come out of it, and are quite a resilient community today - we can learn quite a lot from that.

The central feature of the exhibit is a timeline created by Annina Van Neel of the Equality & Human Rights Commission. The timeline starts from the island’s settlement, progresses through the initial laws governing slaves and ends at the eventual emancipation of slaves in St Helena.

It looks at various injustices and events where slaves were mistreated - it’s quite a lot, as you will be able to see, Adam said.

Other items include a copy of a poster (dated 1829) that advertises slaves for sale; and documents that describe how slaves were treated in St Helena.

There was a list of orders written up when the island was first settled regarding slaves and how they were to be treated, Adam said. It’s interesting to see the attitudes towards slaves at that time.

Rules included in case any negro slave shall presume to give any saucy or impertinent language or answer to any white person shall [ⵈ] be severely whipped in the presence of the party offended to his satisfaction.

Adam is hoping to soon install a message board at the end of the timeline, so people can express their own thoughts and feelings as part of the exhibit.

Adam said people may be especially inclined to contribute to the exhibit because the topic globally is receiving a huge amount of attention.

A topic like slavery can often spark a lot of emotions - many of the problems that have arisen out of slavery, and attitudes towards people of colour, are still prevalent today, Adam said. This year has seen a massive movement; so we want something there so people can engage a bit more with us, so we can get an insight into what people think.

The liberated Africans, who after the abolition of slavery were brought to St Helena from Slavers captured by the Royal Navy, are represented in a separate exhibition. That exhibition includes artefacts dug up during excavations at Rupert’s Valley, such as beaded jewellery and other small possessions.

The slave history of St Helena is also on exhibit throughout much of the island.

The history is particularly evident in Jamestown, where many of the buildings have entrances to slave quarters, segregated from the main entrances.

It’s unquestionable that slaves have had a hand in pretty much all the buildings [in Jamestown], Adam said. On Main Street you will see where the National Trust is, or Essex House - they all have the big ‘grand entrance’ with steps; and then tucked away in the corner, going into the ground, into the basement, is another entrance that would have been for the slaves.

Although the island is full of obvious remnants of slavery, the contribution of slaves to St Helena’s early history is hard to accurately quantify, as the contributions of slaves were often not recorded.

It’s not like it was recorded to say ‘this building was built by slaves’ or anything like that, because in that time they were just doing the work and they weren’t recognised for that work, Adam said. The overseer would have been a white person - he was in control and it would have been ‘the construction was overseen by…’ They would never say ‘built by slaves,’ they just thought of that as an everyday occurrence - it wasn’t worth mentioning.

The exhibition can be found on the top floor of the Museum, which is open every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

There is no funny image on this page. There is nothing funny about slavery.
The shocking thing about slavery is that it still goes on today{5}
To join the fight against slavery see the Equality & Human Rights Commission website.
Slave Manacles

{a} en.wiktionary.org/wiki/slavery{b} en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery

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{1} Though the Chinese Labourers brought in the early 19th Century also made a significant contribution.{2} If you or one of your relatives is shown here and you object to us displaying this image please contact us, identifying the image, and we will remove it.{3} The bicentenary of Napoleon’s death.{4} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{5} In 2019, approximately 40 million people, of whom 26% were children, were enslaved throughout the world.{b}.

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