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Attacking the Slave Trade

St Helena’s part in ending the International Slave Trade

There is no such thing as part-freedom.{c}


St Helena played an important part in ending the International Slave Trade

SEE ALSO: Slavery on St Helena. The effects of slavery on St Helena today are described on our page Slavery and the enslaved.


Legal slave-ship stowage
Legal slave-ship stowage

Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire from 1st August 1834 it remained in America for nearly 30 more years, until 1863. Slavers continued to operate between ports in West Africa and the Americas, often passing St Helena en route.

Apart from the almost inconceivable inhumanity of uprooting people from the lives and families, removing their liberty and consigning them to a life of unpaid servitude, the condition in which the captives were transported were shocking. The diagram (right) shows how the captives were packed into the ships to maximise profit for the journey of between one and two months across the Atlantic. They were given minimal food and water and there were no sanitary provisions and no medical aid. Dysentery and Scurvy were commonplace and around 15% of the captives died during the journey, their bodies being unceremoniously dumped overboard. When the smell became intolerable (to the ship’s crew) the captives were taken up on deck and hosed down with seawater, as were the lower decks. It is thought that as many as 20 million Africans were transported to the Americas by ship in this way.

And the really scary thing is that this diagram shows the legal stowage, regulated under the British Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. The Slavers operating across the mid-Atlantic (the Middle Passage) in the 1840s were not regulated under this Act because they were not British{1}, so their stowage conditions would have been far, far worse.

In 1840 the British Government deployed a naval station on St Helena to suppress the trans-Atlantic African Slave Trade.

The Vice-Admiralty Court

Proclamation setting up the Vice- Admiralty Court
Proclamation setting up the Vice-Admiralty Court

By order of Queen Victoria, St Helena was also chosen as the location of the Vice-Admiralty Court, based at Jamestown, to try the crews of the Slavers{2}.

Slaver auction notice
Slaver auction notice

Orders were given to all Royal Navy ships to detain Portuguese slave vessels wherever met with, and slave vessels hoisting no flag, and destitute of any papers proving their nationality. The Africans found on board were to be landed at the nearest British port to be there placed under the care of the governor or of another officer in command. The ships, and any cargo found on board, were to be - if seaworthy - sold at auction (image, right), and if not broken up.

One of the first engagements took place on 2nd December 1840 close to Benguela along the Angolan coast where the HMS Waterwitch intercepted a ship carrying the enslaved bound for the Americas. Lieutenant Henry James Masson, Commander of the HMS Waterwitch related the pursuit as follows:

At 3 p.m. on this day chase was given to a suspicious looking Brigantine under the land who then made all sail to gain a small bay, on entering which at 4:30pm she ran on shore under all sail, the crew immediately deserting her by boats. On boarding the said vessel I found a large number of captives on board, a great many in the water who had attempted to swim on shore but the distance being too great many were drowned in the attempt, some regained the vessel and others were saved by the boats of the HMS Waterwitch; on mustering the captives immediately on getting the vessel afloat, there appeared to be 245 left on board of whom 5 died immediately after taking possession.

HMS Waterwitch monument in Castle Gardens
HMS Waterwitch monument in Castle Gardens

A third of the captives were sick when found on the ship. James Wilcox, second mate of the HMS Waterwitch, took command of the Slaver to bring her and her passengers safely to St Helena where the Africans could recover and the vessel be brought for adjudication. During the 13 day journey, 32 of the captives died. The survivors were declared free and taken to Lemon Valley to recover. The name of the Slaver remains unknown and there is no recorded information about its origins, but Portuguese and Brazilian flags were found on board after the capture. Almost all the ships caught that year were either Brazilian or Portuguese. A monument to the sailors who served on the HMS Waterwitch stands in the Castle Gardens.

An observer in 1861 described the terrible scene when ship carrying the enslaved landed at Ruperts:

The whole deck, as I picked my way from end to end, in order to avoid treading on them, was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape that I had never seen before. Yet these 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. Their arms were worn down to about the size of a walking stick. Many died as they were passed from the ship to the boat, but there was no time to separate the living from the dead.

Sometimes the Slavers fought capture, in some cases quite persistently:


On the morning of the 24th May, HMS Pantaloon, then cruising in lat. 4°30’0”N and long. 3°0’0”E., made a sail, distant about five miles on the weather bow. It being dead calm at the time three boats from the Pantaloon were speedily manned, and sent after the stranger, which was soon ascertained to be a Slaver. When the boats got within a mile of the prize which turned out to be a Polacca brig (name unknown), of 320 tons, with six guns and forty seven men she hauled both courses up together, and fired a shot which fell short of our boats. She then commenced firing grape and round shot in good earnest without however doing any mischief. When our men were about a cable’s length off the Slaver, they gave three hearty English cheers, such as forebode destruction to all who resist, and swept alongside. Two of the boats made for the bows of the brig. Lieut. Lewis de J. Prevost, who commanded, ran his boat under the bumpkin brace. Mr. Crout, the master of the Pantaloon, at the same time gained a footing over the bows and the prize was boarded, not however before three of our gallant tars were wounded, in return for which one of the rascals was shot through the forehead.

The third boat, with the boatswain, attempted to board from the main chains, and being much exposed, had the misfortune to lose two men, he with three others being wounded. Our men had no sooner a fair footing on deck, than the crew vanished as if by magic; their fight was over, the cowardly rascals having done enough mischief for one voyage. Mr. Crout, on getting on board, was saluted with four muskets, fired close to his face, by which he was nearly blinded. Mr. Prevost likewise had some narrow escapes. A breeze having sprung up, they were joined by the Pantaloon, which was saluted with four guns from the prize which had been captured at such a terrible sacrifice.{d}

The following is a (probably incomplete) list of the Slavers intercepted by the HMS Waterwitch and brought to St Helena:


Ship Name

Ship Type

30th Jun 1841

Donna Elliza


27th Oct 1841



Apr 1843

Conceição de Maria


23rd May 1845



10th Apr 1846



1st May 1846



8th May 1846



11th Jun 1846



The ships listed as captured by the Royal Navy in just one week include:

Life after ‘liberation’

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. The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed (it received its last slavery victims in 1864) has been estimated at over 24,400 from 439 ships, with embarkation points along the south-western African coast from Angola to the Congo.

As many as 5,000 of the Africans liberated from Slavers were dead on arrival at St Helena, or were diseased and/or malnourished and died soon after being deposited on St Helena - see the graph (below). Around 3,000 more died during their time here. They were deemed by the Church to be ‘pagans’ and burial in the official graveyards was not allowed, so their remains were interred in unmarked mass-graves in the valley. The sites of these burials were not recorded so even today we do not know exactly how many were buried (it is estimated at more than 8,000) or the location of all the burial sites. Some ‘slave graves’ were discovered when the new Power Station was being built in the 1980s and more during the Airport construction project.

Survivors lived at Ruperts, Lemon Valley and High Knoll Fort. Accommodation for them was rather basic (photograph, below).

Another photograph (below), apparently taken in 1861, shows freed women departing St Helena to be returned to Africa. Few could be returned to their homes - Slavers kept no detailed records that could be used to track their captives back to their point of origin and most had no idea of geography and could not identify the place from where they had been taken. When numbers became too great many were sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. Records show that British Guiana received 6,773, Jamaica 4,490, Trinidad 3,996, and other colonies 1,028. Total 16,287. In later years, some more were sent to Sierra Leone and other destinations, bringing the total of émigrés to 17,144.

Maybe as many as 1,000 elected to remain on St Helena{3}. They were employed, initially unpaid, as domestic servants and labourers, building roads and performing other tasks like hauling the stone to build St. Paul’s Cathedral and cutting the water channel in Ruperts. Some have noted that this requirement to perform unpaid labour seems a lot like slavery and hence have questioned the term Liberated Africans.

Eventually they integrated into the indigenous population, already comprising people of European descent (the original settlers), various arrivals from India and the Far East, remaining Chinese labourers and the former island enslaved. In ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875 we are told that not half a dozen instances of intermarriage have occurred during thirty years, though this gradually changed and today few Saints cannot trace a West African ancestor in their family tree. The census for 1881 lists 77 people whose birthplace was listed as ‘West Coast of Africa’.

St Helena benefited financially as well as morally from being used as a port to land people saved from slavery. The island received funds from London to feed them; the free labour - at a time when a labourer charged around 7s per day (7s = £0.35) - was invaluable to the colonial economy; and the island could usually take possession of all the goods transported in the Slavers. Sadly the latter also included White Ants, but that’s another story…

Many mostly-older Saints still make use of ‘traditional remedies’ based on plants growing wild around the island. Presumably some of this folklore was brought here by the ‘Liberated Africans’. Some of these plants are documented on our page Edible Wild Plants.

The ‘Slave Graves’

On 24th November 2006 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 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 knew at the time the extent of the burials that would later be discovered. 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 unknown and the airport works there{4} 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 SaintFM (2004-2012) 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 skeletons were excavated. Thousands more skeletons are thought 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

Finds from the excavation were for a long time on show at the International Slavery Museum, in Liverpool, UK. They are now back on 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.

Summary of Island response On the Future of the Liberated African Remains Removed from Ruperts Valley (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:

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

Final Results 11th May 2015


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…

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.{e}

You can download the plan.

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.

The map below, created in 1861 by Melliss for a planned re-development of the valley (that never happened), is useful to see the known burial sites for the ‘Liberated Africans’ and also the location of the ‘Depot’ (labelled African Establishment on the plan){5}:

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

Read More

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

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

By Ewen Callaway, published on Nature, 5th November 2019{6}

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

Published in The Guardian, 8th March 2012{6}

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: The Bones of St Helena

By Diane Selkirk, PS Magazine, 10th January 2017{6}

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.


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{7}
To join the fight against slavery see the Equality & Human Rights Commission website.
Slave Manacles

{a} www.nature.com{6}{b} UK National Archives on Flickr™{6}{8}{c} Nelson Mandela{d} ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905, 1905{6}{e} Liberated African Advisory Committee, August 2020{6}{f} en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery


{1} And, of course, the Act had been repealed when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire from 1st August 1834.{2} The legality of the Court was questioned, and as a result the Advocate General in London issued a verdict confirming the Court’s legality in November 1840.{3} ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875 says about 500 remained on St Helena - about ⅙ of the population - but we have seen data in the Records showing the total remaining as 500 in 1850 so the actual final number must be higher. Of the total landed here, less the number of emigrants and less the number that died, more than 2,000 remain unaccounted for, so we believe 1,000 to be a defensible final figure.{4} Extension of the fuel storage and creation of the ‘haul road’ from Ruperts to the airport site.{5} This latter area is where the ‘Container Park’ is, at the time of writing, being built.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} In 2019, approximately 40 million people, of whom 26% were children, were enslaved throughout the world.{f}.{8} Images are labelled ‘No known copyright restrictions’. Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.


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