Digging Up the Story

Four years ago (2008) archeologists began to excavate a portion of an African burial ground in preparation for building a road to a new airport financed by the British government. This site is just uphill from the capital city, Jamestown. This is not Jamestown, Virginia but on St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic. Ironically it involves the same people, same story – British settlers and African slaves.

The cemetery is located in Rupert’s Valley and was described by a missionary as a “valley of dry bones,” paralleling Tom Feelings’ quote of the Atlantic Ocean, “If the Atlantic were to dry up, it would reveal a scattered pathway of human bones, African bones marking the various routes of the Middle Passage.”

For many who know European history St. Helena Island, called the Jewel of the South Atlantic, was where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled after his defeat at Waterloo until his death. For those of us with an interest in African Diaspora history it is the place where at least 25,000 “Liberated Africans” were taken from 1840-1849 as the British navy intercepted ships laden with Africans destined primarily for Brazil. Those fortunate enough to survive the Middle Passage were considered “Prize Slaves” and consigned to 14 years of indenture before regaining their freedom. By sheer numbers there were so many people salvaged that the British royal governor arranged to move them off the island before they permanently outnumbered the European residents. In exchange for their immediate freedom upon arrival their choices became shipment to the West Indies, Cape Town or Sierra Leone. None were ever returned to their native lands.

Approximately 5,000, however, arrived at St. Helena too sick or dying from disease or physical abuse to live beyond a short period. They were quickly buried according to the excavation, with no sense or recognition of their humanity. Of the three hundred and twenty-five bodies exhumed and studied, only a few (four or five) were in coffins, most were in shared or mass graves – mothers with babies and children, teenagers and young adults. Apparently most were thrown into shallow graves with no evidence of ritual burial other than familial internment.

According to scientists who examined the remains eighty-three percent were children, teens and young adults. Dr. Andrew Pearson, the lead archeologist, acclaims this excavation and associated study because it graphically illustrates the effects of the Middle Passage and the slave trade from the African perspective. He states the value of this undertaking is based upon the following: “Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level, and in so doing, overlook the individual victims. In Rupert’s Valley, however, the archeology brings us (quite literally) face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade.”

Perhaps the only known graveyard of Africans rescued directly from slave ships, the dead reflected their cultural practices (filed teeth) and secreted artifacts (beads and cloth); exhibited their physical abuse (bullet wounds, scurvy, recent skeletal damage); and included remnants of commercial trade (metal discs on which a number or name was etched). As in the Manhattan burial ground in New York, our ancestors’ remains tell their stories. We only have to respect what can be learned of their ordeal, the remains reveal brutal evidence of enslavement.

The book, Infernal Traffic: Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena (2011) by Pearson, Jeffs, Witkin and MacQuarrie will be available late spring 2012. It recounts the fascinating story and conclusions of this excavation.

www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/03/2012/slave-burial-ground-excavated-on-st-helena

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