Archaeologists have found a burial ground containing the bones of an estimated 10,000 slaves on the island of St. Helena.
That desolate spit of land in the middle of the Atlantic is best known today for having hosted a certain Napoleon Bonaparte during the six years between his final defeat at Waterloo and his death, but decades after Napoleon died, the British used the island to bury dead slaves captured from slavers after the trade was abolished.
The bodies, many of them children, were discovered where they had been buried after being brought to St Helena between 1840 and 1874 by Royal Navy patrols hunting the slavers. The captured ships were forced into the island where the traders were arrested and their victims liberated. By then, however, many were already dead in the fetid holds where they had been packed together for the long journey.
Many of the survivors also died soon after they were brought to Rupert’s Valley, near the capital Jamestown. It was used as a treatment and holding depot by the navy’s West Africa Squadron. Smallpox, dysentery and other diseases claimed many of those who had endured hunger, thirst and the terrible conditions below decks.
This is a major discovery in the history of slavery, not just because of its huge scale, but also because the vast majority of the other slave burials we know of are in the New World. It will fill in some tragic blanks in the history of the Middle Passage, and the 19th century slave trade as practiced by the East India Company which owned St. Helena from 1658–1815 and 1821-1834. The EIC kept slaves on the island until 1832, long after Britain outlawed the trade in 1807.
So far 325 skeletons have been excavated, mostly male and many of them children, some of them infants younger than one year old. They were often buried in groups, which makes sense because of the captured slaver ships. Some of the deceased were buried with their personal effects and/or with artifacts like metal tags relating to their enslavement and later rescue.
The analysis of the bones won’t be finished until May, but already just from looking at the remains anthropologists might be able to pinpoint tribal heritage based on notches filed on their front teeth. This is a lot more than the British were able to do in the late 19th c. when slaves were freed. The rescuers weren’t familiar with African languages and customs, so liberation rarely led to repatriation.
All the burials uncovered were found on a swath of land being excavated for a new airport road. There are thousands more in the valley, but archaeologists do not plan to disturb those graves. Once they’ve finished studying the remains already found, they will be reburied either in Rupert’s Valley or in an ossuary built near where they were discovere.