Unearthed Burial Grounds Provide Look Into Slave Trade
March 11, 2012

Unearthed Burial Grounds Provide Look Into Slave Trade

A slave burial ground in St Helena has been unearthed and discovered by archeologists from the University of Bristol.

The burial ground was discovered in the South Atlantic Island as construction for a new airport and roads continues. Archeologists now look to the burial ground to tell the story of the Middle Passage during the Atlantic slave trade.

St Helena is located 1,000 miles off the eastern shore of Africa. The island became famous for being a landing place for many freed slaves during the suppression of slave trade between 1840-1872. Britain's Royal Navy captured an estimated 26,000 freed slaves and brought them to the island. Since conditions on slave ships were dire at best, many slaves were left at the island´s hospital and refugee camp at Rupert´s Valley. It is here where the burial grounds have been discovered.

As construction continues to renovate the island, cemeteries and burial grounds are discovered and unearthed. What´s appalling about these sites is the apparent haste with which these cemeteries were built and then quickly filled. One such cemetery was discovered in 2006 as construction for a road that would later lead to the new airport was underway. There were 325 bodies found in multiple and mass graves; only 4 individuals were buried in coffins.

The team of archaeologists, led by Dr Andrew Pearson of the Department of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol are publishing their discoveries and scientific investigations of the human remains in an in-depth report entitled "Infernal Traffic - Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert´s Valley, St Helena."

Analysis of the bodies did not always provide a clear answer as to the cause of death for many of these individuals. Slave ships were rampant with disease and dysentery and it is believed that these were the main killers. As these diseases do not leave a pathological trace, it is difficult for the scientists to know exactly how many of these individuals died from these diseases. The archaeologists were able to distinguish the age of many of the individuals and discovered that as many as 83 percent of the bodies found were those of children and teenagers.

The grave sites provide a look into the lives of these individuals and the culture from which they came. Many of these individuals seem to have had a strong sense of personal identity. Despite being stripped of their belongings and jewelry, a few of the individuals found at the gravesite still held on to beads and bracelets, signifying a strong sense of pride held by these individuals.

“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 archaeology brings us (quite literally) face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade,” said Dr Andrew Pearson in a press release.

The gravity of the burial ground is not lost on the archeology team. Professor Mark Horton had this to say: “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.”

The archeology team is showing artifacts from the excavations at the University of Bristol before moving the exhibition to Liverpool at the International Slavery Museum in 2013. The human remains will then be sent back to St Helena to be re-interred.

According to a University of Bristol press release: “An article on the project can also be found in the most recent edition of the magazine British Archaeology (No 123 — March/April 2012, pp 28—33).”


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