Major find shows cruel life – and death – of slaves
IT is essentially three large Tupperware boxes, placed on a desk in the middle of the lab at Bristol University's Archaeology Department. But their contents couldn't be more profound. The relics being held in these modest boxes represent a slice of one of the cruellest chapters of history that until now was thought to be entirely lost.
They contain the personal belongings of more than 300 slaves, excavated from within the unfortunate souls' hastily dug graves on the island of St Helena.
As Professor Mark Horton tells me as he opens the lids, these boxes represent almost the entire sum of the physical relics of the Middle Passage.
These personal possessions had been lovingly clung to by the terrified Africans after their capture, after being transferred into the hands of ruthless slave traders, and even after being squashed into the barely imaginable claustrophobic squalor of an Atlantic-bound slaver ship.
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But the team of archaeologists from Bristol University, led by Dr Andrew Pearson and Professor Mark Horton, spent four months excavating a unique slave cemetery on the island of St Helena – a lonely outpost off the African coast in the south Atlantic.
This was the final destination of the lucky few slaves who had been liberated by the Royal Navy in the years following the abolition of the slave trade.
"The British were poacher turned gamekeeper," Andrew explains. "They went from leading the world in the slave trade, to making an attempt to use its navy to capture rogue slave traders at sea.
"But of course the slaves they found onboard could have come from anywhere in thousands of square miles of Africa. There was no way of knowing where they had originated, and no way of taking them home. The majority were around 12 years old.
"So in reality many continued on to the West Indies to work as indentured labourers and servants – not much different to being slaves anyway."
St Helena, with its makeshift colonial hospital, was one of the Royal Navy's drop-off stations for recaptured slaves – many of whom were terminally sick by the time they landed, and many more of whom were already dead.
"The conditions onboard the slave ships truly were unimaginable," Mark says. "They didn't have space to turn around – imagine crouching in a barrel for weeks on end. That's roughly how much room they had.
"There was no sanitation, and those that died remained there among the living, often going unnoticed and decomposing rapidly in the heat below decks before being thrown overboard by the traders often weeks later."
Andrew says: "You can imagine why, when they reached St Helena, the Royal Navy had to act quickly to get the living off the ship and into the hospital, and to get the dead off the ship and into the cemetery."
The excavation, which has taken place in advance of the construction of a new airport on the island, has revealed dramatic insights into the victims of the Atlantic slave trade during the notorious Middle Passage.
From children's bracelets to strings of beads and the simple hospital identity tags recording the ship from which they had been liberated – it was a rollercoaster of emotions for the archaeologists as they uncovered the fragments of the slaves' lives.
"It is the most moving discovery in my entire career in archaeology," says Mark – best known for his TV appearances on shows such as Time Team and Coast.
Andrew adds: "To be honest, when we started the dig, we expected to find lots of skeletons, but very little else.
"Part of the process of dehumanising the slaves saw them being stripped of all their personal possessions before they even boarded the ships, so we were stunned that so many personal objects were smuggled aboard and remained with the slaves literally to their graves.
"The sad fact is that on the whole, the objects that did get retained tended to be those owned by the children – who presumably weren't seen as being the same kind of threat to the slaver crews, so were not stripped of their possessions to quite the same extent."
Andrew opens one of the boxes to illustrate the point, and reveals a tiny copper bracelet (pictured right).
"It was found on the wrist of a skeleton at the site, who must have been no older than seven or eight, given the slight size of the bangle," Andrew says.
The cemetery was used throughout the suppression of the slave trade between 1840 and 1872, though the exact dates of the excavated burials are not known.
A total of 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, most of whom were landed at a depot in Rupert's Bay.
The neighbouring valley – arid, shadeless, and always windy – was poorly suited to act as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers. At least 5,000 people are thought to have been buried there after dying in the hospital.
The team of archaeologists excavated 325 bodies in a combination of individual, multiple and mass graves. Only five individuals were buried in coffins: one adolescent and four still or newborn babies. The remainder had been placed directly into shallow graves, before being hastily covered.
In a few touching cases mothers are buried with their children.
Osteological analysis shows that 83 per cent of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults – prime material for the slave traders who sought victims with a long potential working life.
"In most cases the actual cause of death is not clear," Andrew says. "But this is unsurprising because the main killers aboard a slave ship – dehydration, dysentery and smallpox – leave no pathological trace.
"Nevertheless, we can see that scurvy was widespread on the skeletons; several showed indications of violence and two older children appear to have been shot."
Despite its horrific nature, the archaeology showed those buried within the cemetery as more than simply victims.
"These were people from a rich range of cultures, with a strong sense of ethnic and personal identity," Andrew says. "This is best evidenced by numerous examples of dental modifications, achieved by chipping or carving of the front teeth.
"Then you have the items of jewellery – beads and bracelets – that a few had managed to retain. In addition, burial conditions allowed for the survival of textiles, including ribbons.
"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."
Mark adds: "Here we have the victims of the Middle Passage – one of the greatest crimes against humanity – these people were not just numbers, they were human beings.
"They may have come from the period after the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but given the participation in the trade demonstrated by Bristol merchants in the previous century, I think this is a discovery that will be of particular interest and poignancy to Bristolians."
The artifacts from the excavations are currently at the University of Bristol and will be transferred to Liverpool for an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in 2013 before returning to St Helena. The human remains, which did not leave the island, will shortly be re-interred on St Helena.
"We can't return them to their original graves," Andrew says. "This is about to become the site of the entrance roadway for the new airport.
"So we will probably have a special ossuary tomb built against the cliff. If they belong anywhere now, they belong in Rupert's Valley. An ossuary tomb will at least act as a physical monument on this land, where there isn't a single headstone – just a lot of marshy scrub."
As he puts the lids back on the three plastic boxes, Andrew adds: "You know, the saddest thing of all, is that these Africans, though from different tribes and cultures, shared a common belief that souls of the dead were unable to cross water. So even in death, they are imprisoned in the worst place of all – an island in the middle of the Atlantic."