St. Helena was colonised by the English in 1659, and at that time the use of slaves was commonplace. Slaves were first brought mostly from East Africa or Madagascar. In the later 17th Century it was made a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave to St. Helena, and during the 18thcentury the East India Company expanded around the Indian Ocean and slaves began to be brought from Malaysia and India.
Even from the start, slaves were not treated as badly on St. Helena as elsewhere. A 1673 order from London stated that:
“We also order that all negroes both men and women living on the said island that shall make profession of the Christian faith and be baptized shall within seven years after be free planters and enjoy the priveleges of free planters both of land and cattle.”
…though exactly how these new planters were to acquire land and cattle was not made clear. In general slavery in British territories was not as harsh as that experienced by slaves in America, it being described as “more akin to serfdom”. And yet slaves were still treated as sub-human.
In 1679 rumours of an impending uprising by slaves led to the gruesome execution of three slaves and cruel punishment of many others – ghost stories still told on the island relate to these executions.
Slaves remained the property of their owners and could be bought and sold, as the notice illustrates.
In 1792 a new set of slave laws were introduced to the island. Although the 42 Articles mostly concerned the correct treatment of slaves by their owners, Article 39 is of some interest: it stated that no new slaves could be imported to St. Helena. Anyone breaching this law would be fined £50 and also bear the cost of returning the slave to his or her place of origin. Although this did not end slavery on St. Helena it did mean that only existing slaves and their children would remain in slavery – a small but significant step forward.
Fifteen years later, in 1807, the Slave trade was banned throughout the British Empire. This did not, however, free existing slaves. St. Helena had stopped importing slaves in 1792 so the new law had no impact on the island. In 1818, whilst admitting that nowhere in the world did slavery exist in a milder form than on St. Helena, Governor Lowe initiated the first step in emancipating the slaves by persuading slave owners to give all slave children born after Christmas of that year their freedom once they had reached their late teens. The phased emancipation of over 800 resident slaves began in 1827; under certain circumstances a slave could buy his or her freedom, using money borrowed from the East India Company.
The actual abolition of slavery had to wait until 1st August 1834, after which date any slave more than 6 years old would be freed but would remain in work, becoming an apprentice labourer. Although the “Territories in the Possession of the East India Company” were exempted from this law, the India Act of 1833 had transferred control of St. Helena from the East India Company to the Crown with effect from 2nd April 1834, so slavery was abolished here on 1st August 1834.
All was not well, however. The transfer to the Crown meant many East India Company employees lost their jobs and the economy declined sharply, with food prices rocketing. Inevitably the situation was worst for those at the bottom of the social scale, the ex-slaves, many of whom also had emancipation loans following the 1827 law. Freedom did not confer prosperity and the ex-slaves suffered just like – possibly more – than the general population, of which they were now part.
To underline the change, in copies of the St. Helena government’s statistical returns for 1839 (the “blue book”) the column headers for ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ population were struck through and a single column replaced both, headed ‘Population’. There were no longer racially divided people on the island. Also in December of that year the remaining unpaid emancipation loans were written off: of the £31,645 2s 0d that had been loaned, £28,694 13s 1d (91%) remained unpaid.
LIBERATION OF AFRICAN SLAVES
Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire from 1834, it remained in America. Slave ships continued to operate between ports in West Africa and the Americas, often passing St. Helena en route. In 1840 the British Government deployed a naval station on St. Helena to suppress the African slave trade.
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 slave ships.
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.
One of the first engagements took place on 2nd December 1840 close to Benguela along the Angolan coast where the ‘HM Water Witch’ intercepted a slave ship bound for the Americas. Lieutenant Henry James Masson, Commander of the Water Witch 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 4.30 p.m. 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 slaves 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 “Water Witch”; on mustering the slaves immediately on getting the vessel afloat, there appeared to be 245 left on board of whom 5 died immediately after taking possession.”
A third of the slaves were sick when found on the ship. James Wilcox, second mate of the Water Witch, took command of the slave ship 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 slaves died. The survivors were declared free and taken to Lemon Valley to recover. The name of the slave ship 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 Water Witch stands in Castle Gardens.
An observer in 1861 described the terrible scene when a slave ship landed at Rupert’s:
“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.”
Between 1840 and 1849 15,076 freed slaves, known as “Liberated Africans” were landed on the island at Rupert’s Bay, of which over 5,000 were dead on arrival or died soon afterwards. The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed has been estimated at over 25,000. Surviving freed slaves lived at Lemon Valley, Rupert’s and High Knoll Fort, and only when numbers became too great were many sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. About 500 remained on St. Helena, where they were employed. In later years, some were sent to Sierra Leone; the rest became part of the indigenous population.
St. Helena benefited financially as well as morally from being used as a port to free slaves. The island received funds to host the freed slaves and they could usually take possession of all the goods transported in the slave ships.
THE SLAVE GRAVES
On 24th November 2006 the following news item appeared in the St. Helena Independent:
“HUMAN REMAINS UNCOVERED: Two sets of human bones were uncovered during trial pit excavations carried out in the Bulk Fuel Farm area in Rupert’s 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 project, their main focus being on Rupert’s Valley and in particular on the slave 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 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 Saint FM 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 Rupert’s 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 Rupert’s Valley contributed to an extremely high level of preservation; hair was found on some skulls.
In March 2012 one of the archeologists, Dr. Andrew Pearson, published a book “Infernal Traffic – Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s 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 Rupert’s valley, however the archaeology brings us face to face with the human consequences of the slave trade.”
Finds from the excavation are currently on show at the International Slavery Museum, in Liverpool, UK.
More information can be found at www.pearsonarchaeology.com
EFFECTS OF SLAVERY ON ST. HELENA TODAY
Although many freed slaves left St. Helena, many also remained and integrated with the local population. It is often said that the genetic makeup of Saints can be defined by the three ‘S’s – Settlers, Soldiers and Slaves. Basil George, a local tour guide, has traced his lineage back to white settlers, black slaves, a Chinaman and a Boer.
Freed slaves were often given as a surname the Christian name of their former owner. This explains the number of islanders with surnames like Benjamin, Duncan, Francis, George, Henry, Joshua, Lawrence and Leo.