Slaves and slavery

Part of what makes us what we are

Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
William Pitt the Younger, speech on the India Bill, 18 November 1783

Although St Helena is best known for the liberation of slaves, its earlier history is rather darker. Read about both below, and also about the impact of slavery on St Helena today

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Slaves and slavery

Below: Exploiting SlavesLiberation of African SlavesSlave GravesEffects on St Helena todayCommemorationsRead More

The first slaves here actually came of their own free will. Sometime before 1557 three male and two female slaves escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island, and when discovered in 1557 their numbers to risen to twenty. Sadly thousands of other slaves did not come voluntarily…

Exploiting Slaves

Below: Origins‘Slave Laws’Maintaining the stockProperty, not peopleTowards emancipationStatistics:Slave owners identifiedEmancipation


St Helena was colonised by the English in 1659, and at that time the use of slaves was commonplace. One of the original Settler ships from England, the London, had orders to call at St Iago and there procure five or six blacks or Negroes, able men and women for St Helena. Also in 1659 the captain of the Truro was instructed to call at the Guinea Coast and there purchase ten lusty blacks, men and women, for St Helena. Early slaves were brought mostly from East Africa or Madagascar. By 1679 there were some eighty slaves on the island. 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 18th century 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{1} order from London stated that:

We also order that all negroes{2} 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 privileges of free Planters both of land and cattle.

…though exactly how these new Planters were to acquire land and cattle was not made clear.

The name Hutts Gate relates to rudimentary huts in which slaves were housed.

The ‘Slave Laws’

Slave ‘Medal’, awarded for good conduct
Slave ‘Medal’, awarded for good conduct
Slaves for sale
Slaves for sale

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. To give an idea of their treatment, here are the Laws and Orders, constituted for the Negro Slaves, by the inhabitants of the island, with the approbation of the Governor and Council from c.1670:

That no Black or Blacks, upon any pretence whatsoever, shall wander from his master’s plantation upon Sundays, without a lawful occasion granted by their said masters or mistresses, either by writing, or some other token that shall be known by the neighbourhood, upon the penalty of ten lashes on his naked body for the first offence, fifteen for the second, twenty for the third, and so for every offence thereafter committed : but if the master of the said slave or slaves should refuse to comply with this said order, and the person who shall have taken the said slave or slaves acting contrary to this said order, shall be obliged to complain to the Governor and Council, whom we desire to fine him or them that shall so offend at discretion.

That Negro, or Negroes, that shall be known to steal the value of eighteen pence shall have twenty lashes on their naked body, inflicted by the master or masters of such slave or slaves, in the presence of the person so offended ; but if the theft should amount to three shillings, the lashes aforesaid are to be increased to thirty ; and if six shillings, to sixty; the party so prejudiced shall receive the value of the thing so stolen in specie, or in money, from the owner of the said slave or slaves ; and if the theft amounts to above six shillings, and under thirty shillings, the offender shall be seized, and brought to the fort, where he shall immediately receive fifty lashes on his naked body, and secured ; two days after, he shall receive thirty lashes, and two days after that, twenty more; and the master of the Black shall pay the value stolen, as before.

Those that shall absent their masters’ service three days, and three nights, shall be punished according to the last foregoing article, and the master make satisfaction for what they have stolen as aforesaid. For the first offence of this kind, the master or masters shall make satisfaction for what is stolen, and repair all damages done by the slave or slaves ; so soon as taken, shall be brought to the fort, and immediately receive, on his naked body, one hundred lashes, then secured ; four days after that, thirty; six days after that, twenty more, and branded in the forehead with the letter R : for the second offence in this kind, he shall be punished as above said, and wear, for one year, a chain and clogs of thirty pounds weight ; and for the third offence, satisfaction shall be made as above said to the loser or losers, and the slave or slaves shall suffer death, at the discretion of the Governor and Council.

In case any, male slave, from the age of sixteen years and upwards, shall presume and attempt to strike or assault any white person whatsoever, correcting him or otherwise, for any cause whatsoever, shall, for the said offence or offences (though without weapon or dangerous instrument) undergo and suffer the punishment of castration, that is to say, shall have his, testicles cut out ; and in case any such slave or slaves shall chance to die under the punishment aforesaid, or before he be well, then the country and public shall bear the loss, and make good the value of the said Black, with the charge of castration to the master or owner of the said slave or slaves, according to an appraisement made by the Governor and Council for the time being : further, but in case the said slave or slaves should die through neglect of the master or owner, then, upon proof thereof, the said master or owner to bear their own loss of the said slave or slaves, and the whole charge of every thing relating thereto ; and if the said slave live, the master to be at all charges.

That if any Negro slave, male or female, shall presume to resist any white person whatsoever, in the taking or pursuit of them upon any lawful occasion, the slave or slaves so offending and resisting as aforesaid, for the first offence shall be immediately conveyed to the great fort, and secured till they have undergone double punishment, according to the constitution of runaway Negroes, and branded in the forehead with the letter R ; and for a second offence in this nature, the said slave or slaves so offending shall suffer the same punishment as is adjudged and ordered in the case of striking or assaulting any white person, to wit, to be castrated, if a male, but if a female, to be severely whipped, as aforesaid, and both ears to be cut off, and branded in the forehead and both cheeks.

And in case any slave or slaves, male or female, shall presume to strike any white person whatsoever, with any weapon, the said slave or slaves so offending shall suffer death ; except those white persons who demean and debase themselves in conversing, corresponding, and gaming, with the blacks, as if they were equals, which we judge shall have no more benefit of those laws than Blacks themselves.

And in case any Negro slave, male or female, shall presume to give any, saucy or impertinent language or answer to any white person (except those white persons aforesaid), shall, upon complaint thereof to the master or owners of the said slave, be severely whipt, in the presence of the party offended, to his satisfaction ; and if the said master or owner of the said slave shall refuse, or neglect, to punish the said slave so offending, then the party offended may complain to the Governor, and so cause the said slave to be apprehended, and conveyed to the fort, and punished according to the nature of the offence.

That no Negro slave or slaves shall truck, barter, or exchange any thing, without the foreknowledge and consent of the owners of the said Negroes, both the sellers and buyers, deliverers and receivers, of any commodity whatsoever, to the value of one shilling, upon the penalty of twenty lashes, or more if it should exceed that value, according to the judgment of the Governor and, Council, severely to be inflicted on them at the flagstaff, upon the complaint of any one aggrieved by such a clandestine way of one Negro dealing with another.

That no white person whatsoever shall truck, barter, or exchange any commodity whatsoever, with any Negro or Negroes, to sell to them, nor buy of them, any sort of commodity, without the foreknowledge and consent of the owners of the said Negro or Negroes, upon the penalty of being adjudged accessory to felony, and so consequently liable to a fourfold restitution to the owners of the said Negro or Negroes, besides a fine to the Lords Proprietors ; nor no Negro shall alienate any commodity or thing whatsoever, to any white person whatsoever, without the leave and consent of the said Negroes’ master or mistress before had, upon the penalty of severe correction, according to the judgment of the Governor and Council.

That no Negro whatsoever shall prescribe or administer any physic or medicine whatsoever, to any Negro or Negroes, without the consent of his or their master or mistress of that Negro unto whom he shall prescribe or administer any physic or medicine, upon the penalty of severe correction, according to the judgment of the Governor and Council; neither shall any Negro whatsoever take or receive any physic or medicine, or follow the rules or prescription of any pretended black Doctor whatsoever, without acquainting their master or mistress therewith, upon the penalty of the like pain and punishment as the black Doctor who pretends to physic is liable to.

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.

In 1735 the local Court was asked to rule on whether the children born to a free woman and an enslaved man were free or slaves. The Court decided they were slaves and assigned the three girls and two boys a net value of £33.

Maintaining the stock

The Records tell the story of an adventure to Madagascar for the purpose of recruiting some slaves:

3rd February 1762: The East India Company Directors write agreeing that many of our Black are quite worn out, approving of a proposed adventure to Madagascar for the purpose of recruiting some slaves. The expedition sets out on 5th June 1764 but runs into trouble….

5th June 1764: The adventure to recruit some slaves from Madagascar sets out aboard ships Mercury and Fly, seeking men, able bodied under 25 and boys well grown. The expedition runs into trouble….

29th November 1764: A rebellion aboard Mercury, bringing slaves from Madagascar, leads to the death of the Captain and two slaves.

25th January 1765: The adventure to recruit some slaves from Madagascar returns with 16 men and two boys. Two more slaves had died in a rebellion during the voyage….

As indicated, he trip was more of an adventure than had been expected. In the rebellion the ship’s Captain was killed and the ship’s mate wounded. In the ensuing battle five slaves were shot, two fatally. The ringleaders were brought back to St Helena, tried and hanged.

Property, not people

‘The Trees’
‘The Trees’

Slaves remained the property of their owners and could be bought and sold, as the notices (above, right) illustrate. If you click on the images (for the enlarged version) you will observe that the place of the auction is described as ‘under the trees’. The trees in question were the ones still growing at the bottom of Napoleon Street in Jamestown, in front of the Canister building. They are Peepul trees, the Indian trees of wisdom ficus religiosa, sacred to Buddhists because Siddharta attained Nirvana while meditating under one of them. It can only be imagined what he would have made of auctioning human beings under them. Reportedly there are nails hammered into the trunks - one for each slave sold. Early photographs show three trees but one seems to have been removed sometime in the 20th Century.

If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.
John Brunner

Towards emancipation

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.


Slave values by age
Slave values by age

The following table{c} also illustrates the numbers of slaves just before emancipation:

Population of St Helena by Classes 1814-1821










White inhabitants


















Free blacks









Company’s Civil Establishment









Company’s troops









King’s troops









Families of King’s troops



























Company’s slaves









Slaves to Company’s troops









Slaves to King’s troops


















Total slaves









Slave owners identified

Here is a complete list of the owners of slaves in 1827 - there are 174 of them, with many prominent names:

Mrs Alesworthy • Frederick Alexander • Mr G. W. Alexander • Mr H. Alexander • Mr Samuel Alexander • Mrs M. Alexander • Mr John Bagley • Mr O. R. Bagley • Mr Richard Bagley • Mr Barker • Mrs M. Barnes • Mr John Bayes • Mrs Bazett • Captain Beale • Miss Beale • Mr A. Beale • Captain Bennett • Mr Blake • Mr Blenkins • Rev. Boys • Mr Brabazon • Captain Broadway • Mrs Broadway • Mr Brooke • Mr G. R. Bruce{3} • Mr John Burnham • Mr S. Burnham • W & J of London Burnie • Sergeant Carolans • Mr T. Carr • Mr W. Chamberlain • Mr Charlette • Mr Clements • Captain H. Cole • Miss E. Cole • Miss S. Cole • Drum Major Connolly • Mr Cruickshank • Mrs Cruickshank • Mrs Cruickshanks • Mr Darling • Mr J. De Fountain • Mr John De Fountain • Mrs E. De Fountain • Mr C. Desfountain • Mrs E Desfountain • James Dickson • G. Doveton • Sir W. W. Doveton • Mr Dring • Dr J. C. Dunn • Mr Eddlestone • Mr Eyre • Mr E. Fowler • Mr Gideon • Mr Greenland • Mr Greentree • Mr Gunnell • Mrs Gurling • Mr D. Hamilton • Mrs Harper • Mrs Anne Hayes • R. Hayes • Mrs Haymes • Mrs Hayward • Colonel Hodson • Mrs A. Hodson • Mr A. Isaacke • Mr Alfred Isaacke • George James • Governor Janisch • Mr R. Julio • Mr William Julio • Dr Kay • Henry Kay • Miss C. Kay • Mr Henry Kay • Mrs E. Kay • Lieutenant William Kennedy • Mr John Knipe Senior • Captain Knipe • J. B. (children of) Knipe • Mr J. B. Knipe • Mr T. B. Knipe • Mr W. B. B. Knipe • Mrs Henry Knipe • Mrs Mary Knipe • Mrs A. Lambe • Mrs M. Lambe • Mrs Matilda Lambe • Mrs Le Breton • Mrs Richard Leech • Mr Legg Senior • Mr S. Legg • Mrs Leicester • Mrs Lester • Dr Lorimer • Mr Marrowbeck • Captain Mason • Colonel Mason • Ensign John Mason • Lieutenant William Mason • Miss Mason • Mr Ben Mason • Mr James Mason • Mrs R. P. Mason • Mr Meade • Mr J. Metcalfe • Mr Moss • Mr Mullhall • Mrs E. Noqueda[h] • Captain O’ Connor • Lieutenant O’ Connor • Mr Oswald • Mr C. Patterson • Dr Price • Mr Prince • Lieutenant James Pritchard • Major D. K. Pritchard • Major H. H. Pritchard • Mr S. Pritchard • Mrs E. Pritchard • Mrs S. Pritchard • Mr Jacob Rich • Mr John Rich • John Roake • Mr Edward Roakes • Mr J. Robinson • Mrs Rofe • Captain Sampson • Major (1833) Sampson • Lieutenant John Sampson • Mr R. Scott Junior • Mr R. Scott Senior • Mr Charles Scott • Mr John Scott • Mr W. Seale Junior • Mr William Seale Junior • Major Seale • Mr H. F. Seale • Mr R. F. Seale • Mr William Henry Seale • Captain Shortis • Colonel Smith • Lieutenant A. Smith • Mrs A. Smith • Mrs Mary Smith • Mr B. Solomon • Mr S. Solomon • Captain Statham • Mrs Stewart • Mrs S. Stewart • Leech, Trustees Thomas • Captain Thorn • Mr Harry Tim • Captain Torbett • Mr R. Torbett • Mr Richard Torbett • Mrs M Torbett • Mr Tracy Senior • Mr C. Tracy • Dr Watson • Mr Weston • Mr R. Wills • Colonel Wright • Mr Robert Wright • Mr Youd • Jonathon Young • Lieutenant S. Young • Miss P. Young • Mr Am-t Young • Mr John Young

In the period from 1715 to 1764 58 slaves attempted to escape from St Helena, mostly in very small boats not at all suited to an ocean voyage. Very few of them survived.


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 22nd April 1834, so slavery was abolished here on 1st August 1834.

All was not well, however. The transfer to the Crown meant many employees of The East India Company 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 ‘Blue Book’ for 1839 the column headers for ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ population were struck through and a single column replaced both, headed ‘Population’. Officially 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 £31,645.10 that had been loaned 91% remained unpaid.

Liberation of African Slaves

The period is not now far distant when Slave labour shall be rejected by the civilised world. There is something revolting in it to civilisation.
Governor Walker 5th November 1827

Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire from 1834, it remained in America for nearly 30 more years, until 1863. 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 trans-Atlantic African slave trade.

Proclamation setting up the Vice- Admiralty Court
Proclamation setting up the Vice-Admiralty Court

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{4}.

Slave ship auction notice
Slave ship auction notice

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. The ships, and any cargo found on board, were to be - if seaworthy - sold at auction (image, right), and if not broken up.

One of the first engagements took place on 2nd December 1840 close to Benguela along the Angolan coast where the HMS Waterwitch intercepted a slave ship bound for the Americas. Lieutenant Henry James Masson, Commander of the Waterwitch 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 4:30pm 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 Waterwitch; 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.

Waterwitch monument in Castle Gardens
Waterwitch monument in Castle Gardens

A third of the slaves were sick when found on the ship. James Wilcox, second mate of the Waterwitch, 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 Waterwitch stands in the Castle Gardens.

An observer in 1861 described the terrible scene when a slave ship landed at Ruperts:

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.

Sometimes the slave ships fought capture, in some cases quite persistently:


On the morning of the 24th May, HMS Pantaloon, then cruising in lat. 4°30’0”N and long. 3°0’0”E., made a sail, distant about five miles on the weather bow. It being dead calm at the time three boats from the Pantaloon were speedily manned, and sent after the stranger, which was soon ascertained to be a slaver. When the boats got within a mile of the prize which turned out to be a Polacca brig (name unknown), of 320 tons, with six guns and forty seven men she hauled both courses up together, and fired a shot which fell short of our boats. She then commenced firing grape and round shot in good earnest without however doing any mischief. When our men were about a cable’s length off the slaver, they gave three hearty English cheers, such as forebode destruction to all who resist, and swept alongside. Two of the boats made for the bows of the brig. Lieut. Lewis de J. Prevost, who commanded, ran his boat under the bumpkin brace. Mr. Crout, the master of the Pantaloon, at the same time gained a footing over the bows and the prize was boarded, not however before three of our gallant tars were wounded, in return for which one of the rascals was shot through the forehead.

The third boat, with the boatswain, attempted to board from the main chains, and being much exposed, had the misfortune to lose two men, he with three others being wounded. Our men had no sooner a fair footing on deck, than the crew vanished as if by magic; their fight was over, the cowardly rascals having done enough mischief for one voyage. Mr. Crout, on getting on board, was saluted with four muskets, fired close to his face, by which he was nearly blinded. Mr. Prevost likewise had some narrow escapes. A breeze having sprung up, they were joined by the Pantaloon, which was saluted with four guns from the prize which had been captured at such a terrible sacrifice.{d}

The ships listed as captured in just one week include:

Life after liberation

Between 1840 and 1849 nearly 300 slave ships were intercepted and 15,076 freed slaves, usually known as ‘Liberated Africans’ were landed on the island at Ruperts Bay, of which over 5,000 were dead on arrival or died soon afterwards - see the graph (below). The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed (it received its last freed slaves in 1864) has been estimated at over 24,400 from 439 ships, with embarkation points along the south-western African coast from Angola to the Congo.

Surviving freed slaves lived at Ruperts, Lemon Valley and High Knoll Fort. Accommodation for them was rather basic (photograph, below).

Another photograph (below), apparently taken in 1861, shows freed women slaves departing St Helena to be returned to Africa. Few could be returned to their homes - Slavers kept no detailed records that could be used to track their captives back to their point of origin and most had no idea of geography and could not identify the place from where they had been taken. When numbers became too great many were sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. Records show that British Guiana received 6,773, Jamaica 4,490, Trinidad 3,996, and other colonies 1,028. Total 16,287. In later years, some more were sent to Sierra Leone and other destinations, bringing the total of emigrees to 17,144.

Maybe as many as 1,000 elected to remain on St Helena{5}. They were employed, initially unpaid, as domestic servants and labourers, building roads and performing other tasks like hauling the stone to build St. Paul’s Cathedral and cutting the water channel in Ruperts. Some have noted that this requirement to perform unpaid labour seems a lot like slavery and hence have questioned the term Liberated Africans.

Eventually they integrated into the indigenous population. In ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875 we are told that not half a dozen instances of intermarriage have occurred during thirty years, though this gradually changed and today few Saints cannot trace a West African ancestor in their family tree. The census for 1881 lists 77 people whose birthplace was listed as ‘West Coast of Africa’.

St Helena benefited financially as well as morally from being used as a port to land freed slaves. The island received funds from London to feed them; the free labour - at a time when a labourer charged around 7s per day (7s = £0.35) - was invaluable to the colonial economy; and the island could usually take possession of all the goods transported in the slave ships. Sadly the latter also included White Ants, but that’s another story…

The Slave Graves

On 24th November 2006 the following news item appeared in the local newspapers:

HUMAN REMAINS UNCOVERED: Two sets of human bones were uncovered during trial pit excavations carried out in the Bulk Fuel Farm area in Ruperts 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 construction project, their main focus being on Ruperts 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{6} 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 SaintFM (2004-2012) 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 Ruperts 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 Ruperts Valley contributed to an extremely high level of preservation; hair was found on some skulls.

Dr. Andrew Pearson’s book

In March 2012 one of the archaeologists, Dr. Andrew Pearson, published a book ‘Infernal Traffic - Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Ruperts 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 Ruperts valley, however the archaeology brings us face to face with the human consequences of the slave trade.

The slave graves exhibition
Slavery exhibition, Liverpool, UK

Finds from the excavation were for a long time on show at the International Slavery Museum, in Liverpool, UK. They are now back on St Helena.

Why were the graves a surprise?

It should be noted that the presence of slave graves in Ruperts was known a long time before 2006. This notice appeared in the St Helena News Review on 11th January 1985 in connection with the construction of the new Power Station:

The Government of St Helena proposes to erect fuel tanks and other buildings relating to the construction of the Power House, on part or parts of the disused slave burial grounds at Ruperts Valley.

If you have any objections to this proposal, you are invited to submit them to the Governor in writing by the l4th January. If submissions are made, the Governor, is empowered to appoint a Commission of Enquiry to consider the matter.

The bones removed were re-buried in the churchyard at St. Paul’s Cathedral (amid some controversy - some church-goers claimed the re-burial was improper because it could not be verified that the person had become a Christian before their death.)

Only a few graves were found at this time. The full extent of the burial ground was not discovered until 2008.

Summary of Island response On the Future of the Liberated African Remains Removed from Ruperts Valley

Memorial to unknown slave graves, 2020
Memorial to unknown slave graves, 2020

Final Results 11th May 2015


Note: Using only St Helenian responses (171) provides similar results - 70% preferred reburial of which 49% wanted immediate burial; preferred location Ruperts for 97 respondents.

Conclusion: The response from the local consultation conducted in March 2015 gave the preferred option of immediate reburial of the liberated African remains removed from Ruperts back to Ruperts Valley. The report was (finally) approved by Executive Council in December 2018, but as there were no funds available to start work…

At the time of writing, years later, the bones remain in the Pipe Store. A project began in 2019 completed Phase 1 - Planning early in 2020, and at the time of writing is awaiting funding for Phase 2.

Effects 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{7}. One Saint has traced his lineage back to white settlers, black slaves, a Chinaman and a Boer. Another identified genetic markers from Europe, various different parts of Africa, India, various parts of Asia and Scandinavia. Yet another came up with: 40.5% South Asian (Indian); 12.4% Nigerian; 7.7% Italian; 7.2% Iberian; 6.7% Filipino/Indonesian/Malaysian; 5.2% Finnish; 4.7% Kenyan; 4.4% Maasai; 1.7% Sierra Leonean; 1.5% Papua New Guinean and 1.4% Indigenous Amazonian.

Freed slaves were often given as a surname the first name of their former owner. This explains the number of islanders with surnames like Benjamin, Duncan, Francis, George, Henry, Joshua, Lawrence and Leo.

Saints also take an active part in work to eliminate slavery from the modern world. The Equality & Human Rights Commission runs awareness campaigns on slavery today. The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2nd December is actively celebrated here, as was the 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire.


A number of annual days mark themes related to slavery, which are observed to varying degrees on St Helena:

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Below: Article: Genomes trace origins of enslaved people who died on remote islandArticle: Archaeologists find graves containing bodies of 5,000 slaves on remote islandArticle: The Bones of St Helena

Article: Genomes trace origins of enslaved people who died on remote island

By Ewen Callaway, published on Nature, 5th November 2019{8}

Former slaves left on St Helena were probably taken from west-central Africa, finds genome study.

Genomes from enslaved Africans who were freed and died on a remote Atlantic island in the mid-nineteenth century are offering clues about their origins in Africa. The findings come from the largest study of genome data obtained from remains of enslaved people and offer insights into the transatlantic slave trade, in which an estimated 12 million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in North and South America and the Caribbean.

Researchers analysed the DNA of 20 people from the British island territory of St Helena, who the British Navy had liberated and brought there. The research, posted on the BioRxiv preprint server last month, suggests that the people might have been captured in parts of west-central Africa, including present-day Angola and Gabon.

What DNA reveals about St Helena’s freed slaves

Pinpointing the precise origins of people trafficked in the transatlantic slave trade is not yet possible, largely because of gaps in genome databases of people living in Africa today. But researchers say that genetic studies such as this can offer insights into the history of people who were previously known mainly through shipping logs and other commercial records.

No island paradise

Genomes trace diagram

St Helena, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 2,000 kilometres west of Angola, occupies a unique chapter in the history of the transatlantic trade in people. After Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, its navy intercepted slave ships and sent an estimated 24,000 people to St Helena (see ‘The route to Rupert’s Valley’). They had been aboard ships heading largely to Brazil and Cuba between 1840 and the late 1860s.

Many of the people freed arrived in poor health and were housed in squalid conditions in an isolated coastal valley, and as many as 10,000 died on the island. In 2006, construction work for St Helena’s first airport uncovered mass burials. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of 325 people - more than half under 18 and many younger than 12.

Unlike cemeteries in the Americas, which tend to hold multiple generations of people who had once been enslaved, nearly all of the people who died on St Helena were likely to have been born in Africa.

Shipping records - the primary historical source on the African origins of people taken into captivity - tend to record only the ports where slave ships embarked, but other records suggest that many of the people were captured further inland.

To attempt to better trace the Africans who were left on St Helena, a team led by palaeogenomicist Marcela Sandoval-Velasco and ancient-DNA researcher Hannes Schroeder, both at the University of Copenhagen, tested remains from 63 of the people who had lived on St Helena for intact DNA. They managed to sequence partial genomes from 20.

Seventeen were male - backing up records indicating that, in its final decades, the transatlantic slave trade captured far more men than women. Analysis of the genome data found that none of the people were closely related, nor did they belong to a single African population.

Comparisons with genome data from thousands of modern Africans from dozens of populations suggest that the people from St Helena are most closely related to people living today in central Gabon and northern Angola. But the researchers caution that gaps in present-day genome data from potential homelands, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, make it difficult to say for certain where the people buried in St Helena were taken from.

Although it’s very hard to exactly pinpoint their origins, I think what we see in our results is that they are not coming from a single population, says Sandoval-Velasco.

This insight suggests that the liberated Africans taken to St Helena lived in a challenging multicultural setting where they might not have understood the language and customs of others left on the island. We hope that by illustrating the history and the condition of a few, we are at the same time illustrating the condition of the many, but it shouldn’t stop there, Sandoval-Velasco says.

Individual stories

Ancient-genome analysis is a powerful tool for shining a light on people exploited in one of history’s darkest chapters, says Rosa Fregel, a population geneticist at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands, who was not involved in the St Helena study. Usually it’s just about numbers - how many people from each country. Here, we are talking about particular people and their origin, says Fregel, who is applying ancient genomics to illuminate the histories of people captured in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Ancient DNA has the potential to tell their story.

The data lay a solid foundation for studies that could pinpoint the specific regions that the liberated people were from, says Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist at Howard University in Washington DC. The key to identifying the origins of enslaved people, she says, will be expanding data sets of modern Africans, as well as sequencing more remains. She and her colleagues have skeletal material from all 325 people that were recovered from the St Helena burial and hope to generate genome data soon.

David Eltis, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia who co-founded a database that collects information on 36,000 slaving voyages between 1514 and 1866, notes that most people captured in the transatlantic slave trade originated from south of the equator - where a paucity of genome data from modern inhabitants makes it difficult to trace the origins of enslaved individuals with any accuracy.

Reburial plan

Although working with human remains can be ethically fraught, particularly when there are no known direct descendants to consult, the work can have value when carried out with sensitivity, says Jada Benn Torres, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Memphis, Tennessee. (Several hundred of the liberated Africans later integrated into St Helena’s population, but it is not clear if they left any descendants.) Studies like this add another layer to the historical record, bringing to life the moving personal stories behind the slave trade, she says.

You don’t often hear about those who didn’t make it - usually the story ends with their death, says Benn Torres. This provides a perspective on those who weren’t able to make it home. This is important for the world to learn from.

Remains of the 325 liberated Africans that were excavated are in storage on St Helena. In 2018, the territory’s government endorsed plans to rebury them in the valley where they were first uncovered and to create a memorial at the site.

Additional reporting by Heidi Ledford

Article: Archaeologists find graves containing bodies of 5,000 slaves on remote island

Published in The Guardian, 8th March 2012{8}

Skeletons buried in the slave graves

Some of the finds from the graves
Some of the finds from the graves

British archaeologists have unearthed a slave burial ground containing an estimated 5,000 bodies on a remote South Atlantic island. The corpses were found on tiny St Helena, 1,900Km off the coast of south-west Africa.

Those who died were slaves taken from slave traders by the Royal Navy in the 1800s. Many of the captives died after being kept on British ships in appalling conditions or in refugee camps when they reached the island.

The dig, held in advance of the construction of a new airport on the island, revealed the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.

The Middle Passage was the name of the route taken by ships transporting slaves from Africa to the new world. It was the second leg of a triangular journey undertaken by European ships. The first leg would involve them taking manufactured goods to Africa, which they would trade for slaves. After the Africans were delivered to the US, the ships would take raw materials back to Europe.

Experts from Bristol University led the dig. One of them, Prof Mark Horton, said: 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.

St Helena was the landing place for many of the slaves captured by the navy during the suppression of the trade between 1840 and 1872. Earlier in the century, St Helena was where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to. He died there in 1821. About 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, with most being landed at a depot in Ruperts Bay. Terrible conditions on the ships meant many did not survive their journey. Ruperts Valley - an arid, shadeless and always windy tract - was also poorly suited for use as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers.

The university archaeologists have so far unearthed 325 bodies - in individual, multiple and mass graves - and expect to find about 5,000. Only five individuals were buried in coffins - one adolescent and four stillborn or newborn babies. The others had been put directly in shallow graves before being hastily covered. In some cases mothers were buried with their children.

Dr Andrew Pearson of the university said 83% of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults. Youngsters were often prime material for slave traders, who sought victims with long potential working lives.

Most causes of death could not be established on the bodies as the main killers - dehydration, dysentery and smallpox - leave no pathological trace. But experts found Scurvy was widespread on the skeletons and several showed indications of violence, including two older children who appeared to have been shot.

The team found evidence the victims were from a rich culture, with a strong sense of ethnic and personal identity. A few had managed to retain items of jewellery such as beads and bracelets, despite the physical stripping process that would have taken place after their capture. A number of metal tags were also found on the bodies that would have identified the slaves by name or number.

Pearson, the director of the project, said: Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level and, in so doing, overlook the individual victims. In Ruperts Valley, however, the archaeology brings us quite literally face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade.

Excavated artefacts will be transferred to Liverpool for an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in 2013. The human remains will be re-interred on St Helena.

Article: The Bones of St Helena

By Diane Selkirk, PS Magazine, 10th January 2017{8}

Two cinematographers are capturing the secret history of a South Atlantic island full of the bones of ‘Liberated Africans’.

Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest
Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest

The bones aren’t in pizza boxes, despite what the rumours said - though it was this very rumour that drew filmmakers Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere of the British film company PT Film to a macabre mystery on the island of St Helena. The bones are actually in archival boxes, in an old storeroom attached to the prison, Curran says. But the rest of the story - forgotten corpses excavated from mass graves to make way for an airport, after which the bones languished - is all true.

Best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled and died, St Helena was in the news last year because of the awkward opening of its first-ever airport. (News reports said it was too windy for a lot of planes to land.) What most people still don’t know is that this island, located in the middle of the Atlantic between southern Africa and Brazil, is a physical link to the Middle Passage, the notorious route slavers used to reach the New World with their human cargo.

Between 1840 and 1874, an estimated 30,000 ‘Liberated Africans’ were released into refugee camps on St Helena. When they died, an estimated 8,000 were buried in three vast graveyards in the shallow volcanic earth in Ruperts Valley and at the quarantine station in Lemon Valley.

Curran, de Vere, and soundman Oliver Sanders say that, while locals knew about the bones, few knew who they belonged to. These bodies didn’t represent ‘Saints,’ as locals are called - they weren’t seen as part of the island. One resident named Colin Benjamin told the film crew about using a skull and leg bone to play baseball: I’m sorry about that, but being kids that’s the way we grew up.

Bones sometimes just appear here, Curran says. We’re walking through an industrial area in Ruperts Valley, on the northwest of the island. Continuing up the valley, we reach a freshly paved road and the second designated graveyard, which was put into official use after the first burial ground was filled. It’s a scramble down from the road, through dry prickly bush, into the unmarked burial ground. I catch sight of a bone-white fragment and cautiously brush away the earth. It’s a piece of old china. The entire area, which stretches up a dry gully to where it meets graveyard number three, is scattered with rocks and debris.

Curran explains the road was built to bring fuel and supplies to the airport. It was during a geotechnical survey that workers discovered signs of the burials, and, in 2008, archaeologists led by Andrew Pearson, an independent archaeological consultant, excavated the bones of some 325 ‘Liberated Africans’.

Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s GraveButcher’s Grave detail
Left: Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave, Right: Butcher’s Grave detail

The archaeologists unearthed a combination of individual, multiple, and mass graves. Most contained children between eight and 12 years old; some were wearing ribbons or beads; in one case, a tiny copper bracelet.

Annina van Neel, chief environmental commitment officer of the airport construction company Basil Read, oversaw later finds. She told us about finding remains, and the sleepless nights it would cause her, Curran says. I cried for the first time when I watched van Neel cry. The humanity of it all just hit me.

Curran says that filming the documentary was like assembling a puzzle; every person they interviewed had a different relationship to the bones and was just a small piece of the story. As their interviews continued and the story took shape, de Vere and Curran began to realize how timely it was: There were times when the numbers of African refugees almost numbered residents, he says. The islanders would send word to England to say they needed help - that they were struggling to manage and care for the new arrivals - and then another ship would show up, and they had to cope. With an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond, the bones of St Helena today tell an urgent story.

Slavery and St Helena have been linked almost since the island was discovered, uninhabited, by Portuguese sailors 500 years ago. Five of the island’s earliest inhabitants were escaped enslaved people. By 1723 over half of the island’s 1,100 residents were enslaved. Slavery began its decline in St Helena in 1792, when local laws made it illegal to import new enslaved people. In 1832, slavery was abolished when the East India Company purchased the 614 remaining slaves from their owners for a sum of around £28,067 - and, soon after, the role of many Saints shifted from owner to ally.

One way that the denizens of St Helena helped fight slavery was by sea: De Vere explains that ships like the British HMS Waterwitch formed a blockade off the African coast. When they caught a slave ship, crews boarded it and brought it to St Helena, where the human cargo was released and the ship was broken up. During her years of service, Waterwitch captured around 40 slave ships, liberating thousands of Africans.

In April 1843 Waterwitch captured the Brazilian-flagged ship Conceição de Maria. Some 390 people had been loaded aboard the small boat in Benguela, Angola. After 22 days at sea, 349 captives, 60 percent of whom were children, were liberated in St Helena; 41 had died during the voyage. Many were buried in St Helena’s mass graves.

Beyond the sheer tragedy of the finds on this island, archaeologists say the importance of these lives can’t be underestimated. This is the only known assembly of large numbers of first-generation enslaved Africans in the world. They are thought to be the last trace of the estimated 1.8 million people who perished on the Middle Passage, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

Research opportunities have been limited by local politics, but bone fragments from the graves were part of DNA sequencing and radiogenic isotope analysis in the eurotast project. The project’s goal is to identify the origins of the people who were stolen during the slave trade. Simply put, knowing who is buried in St Helena may answer elusive questions about the people who arrived in the Americas.

St Helena is a magical place. Granite spires rise out of rolling green farmland on one part of the island, while, in other places, multi-hued volcanic cliffs drop abruptly into the sea. These days, the population of 4,000 relies on supplies brought by ship. But in 1850, the island’s farms, fishery, and water supply had to provide for a population nearing 7,000, the hundreds of ships that called each year, and the influx of African refugees.

One sunny afternoon, the island appears more pastoral than imposing. Curran suggests we sail the inviting waters toward the Liberated Africans Depot, the camp set up to house refugees, in Ruperts Valley. From aboard a 40-foot catamaran, he wants to film the sea route the captured slave ships would have taken before visiting the graveyards by land. Sitting on deck, listening to gentle waves, we’re entertained by swooping black noddies, and soon catch a glimpse of a huge whale shark as we approach the rugged red cliffs.

A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airportRuperts Bay
Left: A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airport, Right: Ruperts Bay

Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation HouseThe airport check the runway as part of their daily routineThe island’s interior
Left: Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House; Middle: The airport check the runway as part of their daily routine; Right: The island’s interior

Even beauty can’t obscure the truth: Experts argue about the true human cost of slavery, but estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database say some 12.5 million people were loaded aboard ships by European slave traders for the journey to the New World, and between 10 and 20 percent died during transport. Records tell us that people were packed into the dank hulls of ships, separated by sex, and kept naked and chained. When the slave ships arrived in St Helena, the captives were often near death thanks to dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, and violence.

In the Jamestown library, I come across one account of a ship’s arrival. The paragraph, written by the surveyor and engineer John Melliss in 1861, describes how horrified Melliss was at the brutalities endured by the Africans: The whole deck … was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape which I had never seen before. One’s sensations of horror were certainly lessened by the impossibility of realizing that the 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.

Despite grave odds, for the three decades the Liberated Africans Depot was open, locals nursed thousands of the newly freed back to health. Over the years they offered English lessons, schooling, and church services to survivors. Hundreds of refugees opted to stay on the island. The remainder, speaking multiple languages and originating from far-flung parts of Africa, often couldn’t communicate where they were from, making it impossible to return them. Instead they were sent as indentured servants to places including British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Walking through the dusty heat of graveyard number two, I can’t help but compare this dreary place with Sane Valley, the lush grove in the island’s interior where Napoleon was interred. Napoleon, whose body was returned to France in 1840, gets an annual remembrance ceremony. The nameless 8,000 Liberated Africans buried on St Helena don’t have a single memorial plaque or grave marker between them.

Curran explains that a memorial for the Liberated Africans will come - but because the bones are claimed by no one, islanders have argued over how best to commemorate them, and even who should be given a role in the decision. People have offered various ideas: immediate interment; plantings to beautify the area; an art installation; a tomb; or even sending the bones back to Africa. Until a decision is made, the excavated bones sit off-limits in a dilapidated storeroom, and the rugged graveyards remain unmarked, untended, and largely unknown.

I think it might not matter how the bones are memorialized, but simply that they are.

I recall that passage I read - Saints picking up the dying Africans one by one as they carried them to freedom - and about how the island’s small population did all it could to care for and bury the refugees, who just kept coming. I think about how deeply the archaeologists were moved during the excavations; and how the descendants of enslaved Africans may find answers to questions about their history within the DNA. I reflect on how the film crew is so committed to telling this story they simply can’t let it go.

And I wonder if maybe this story can serve to remind us of the value of human kindness and compassion in this new era of mass displacement, with so many souls in peril on the sea.

There is no funny image on this page. There is nothing funny about slavery.

The shocking thing about slavery is that it still goes on today.

To learn more see the Equality & Human Rights Commission website.

{a}{8}{b} UK National Archives on Flickr™{8}{9}{c} From ‘A Handbook and Gazetteer of the Island of St Helena’, by G. C. Kitching, 1939{d} ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905, 1905{8}

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{1} In the aftermath of the re-taking of the island from the Dutch.{2} a.k.a. Slaves.{3} An ancestor of Ian Bruce.{4} The legality of the Court was questioned, and as a result the Advocate General in London issued a verdict confirming the Court’s legality in November 1840.{5} ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875 says about 500 remained on St Helena - about ⅙ of the population - but we have seen records showing the total remaining as 500 in 1850 so the actual final number must be higher. Of the total landed here, less the number of emigrants and less the number that died, more than 2,000 remain unaccounted for, so we believe 1,000 to be a defensible final figure.{6} Extension of the fuel storage and creation of the ‘haul road’ from Ruperts to the airport site.{7} Though the Chinese Labourers brought in the early 19th Century also made a significant contribution.{8} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{9} Images are labelled ‘No known copyright restrictions’. Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.

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