While doing some research on the Liberated Africans, I came across a website displaying a brief overview of the Slave Trade. In particular, the site showed information relating to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and also promoted a day that commemorates slaves – International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
I had never heard of this day before so I decided to research further, especially knowing that many ‘Saints’ (which locals are called) in our community are descendants of slaves.
So what is International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade all about?
International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a United Nations (UN) international observance marked annually on 25 March.
This observation, declared in 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade, honors the many millions of men, women and children who were victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade – described by the UN as “among the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity”.
This year’s theme “Remember Slavery: Triumphs and Struggles for Freedom and Equality” celebrates the gains of people of African descent from slavery to present. It also acknowledges the challenges that have been overcome in the movement towards freedom and equality in all professions.
It was said that up to 28 million Africans were enslaved during the trade, which began in the 16th century and lasted over four hundred years.
The trade route saw Africans taken by ship across the Atlantic to settlements in North & South America and the West Indies.
During the course of the route, it was estimated that one in five slaves died due to the brutal, unsanitary and cramped conditions on-board.
[I remembered being taught in a History lesson about an underwater sculpture, located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Grenada. It is said to be a tribute to the African slaves who were thrown overboard from the slave ships during the Middle Passage.]
The Transatlantic Slave Trade and St Helena Island
An eye witness, (sourced from the Archives) dating back to 1849, gave an account of a slave ship being offloaded in St Helena. Upon observing the slaves on-board the ship, some who were dead or nearing death, said: “They had a worn look and wasted appearance, and were moved into the boats like bales of goods, apparently without any will of their own.”
The slaves (referred to in the above paragraph) were men, women and children freed as a result of the British Navy’s campaign against the Slave Trade.
In 1807, the United Kingdom made it illegal to trade slaves, and consequently resulted in a deployment of anti-slavery patrols along the Middle Passage (the trade route from Africa to America), to intercept the slave ships.
Our home, St Helena Island, is situated in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, which made it an ideal drop off location for slaves freed from the ships.
During the period 1840-1860, it was estimated some 27,000 slaves were captured and brought to the Island. Historians suspect these slaves were kidnaped from Central or West Africa. Those who survived were granted freedom (the slaves hereafter referred to as Liberated Africans), many of which eventually relocated to places like Trinidad, Jamaica and other British colonies. However, sadly, many did not make it due to diseases like smallpox and dysentery, and were ‘laid to rest’ in Rupert’s Valley – these days an industrial/residential area.
Unearthing our ancestors
In November 2006, Geologist, David Shilston, was hired to come to the Island to plan an access road for the construction of our Airport. The digging works had just commenced when a worker discovered a broken human bone that was sticking out of the ground.
In 2007, an Archaeologist from Cardiff, Andrew Pearson was sent to the Island to examine the site. Andrew identified two distinct burial locations, one of which was located in the middle of the proposed path for the access road.
Following approved instructions to exhume the skeletal remains, Andrew along with his colleague Ben and team returned to the Island in 2008 to begin the excavation. The group made an astonishing discovery that the graves were densely packed, with some containing the remains of up to four persons.
The team spent four months working on the project, exhuming 325 articulated skeletons, which they boxed up for later examination.
Remembering those without a name – 25 photos showing 44 individuals of the 325 unearthed skeletal remains
Recently I visited the Museum in Jamestown, where a powerful photography exhibition, entitled ‘First Generation’, was launched. This exhibition was formed in remembrance of the African burial grounds, here on St Helena, as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The exhibition was hosted by the ‘First Generation’ Project Team, Annina van Neel-Hayes (Project Director), and photographers from What the Saints Did Next, Darrin and Sharon Henry.
Twenty five amazing black-and-white photographs were displayed in the Museums Gallery.
Each framed photograph showed forty four Saint Helenian models (male, female and children), lying, individually or in groups in a cramped and tangled position on the tarmac road (Haul Road), in ‘graves’ outlined with cobble stones. The idea, [and I must say was a fantastic idea] was to replicate the exact positions, based on a catalogue from the archaeological dig in 2008, that the skeleton remains were found.
Each black and white photo had a head shot of unsmiling models merged into the background, where they gazed dolefully at the viewer.
Underneath each photographed was a picture showing the actual remains of the Liberated Africans once their graves had been unearthed. This was mirrored by the reconstruction photograph. Archaeologist gave each skeleton an individual number and in the gallery, were given the names of the models.
Seeing these pictures made me feel emotional. This visual display of the remains made me realize that these bones were once people who had flesh, eyes, could walks and were perhaps once full of life.
Photographers from What the Saints Did Next, Sharon & Darren Henry, said:
“The Exhibition is called ‘First Generation,’ because St Helena has the only burial ground that contains solely the bodies of first generation Africans who died as a result of their transportation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
“The purpose of our grim photoshoot is to produce a photography exhibition that remembers these people and restore a sense of identity. We’re trying to retell and reconnect the story to St Helenians by humanising the skeletal remains and relating them to people within our local community. The models are lending their flesh, faces and names to these forgotten ones.”
The remains of the Liberated Africans are currently been stored in the Pipe Building, Jamestown awaiting their final resting place.
The 25 March is not only a day for remembrance, but a day that also raises awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice as well as modern forms of slavery (estimated to affect over 45.8 million people worldwide).
So, in honor of those who were victims of the Slave Trade, and who are now descendants of the Liberated Africans, “Less We Forget” – let us not forget where we come from, and live with peace, equality and love, for we are all human.