International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition
23 August marks the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. In honour of this day, we step back in time to recapture St Helena’s Dark Tourism and the Island’s role during this time.
In 1840 The British Government deployed the Royal Navy West Squadron to suppress the Transatlantic Slave Trade, following the British Abolition of slavery. A Vice Admiralty court was established on St Helena between 1840 and 1872 and Slaver crews that were captured were tried here, the nearest British Port. The Africans were brought here, liberated, re-nourished and transported back to Africa (Cape of Good Hope) or on to other British colonies where they would be employed as labour. Reports say this continued throughout the abolition of the slave trade.
Many Governments opposed Britain imposing their British law on vessels from other countries who were still engaging in the human trade, but Britain being influential in other trades, motivated other nations to jump on the anti-slave movement. This however was no easy feat. The British still met with resistance and continuing slavers began building smaller, faster vessels to out run the British Navy and transport their human cargo. Carrying up to a thousand captives per voyage, conditions aboard were horrific.
Photo extracted from: St Helena, A Photographic Treasury 1856 – 1947 By Robin Castell
Perhaps the most well know of the anti-slavery fleet was HMS Water Witch. She was built as a racing yacht of “advanced, experimental design”. She was also said to be “the last privately built vessel, bought by the Admiralty for use as a man-o-war”, and one of the first to capture a Slaver off the African Coast. Records indicate that some 26,000 ‘liberated’ Africans were received by the ‘liberated African establishment’ on the Island during this period.
The main depot, Rupert’s Valley acted as a receiving centre with a hospital and quarantine station also in the vicinity. Many, sadly, perished. It was thought that a combination of malnutrition and treacherous conditions on board the vessels contributed to high mortality rates. A witness account describes a visit to a full freighted slave-ship as ‘not easily to be forgotten; a scene so intensified in all that is horrible almost defies description’ (Mellis 1861).
Corpses of those who died in transit were reportedly transferred from ship to boats with several of the weak also dying as they were lifted to shore. Many could not be nursed back to health on the Island. They too died here. The majority of liberated Africans survived however. Some became employed residents on St Helena but most were moved on.
Over the Establishment’s lifetime is it estimated that in the region of 8000 Africans were buried in mass and multi, unmarked gravesites in Rupert’s Valley. Dr Andrew Pearson, an archaeologist from Bristol University, led the excavations of the Island slave burial grounds in 2008 where 325 bodies were uncovered from the excavation; one of few known burial grounds for many of the freed Africans. More details relating to the excavation can be found in Pearson’s published research report titled Infernal Traffic, Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena.
Today on International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, these remains offer a stark reminder of the western world’s dark history and how a tiny island like St Helena played a role in the slavery suppression.
References and Acknowledgement:
Pearson, A., 2009, Inhuman Traffic: Excavations of the Liberated African Cemeteries in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena Connection Issue 6
Museum of St Helena, Fact sheet Slavery.