On St Helena’s Day on the 21st May 2021 a ceremony was held in remembrance of both the enslaved and “liberated” Africans on the island of St Helena. The ceremony took place at the old Pipe Store at the back of the island’s prison, were the human remains of the formerly enslaved had been housed for the past 12 years after being unearthed by the Airport’s project archeological excavation. The remains were temporarily secured so that they would not be destroyed by the construction of the Haul Road and to later be respectfully reburied.
Thank you all for breaking into your day of fun and family to pay your respects to a group of people who form the backbone of St Helena’s cultural and genetic heritage.
This year St Helena’s day is about Cultural Diversity, which, as a Human Rights Advocate is at the heart of everything I believe – we are all different, we are all amazing – but we are all one family too. Genetic research has shown that every single person on this planet is descended from one of seven African women, so black/white, straight/gay – enslaved or billionaire we are all family. All equal, all due dignity and respect.
This island was largely built by enslaved people.
St Helena was colonised by the English in 1659, and at that time the use of enslaved people was common. 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. 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. In just twenty years there were some eighty enslaved people on the island – about as many as there were settlers..
To a large extent this island was founded and built by these enslaved, who were used for unskilled manual labour in plantations, for road building, and domestic service. One of the more obscure jobs given to the enslaved was carrying ladies and visitors up the original zig-zag path to Ladder Hill (the charge of 1/6d (£0.075) per trip went, to their owners, not to the enslaved themselves).
Punishments for the enslaved were extreme. Whipping was common for even minor offences; execution for more significant ones (from theft to mutiny).
Happily, slavery on St Helena eventually ended. By 1st May 1836 the last of the enslaved had been ‘freed’, though they mostly remained indentured to their former owners. But this was not the end of the island’s slavery story.
From 1840 St Helena played a pivotal role in the so-called liberation of slaves being shipped from Africa to the Americas. The conditions on those ships are well documented andstill almost unimaginable, but I am going to ask you to try … imagine you are a young girl or boy, (most were boys in their early teens) growing up in a village in Angola, the Congo or Namibia. You know little of the world other than your family and village. Then one day you are grabbed, bound and taken to the coast, held in a cellar with many other people who do not speak your language, not properly fed, unable to keep clean. You have never seen the ocean before, you are thrown into the hold of a ship, people around you sick, dying, starving. You are in the dark. From the 1840s the Royal Navy intercepted these ships and released the captives aboard. Many of the captives that were liberated were brought to St Helena, landed at Rupert’s and quarantined – many died and were buried in the valley and it is estimated that around 8,000 or more are buried this sacred ground. Others are buried in unmarked graves around the island. Some of those that survived, and the descendants of those slaves already here are the ancestors of todays Saints.
But the legacy of enslavement is still with us and people of colour the world over, that attitude that being other than white is somehow “less”, not as worthy of respect and dignity still exists in the prejudice and racism that exists today. The historical implication of salve trade is the discrimination dehumanization and otherization of people of African descent by the “white western world.”
Which brings us to today, and the reason we are stood here outside this very unassuming door to the old pipe store, a room which is part of the building that also houses the prison. 12 years ago, as work began towards the airport archaeological work was carried out to secure the bodies of those people whose remains would be disturbed by the construction of the haul road, they were to be examined and reburied but 12 years on those bodies and those of others disturbed during the works – some 325 people, men, women and children, most of them young boys, are in boxes in this building, they remain unburied and disrespected in an old storeroom.
We all stand here today, to bear witness not just on behalf of St Helena but the descendants of these beautiful, noble people, in Africa, in the Caribbean and in America and across the world.
In a moment or two, we will have a minute’s silence, then Annina van Neel, the Chair of our Equality & Human Rights Commission, will read a poem. ThenElsie Hughs, who has traced her roots back to some of those we are here today to remember, is going to place this stunning wreath on the door of the store on behalf of us all here and the descendants of slaves everywhere. The message branch will be placed at the door by ….. and we will light candles. Then you are all invited to add a message to the branch or pay your respects as you wish.
The wreath depicts a young African boy as a reminder of the humanity of those that were taken the “unknown boy represents all of the enslaved people who lived and died on St Helena. I would like to thank Sophia Joshua for making this wonderful work of art for us. While I am on the thank you, I would also like to thank Derek Henry for granting us permission to hang the wreath and my colleagues at the EHRC for all they have done and everyone who has placed a message on our branch.
In a year where so much has been done to commemorate one man, the EHRC calls on our Government to remember our 8,000+ family members and particularly the 325 in this building and to show them the dignity and respect they deserve – they are not just remains, bones or dust, they are people, they are our family – we will remember them.