Articulated skeletons unearthed from African Burial Grounds on St Helena have until now, been nameless numbers. ‘Liberated’ Africans intercepted from the Transatlantic slave trade 150 years ago, brought ashore in Rupert’s Valley were buried in shallow, unmarked graves with no recorded identity.
Today, in January 2018, laying a living man on a tarmac road in a ‘pose’ that replicates the body position as found, of a person who had been buried near this spot a century and a half ago, is a surreal experience.
We are arranging him in such a cramped and undignified position it can hardly be called ‘laid to rest.’ He’s laid inside a ‘grave’ we’ve outlined with cobblestones that’s been measured and shaped to match the original. I swallow hard and mentally shake myself to stay focussed on the job in hand; there’ll be plenty of time for reflection later.
The First Generation Project | by Sharon Henry
With almost clinical precision we manipulate our model into the desired position, before Darrin, standing overhead on a tall ladder, captures the shot we are looking for. The man then unravels his limbs, steps out of his ‘grave’ and slips on his shoes. Simple, fluid movements that exudes life. We take an unsmiling headshot to complete his set and within 20 minutes we’re placing another model inside a different ‘grave.’
This is the location shoot of the ‘First Generation’ photography exhibition, an important educational project to raise awareness of the sad history of this place.
Behind the scenes video, the Making of First Generation
325 Articulated Skeletons from Estimated 8,000
In total, over a two-day period we’ll be photographing 44 models and replicating 25 ‘graves.’ The ‘poses’ are taken from a structural catalogue of an archaeological dig carried out in 2008 when 325 articulated skeletons were uncovered from unmarked graves within this small section of the Haul Road in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena. The archaeologists gave each skeleton an individual number.
The bodies belonged to victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade who had been rescued on the Middle Passage from slave ships crossing the Atlantic, and brought to the Liberated African Depot here in Rupert’s Valley between 1840 – 1872.
Over 26,000 Africans were landed on St Helena during this period. They had been brutally snatched from their homeland, stripped of their freedom, dignity and identity, and shipped as human cargo to be sold into slavery overseas. They arrived here with no name or place of origin; ship manifests were devoid of such details.
Children up to 12 years old accounted for a third of the uncovered bodies, the rest were a high proportion of young adults and prime adult males.
The majority of the ‘Liberated’ Africans who arrived here were then sent on as indentured workers to other British colonies, 543 settled on the island but an estimated 8,000 died as a result of their transportation and were buried on St Helena.
Until the 2008 excavation the existence of these burial grounds had been almost forgotten by islanders. No tombstones, plaques or memorials marked the area and local knowledge of this period in history was very sketchy.
The African Burial Grounds On St Helena
The purpose of our grim photo shoot is to produce a photography exhibition that remembers these people and restores 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.
It’s a sensitive task and we’re collaborating with Annina van Neel-Hayes who approached us with the original concept. She’s a passionate campaigner, raising awareness of the African burial grounds. We’ve also roped in our niece Nicole and Darrin’s dad, Pat, to help out and between us we’re working a smooth operation.
Our chosen 25 graves have compositions from one up to four bodies in a grave. We’re sticking to detail of the articulated skeletons as closely as possible using information taken from the structural catalogue:
ie one inhumation: 245 a prime adult male. The cut [of the grave] was 1310mm long and 480mm at its widest point.
We’re referencing pictures of the skeleton layout.
First Generation, Behind The Scenes
All the models we approached, save one, said yes and were keen to be involved in the project. The parents were especially humbling in their enthusiasm for their kids to be included. Everyone was allocated a time slot and briefed to show up wearing plain, dark shorts and t-shirt.
Mid-morning the tarmac is starting to heat up and our first child model arrives. The cruelty of the situation hits home – all those poor, innocent children. I try to stay in work mode and concentrate on the positioning of the head, arms and legs and not over-think it.
Once we achieve the correct pose, all can be heard is the beep of the camera and the dull hum of the nearby power station. A soft breeze plays with wisps of the child’s hair.
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.
Poor souls who were very likely missed by their loved ones every day. Imagine a mother forever on the lookout for her child to return, living in hope until her dying day.
Putting Flesh On The Forgotten Bones
For the past 10 years the bodies of ‘325’ have been kept in storage in the Pipe Store in Jamestown. DNA samples were taken to enable scientific studies. The bones are tentatively set to be re-interred in Rupert’s Valley at the end of 2018, close to the site they were found, once certain airport related projects are complete.
In fact, all of this came about because of the airport project. In 2006 at the early stages of the project, human bones were uncovered whilst digging pits to test the soil on the proposed route for the new Haul Road. Darrin was on site at the time filming for the Air Access Office. The discoveries instigated the archaeological dig commissioned by DfID (Department for International Development) of a small footprint of the area where the new road would run through measuring 100m x 30m.
In 2008 within a four-month period, a team of archaeologists excavated the 325 bodies from the long forgotten African burial grounds on St Helena – there are two in Rupert’s, an Upper and a Lower. Thousands remain in unmarked graves spread across the dry, arid landscape of the valley.
St Helenian’s have always known our ancestry is linked with slaves. Slaves were brought here with the first settlers and soldiers back in 1659 and slavery was abolished on St Helena in 1832. But until the 2008 archaeological dig most were ignorant of St Helena’s role in aiding the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Or of the Africans brought here to recuperate and of those that perished. It was something generally not known or spoken of.
First Generation Exhibition – The Launch
But fast forward; it’s three weeks after the shoot in Rupert’s and we’re now at the Museum of St Helena for the opening of ‘First Generation’ and judging by the buzz in the room the once forgotten Africans are now being spoken of. Everybody is talking, asking questions and expressing how they feel. The pictures are generating quite a stir – the good kind.
One of the models tells us she had had a ‘moment’ when stepping inside the stones three weeks ago, feeling the spirit of the person she was representing.
The hall falls quiet as our guest of honour, Peggy King Jorde, visiting from New York delivers a talk. She was the community lead in the memorialisation of the African Burial Grounds in New York in the early 90s. Her community has already experienced what St Helena is now experiencing; how do we remember this history? Peggy highlights the fact that here we have more than what New York has – St Helena has tangible built heritage; the slave hospital, the garden and most importantly, graves that remain intact and undisturbed. Powerful and valuable in helping to tell the story and remembering these people.
And remember them we must, people forcibly subjected to the dehumanising disgrace of slavery. Remember them as men, women and children; fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Let’s ask, ‘who, what, where, when and how?’
The ‘First Generation’ project has reconnected me to the story. Whilst studying the structural catalogue and looking at bodies that appeared to have been thrown and crammed into undersized graves, I too had a ‘moment.’ A moment of white hot realisation that this happened to somebody, these bones were people – and all I could say was ‘sorry.’
The time has come to honour and respect the Liberated Africans buried here in the African burial grounds on St Helena, by remembering them.
We can’t change the past but the present and future is in our hands.
‘Infernal Traffic‘ by Andrew Pearson, Ben Jeffs, Annsofie Witkin and Helen MacQuarrie
‘St Helena 1502-1938‘ by Philip Gosse
Note: The East India Company abolished slavery on St Helena in 1832 under Governor General Dallas, purchasing the freedom of 614 slaves for a sum of £28,062. 17s.