The Film “A Story of Bones” and the subsequent media articles had me questioning everything, from my identity to my sanity.
I understood that the basis of the story line would be that the Liberated African remains removed from Rupert’s Upper Burial Ground during planned excavations in 2008 were still being stored in the Pipe store some 14 years later after a promise of reburial. I accept that. It is not a fact that I am proud of, but it is a fact. This part of our history is certainly something that we need to talk more about.
The film implies that nothing has been done over the 14 Years. It asks ‘so why has it taken so long? Is it colonialism? Is it racism? Is it unnecessary bureaucracy?’ However, disappointingly at no point does the film ask the question ‘is it the desire to do what is right as more information becomes available?’
If you looked no further than the film and the associated media you might not be aware that anything is being done at all. Yet there is a Liberated African Advisory Committee (the LAAC) that has worked in the background for some time to try to do what they believe is right…
The LAAC produced a Master Plan for reburial of the Liberated African Remains, setting out some of the recent history. From this we derive a timeline:
|1950s – 1970s.|
Human remains were periodically disturbed in Rupert’s Valley, through housing construction and weather.
Construction of St Helena Island’s Power Station and Mid-Valley Fuel Farm disturbs large numbers of graves.
A Committee of Enquiry recommends that the remains be reinterred in Rupert’s Valley, and that the opening of the power station be accompanied by a multi-faith ceremony of blessing. Instead, the remains are reburied in land adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral in the centre of the island 10 years later. St Helena Government subsequently apologises for its actions
Human remains are revealed in geotechnical test pits dug in Rupert’s Valley for the Airport Project (Atkins).
Archaeological evaluation in Rupert’s Valley reveals skeletons in the lower and upper graveyards. Environmental Statement for the Airport Project published.
Cultural Heritage, particularly around Rupert’s and the Liberated Africans, is a key part of the Environmental Statement. It was this research that led to the subsequent publications by Dr Andrew Pearson (Infernal Traffic 2011 A. Pearson, B.Jeffs, A. Witkin, H. MacQuarrie )
Airport Project planning documentation, including Environmental Statement, approved by Executive Council. Archaeological excavation is carried out in a part of the upper graveyard, to facilitate construction of the Airport Haul Road. 325 human skeletons are exhumed and placed in archival storage boxes in the Pipe Building, Jamestown. This work was led by Dr Andrew Pearson and his team. Community engagement and awareness raising took place throughout the excavation.
Initial agreement with International Slavery Museum in Liverpool for loan of artefacts.
(End 2008). Airport Project ‘paused’.’
Project Outline and Estimate’ Report prepared by Ben Jeffs and Dr Andrew Pearson, followed by outline ossuary design.
(Early 2009). Advice sought on how to meet the requirements of the Environmental Statement in light of the ‘Pause’.
Osteological Analysis of excavated remains commences, led by Dr Andrew Pearson.
Reinterment Options Paper prepared by Dr Andrew Pearson and Ben Jeffs.
Following discussions with the Executive Council, the Acting Governor advises preference for an Ossuary in Rupert’s December 2009.
(March 2010). Outline design proposal for an Ossuary endorsed by Executive Council.
Specifications for an Ossuary prepared by Dr Andrew Pearson and Ben Jeffs.
Planning application submitted for an Ossuary in November.
Planning application approved. Design, Build and Operate Contract signed for the Airport. Excavation monograph Infernal Traffic by Dr Andrew Pearson published.
Civil, Society, Tourism and Leisure Committee recommends reverting to original plans for reburial in Rupert’s, following lifting of the ‘Pause’ and approval of the Airport Project.
Air Access designated lead on Liberated African Remains (primarily due to having oversight of on-site environmental mitigation process).
Haul road construction commences in Rupert’s Valley.
Airport Project works in upper Rupert’s Valley, away from the haul road, disturbed the graves.
These are inspected by the Museum of St Helena before being re-covered. Spoil excavated in the upper valley, within the construction corridor for the new fuel farm, is also found to contain much comminute human bone: this material was up-cast derived from Power Station construction deposited there in 1985.
Samples from the human remains in the Pipe Building are taken, to facilitate stable isotope and DNA analyses (EuroTAST project).
Draft Rupert’s Development Plan recognises heritage considerations, including the African graveyards, as being of ‘material significance’ to planning decisions.
Stakeholder Group established, chaired by Director St Helena National Trust.
Dr Andrew Pearson contracted to advise on potential for relocation of the Liberated African Remains.
Liberty Bound exhibition opens at International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.
Haul Road construction completed. No human remains were encountered during its construction.
(August 2014). Possible relocation of human remains from the Pipe Building considered and rejected.
Rupert’s Valley Development Plan in the process of revision.
Human bone disinterred during Air Access works, on ground immediately above the 2008 excavation area (December).
Survey carried out on-island and amongst key stakeholders in the scientific community to consider options for reinternment of Liberated African Remains. Response largely in favor of reburial in Rupert’s.
Proposal for use of site near St Michael’s Church/Temporary Fuel Farm Area.
Call for ideas/designs for the reburial/memorial site.
Extensive discussion with the Executive Council around timing of reburial. Strong preference for this to take place following demobilisation of the Airport Project. Large construction works and heavy plant operations near to the proposed site in Rupert’s are not deemed ‘quiet and restful’ but it was noted that these construction works would be temporary.
Proposed site designated a burial ground – approval granted by Executive Council.
Executive Council mandate for LAAC.
Artefacts loaned to International Slavery Museum returned to St Helena.
LAAC Report on Reinterment Options endorsed by Executive Council.
Reburial continued to be a preferred option – options for an Ossuary ruled out.
Executive Council directed that the materials returned from the international Slavery Museum are displayed at the St Helena Museum until near the date for reburial to allow the local community to engage on this topic.
Executive Council further directed that the grave goods are then reburied with the human remains they were unearthed with.
2019/2020 LEMP team responsible for clearance of invasive species and completion of minor landscaping at both burial grounds in Rupert’s in advance of further funding for large-scale landscaping.
£20,000 Funding received from FCO for Project support to progress Reburial, Interpretation and Memorialisation.
Dec 2019 Project Co-ordinator and Archaeologist contracted to deliver on 8 specific work components, namely:
1. Determine the process for NCA designation and draft a Cultural Heritage Management Plan.
2. Produce proposal and EoI for Geophysics survey in Rupert’s Valley, commission work.
3. Produce business case and cost concept for interpretive signage, commission work.
4. Produce business case and cost concept for coffins.
5. Produce business case and cost concepts for artefact replicas.
6. Produce plan for Landscaping and Protection for known and newly identified burial grounds.
7. Produce Memorialisation and Reburial Plan.
8. Compile Terms of Reference for Design Consultant for Interpretive Centre, Memorial and Reburial sites.
Public information sessions held by LAAC in Rupert’s and Jamestown to inform the local community on 7 work deliverables conducted by Project Coordinator.
Project deliverables completed in end March 2020.
(March 2020).Limited travel opportunities due to COVID-19 Shipping and procurement delays.
The above timeline tells the modern history of the Liberated African graveyards in Rupert’s Valley. Not much of this appears in A Story of Bones. But it is important that you know this. The story of the Liberated African Remains deserves to be much more.
Most worrying is that A Story of Bones is classified as a documentary. I expected the film to also tell the significance of the story behind the bones and how they got there. To tell the whole story from the Vice Admiralty court set up here in June 1840. As an aside, Charles Hodson the Judge for the Court was the former owner of my 4 x Great Grandparents – James and Susannah (Susan) Lawrence and Charles and Mary Riley before they were emancipated in 1827. There are direct links from the Liberated African story with the wider story of slavery on St Helena that resonate today.
The original Depot receiving the captured vessels was in Lemon Valley where it was operational from 1840 -1844 after which it was moved to Ruperts. At Lemon Valley bodies were buried at Sea and near the buildings due to the narrowness of the valley (Infernal traffic). At Rupert’s there are two known graveyards, not one as suggested in the film. It makes me question why is only one shown? Why is one more significant than the others? If it matters how we chose to remember then surely we should remember them all?
I felt that only the part of the story that could be sensationalised has been told in the film with lots of subliminal messaging to push the colonial and colour element. The film says the Pipe Store is a wing of the prison. The Master Plan says it was a store for pipes and plumbing materials that was turned to a flax museum. The film says the burial at St Pauls is on the outskirts of the cemetery. If you live on St Helena you can visit St Paul’s cemetery and see that the burial took place in the area designated for non-Anglican faiths, a quiet, shady, restful spot. The scene with the gun, the scene chosen from a local drama Dottie Comes Home, the scene at the public meeting, even the scene showing the royal wedding being watched by a local household were all chosen to paint a picture of St Helena. This picture does not put these images into the context of the St Helena I know: no wonder the impression it gives is skewed. Even more disappointing, it bears no resemblance to the 2017 screening of the first cut of the film on-island. What changed?
Perhaps more so than the actual film are the inaccuracies in the media that surrounds it all that troubles me. In particular this quote from one of the filmmakers accusing the Government of gaslighting… “We did have some problems with not being allowed access to certain places and people of influence. The island is 77% run by the British Government so if they want to shut something down then that’s how it intends to work. The issues we found were more geared to closed doors and less with lack of communication. The government was very persistent in letting us know that there was nothing to worry about and that everything was just fine. So, there was definitely a lot of gaslighting going on. We do anticipate that this will get worse as this documentary starts to get more momentum at different film festivals and on the BBC Network, however it is a story that needs to be told and we intend to tell it,” said Curran. Source:https://thehollywoodtimes.today/first-time-filmmakers-make-stand-tribeca-2022/
Gaslighting? A pretty serious accusation when much of the historical footage was taken from the records produced by the St Helena Government and there is much in the public domain… Similarly, there seems to be a theme along the lines: Eager to stay on schedule, the Government ordered the excavation of 325 individuals and stored them in a wing of the island’s prison, where they have been boxed, in desperate conditions, since 2009. But as the contractors pushed on and bones kept surfacing, the responsibility was placed in Annina’s charge, as the project’s Environmental Officer. She poignantly confessed that ‘every time we find another piece of human remains, I can’t sleep that night.’ The repeated delays in reburying and memorializing these victims of slavery is compounded by Annina’s discovery of tapes revealing that the UK Government knowingly disturbed the burial grounds for decades. Outraged, Annina resigns and sets out to hold the Government accountable. Feeling increasingly isolated on the island, Annina looked to the outside world for help. There she found an ally in Peggy King Jorde, a renowned African American preservationist whose work – thirty years earlier – was born of a similar struggle, and produced New York’s African Burial Ground National Monument.
Annina van Neel arrives from Namibia to help with the construction and is present when the remains of thousands of “freed slaves” are uncovered. Heeding her increasing discomfort with how the bones are handled, Nina campaigns tirelessly to honor their legacy and integrate them into the history of the island – their fate is, after all, intertwined with that of Napoleon’s.
As the Environmental Officer for Saint Helena’s doomed airport, Annina witnessed the unearthing of a terrible secret – a mass burial ground of 8,000 formerly enslaved Africans. Haunted by this injustice – and echoes of her childhood in Apartheid Namibia – she now fights for memorialisation of these forgotten victims. Source: http://film-directory.britishcouncil.org/a-story-of-bones It’s disappointing that these sources do not mention that the history of the Liberated African Remains has been known on-island and carried through our local stories since the original burials in the 1800s. The recent work through the Airport Environmental Statement and beyond has helped us to document this.
Having done my research my sanity is restored. As most of you will know, I worked on the Airport Project. I wasn’t directly involved in this element of the project but I did witness some of the work being done. It is documented, both on-island and via scientific texts, in documents such as the Environmental Statement, the Reinterment Options Paper, Infernal Traffic, the Eurotast study, the LAAC Options for Reburial, the LAAC Master Plan and others. I know I didn’t imagine it all.
Yes, it has been challenging. But very quietly, over a number of years, the local community has been making progress to reach the outcome it wants. The LAAC has co-ordinated with stakeholders to reach agreement on the burial site in Ruperts. Prince Andrew School and our students there have given up their time to construct caskets for the reburial. Our local Museum has served as custodian of the grave goods and told the story of the Liberated Africans to anyone willing to listen.
Led by the LAAC and with the assistance of local volunteers, from early 2022 the Liberated African remains now reside in Rupert’s. Each individual is being transferred into a casket and being readied for reburial. This did not happen through adverts in the local paper or through a Facebook appeal: hands were needed and the community quietly came together to use the limited funding available to get the best result possible.
It has been a long, often frustrating journey to get where we are but I’m comfortable with the fact that it has taken 14 years, simply because the outcome now will be much better than that proposed 14 years ago.
I know that the storyline behind A Story of Bones is chosen because it is one that will sell. I hope it isn’t to the detriment of our community and that it will actually help to fund the whole story being told. My favourite line from the film is… “It’s not an African story, it’s not a black story, it’s a human story”. And it is our story. It matters how we choose to remember…