Tuesday, May 21, 2024

DNA reveals origins of St Helena’s liberated Africans

They were enslaved in the final decades of the transatlantic slave trade and freed by sailors of Britain’s West Africa Squadron, only to die on remote St Helena within weeks. Now former slaves whose voices were lost to history are telling their stories through their DNA.

Following the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, the Royal Navy patrolled off the West coast of Africa and sought to intercept slave ships. Between 1840 and 1867, around 27,000 Africans found on ships that were mostly bound for Brazil and Cuba were taken to the South Atlantic island of St Helena. Virtually none of these people — termed “liberated Africans” — ever returned home and, after being held at a depot at Rupert’s Bay on the island’s north coast, most were moved to South Africa or British colonies in the Caribbean as indentured labourers.

However, having endured appalling conditions on the slave ships — with violent treatment, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy all prevalent — around 8,000 died on St Helena soon after arrival. Most were buried at Rupert’s Valley, where archaeological excavations of a small part of the graveyards took place in 2007-8 ahead of construction of the island’s airport. In the latest development, scientists have analysed DNA from 20 burials, offering the first direct evidence for the origins of St Helena’s liberated Africans and insights for understanding the 19th-century slave trade more broadly.

A view of St Helena around 1815. Coloured aquatint plate by George Hutchins Bellasis, engraved by Robert Havell. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Historical records suggested that most of the liberated Africans came from West Central Africa, but details were scant, and reliant on a very limited contemporary understanding of African geography and peoples. The DNA analyses, recently published in the The American Journal of Human Genetics, indicate that the sampled individuals most likely had origins in the region between today’s northern Angola and Gabon.

While the study reveals genetic relatedness between the liberated Africans and inhabitants of Angola and Gabon today, there were no people from the Congo in the reference dataset. Given the historical context, it is likely that many liberated Africans also came from that area.

The team looked at autosomal DNA, inherited from ancestors in all lines; mitochondrial DNA, inherited down the maternal line; and Y chromosomes, inherited by men from their fathers. None of the liberated Africans whose DNA was studied were closely related, and they appear to have belonged to diverse populations within the region. The findings also show that most of the individuals — seventeen out of twenty — were male, supporting a well-documented sex bias in the last phase of the transatlantic slave trade.


Liberated Africans still living on St Helena, c. 1900. Photo: National Museums Liverpool

“It was known that they most likely originated from areas south of the equator, but where exactly they came from was unclear,” said lead author Dr Marcela Sandoval-Velasco, a specialist in palaeogenomics at the University of Copenhagen. “By sequencing their DNA and comparing it with that of thousands of living people from across sub-Saharan Africa we were able to infer where in Africa they likely originated and thereby help restore knowledge of their ancestral connections.”

She added: “We are hoping to give back humanity to these individuals. It is their DNA telling their story. That’s the power of DNA — as researchers we try to be only objective interpreters. The historical record of the transatlantic slave trade was mostly written with a Western-oriented perspective. So many lives and experiences were obscured and erased from history. We hope our work brings back a little bit of that humanity.”

Co-author Dr Andrew Pearson, the archaeologist who led the excavations of the burial ground, said: “The naval sources we have only tell us the point to capture, which was generally around the mouth of the Congo and southwards. Those records were concerned only with the numbers of slaves on board a given ship — their origin was not of interest. To be able to then apply science to that has taken us inland, beyond the point of the slave ships’ interception to the origins of those on board. 

“Because of the nature of the written sources, for historians it is difficult to understand the mechanisms for the distribution path. Except in very general terms, we haven’t really understood where these people came from, so to start to establish that is really important.”

Explaining the broader significance of St Helena, he said: “In terms of the burial grounds of enslaved people, St Helena isn’t unique, as there are other slave graveyards in the New World. However, those other slave graveyards contain first-generation enslaved people, but also  descendant generations, born in the New World. What you have on St Helena, by contrast, is a snapshot of the slave ship. This is unique. 

Capture by the Royal Navy of a slave ship off the coast of Cuba, 1858, as depicted in the The Illustrated London News. Photo: Wellcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY 4.0

“We are seeing people who were only days or a maximum of a few weeks out of Africa, who had been carried away from their homeland and into slavery. They were clearly first-generation, clearly African, people who didn’t begin their lives as slaves. That is archaeologically and culturally hugely significant because due to the intangible nature of the slave trade ‘Middle Passage’, only at this intermediary mid-ocean place, can such a site exist. As a site it is bleak, uncompromising – in other words totally representative of what the slave trade was.”

As for the experiences of the liberated Africans, he said one thing that stood out was their youth. “They were so young, and it is obvious from the historical records that many didn’t know where they were or where they had come from. In our osteological analysis, the modal average age was 12. We know that few or any had lived on the African coast — they are much more likely to have come from the interior. Many hadn’t got a concept of an ocean and all aboard the slave ship were traumatised by their transportation. 

“Particularly poignant in St Helena’s records are the suicides amongst those ‘liberated’: some of these had escaped from the depot and they were intending to walk home, not understanding that they had left Africa. They got to the far side of the island, they realised they were surrounded by sea, and with that realisation, apparently flung themselves off the cliffs.” 

This 1830s illustration by Johann Moritz Rugendas shows the punishment of slaves in Brazil, a major destination for slave ships at the time. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He added: “It’s a very mixed story and the primary blame falls on the slave traders. But, much like with modern refugee camps, the government providing resources, and the people in charge [at Rupert’s Bay] didn’t necessarily manage the depot as well as they could. When we started this excavation, we inherited the Victorian view that this was a very laudable exercise on the part of the British. But the more you research, the more you realise that, actually, it’s a very ambiguous story.”

It isn’t only genes that give clues to the lives and identities of the liberated Africans. Some skeletons were found to have different types of dental modifications, with carving of the front teeth that reflects those individuals’ cultures prior to enslavement. Others were buried with objects such as beads and necklaces, owned before their capture and precious relics of their homeland. After their deaths, the bodies were buried hastily, often in multiple graves. The 325 burials excavated in 2007-8, were respectfully reburied last year in individual coffins, with a ceremony and new memorial plaque.

There are now plans for a museum, in which the history, archaeology, science and culture of this site can be presented. Pearson said: “We’re looking at telling their stories through historical strands, archaeological strands, and now this science. We, as archaeologists, should be storytellers. It’s hard to come face-to-face with the transatlantic slave trade, which becomes ‘faceless’ because of its huge numbers — 10 million, 15 million, whatever estimate you want to take, it’s simply too large to comprehend. But here we find ourselves at the human scale, literally face-to-face with its victims, and able to see them as individuals, from complex cultures and each with a sense of their identity.”

The researchers hope the findings will help to create new awareness globally of the fate of the liberated Africans of St Helena. Some islanders have started tracing their family histories and taking commercial DNA tests to look for connections to those brought to Rupert’s Bay. The modern St Helenian community is descended from many different strands, but although there is no recognisable ‘liberated African’ descendant community today, the team said some descendants must live on the island, where a minority of liberated Africans were allowed to settle permanently. Others are likely to be in the Caribbean, Britain and elsewhere and future research may reveal such connections.


Reburial ceremony on St Helena for the liberated Africans buried in Rupert’s Valley, 22 August 2022. Photo: John Turner, St Helena Island Info

Pearson hopes the research illustrates that St Helena’s history doesn’t stop at Napoleon’s exile there following his defeat at Waterloo. “St Helena is generally only known for Napoleon, and his presence there certainly provides the island with some celebrity. However, in terms of a contribution to world history, for a little while St Helena was the absolutely critical hub for the West Africa Squadron’s activities, and its role in the suppression of the slave trade was well-understood by all the British statesmen of the era. 

“Sierra Leone [where liberated Africans were also taken] was an awful place to get to in terms of sailing time, particularly as the 19th century progressed and the slave trade shifted southwards to Central Africa: to reach Sierra Leone from there it could take many weeks, and occasionally months, because of the winds and currents. By contrast, in the South Atlantic, from any point on the African coast, you could reliably reach St Helena in a far shorter time – in some cases as little as 8 days, and critically too it was a very healthy place, without the lethal malaria or yellow fever prevalent in Sierra Leone. 

“In those 25 years from 1840 when St Helena started to be used as an anti-slavery station, the island was critical for policing the slave trade, a genocide which had carried on for many centuries. In 1840 that trade was in full flow; by the 1870s it was finally gone from the Atlantic. That contribution – not least of the St Helenians themselves, who worked in the island’s depots — needs to be remembered.” 

In total, the West Africa Squadron intercepted around 1,600 slave ships and liberated about 150,000 people. Its interceptions stopped only a small proportion of slave voyages, with about three million Africans forcibly shipped across the Atlantic in the 19th century. Service with the squadron was hazardous and and over 1,580 of its sailors died between 1830 and 1865, mostly due to disease. 

A plaque commemorating St Helena’s liberated Africans at the site of the reburials. Photo: St Helena Government

Helena Bennett, co-author of the study and resident of St Helena, said: “This project was part of a larger ongoing effort by many people on and off the island to try and restore knowledge of St Helena’s liberated Africans. We hope that by telling their story we can honour their legacy and ensure that their lives and fates are not forgotten.”

The research is also part of broader attempts to recover the origins and life stories of Africans displaced by the transatlantic slave trade. For example, Dr Sandoval-Velasco and Dr María Ávila-Arcos, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), are currently using palaeogenomics to investigate the origins of Africans in colonial Mexico City.

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