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Scraping away generations of forgetting: my fight to honour the Africans buried on St Helena | St Helena

Scraping away generations of forgetting: my fight to honour the Africans buried on St Helena | St Helena
Scraping away generations of forgetting: my fight to honour the Africans buried on St Helena | St Helena

At the end of January 2012, I arrived on St Helena after a six-day journey by ship from Cape Town. After being surrounded by water for nearly a week, the sight of land on the midnight-blue horizon was overwhelming. It was as though someone had forgotten their piece of land in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. 47 square miles of volcanic rock, 2,810 miles from the coast of Brazil and 1,610 miles from Angola – an oasis in a desert, an enigma.

St Helena
Animated map showing passage of ships from Africa to North and South America, via St Helena
Between 1840 and 1872, more than 25,000 enslaved Africans were brought to St Helena from slaving voyages intercepted by the British navy.

I arrived on the island as part of the project team constructing St Helena’s first airport. Previously accessible only by sea, this incredible community, which had been defined by its isolation as an outpost and a place of exile for 500 years, would for the first time be easily reached by the rest of the world.

The scale and significance of the project was colossal. As the environmental officer, my role would be to make sure the build complied with regulations regarding an array of issues, including marine protection, flora and fauna conservation, the mitigation of noise, dust and air pollution, waste management, and the preservation of built and cultural heritage. It was an immense privilege and responsibility. I knew it would be complicated, but what I was severely unprepared for was encountering human remains.

I had researched and delivered training on burial grounds in Rupert’s Valley but I was still not prepared. Photograph: Guardian
Remains being excavated.
Credit : Darrin & Sharon Henry

Between 1840 and 1872, more than 25,000 enslaved Africans were brought on to St Helena from slaving voyages intercepted by the British Navy. About one-third died shortly after and were buried on the island in unmarked graves.

Four years before I arrived, an archaeological excavation of 325 articulated human remains was carried out, to make way for the road leading to the airport. I had researched and delivered training on these burial grounds in Rupert’s Valley, where construction would take place, but somehow I was still not prepared. There was an impenetrable membrane separating me from the humanity of those bones.

This separation was constellated with dates, numbers, scientific explanations, construction programmes and deadlines. By excavating this history, I was personally scraping away generations of forgetting. My first encounter was eight months in. Right on the boundary of the construction site, we found a set of human remains.

My first glimpse of them was in a box, collected by someone more senior than me. Not resembling anything human in my mind, not in where they were found, or how they were collected. Utterly insignificant.

I had not expected this encounter. Somehow, until this point, the probability of it happening had been non-existent in my mind. As the environmental officer, I felt deeply responsible for disturbing the most significant physical trace of the transatlantic slave trade. Then I realised it was inevitable: how could a project of this size not encroach on a space that was unmarked and uncelebrated? I carried out mitigation works to protect the site from further destruction, erected a simple barricade – and continued working as if this event meant nothing to me.

But I couldn’t let it go. I grew up in Namibia, a country with a history of trauma rooted in colonialism, genocide and slavery under German rule and more recently an apartheid regime under South African rule. Now I found myself struggling to negotiate the relationship between my own identity, the identity of those lying in the ground or in boxes, and the identity of an idyllic community whose own history is woven into a rich tapestry of colonialism, slavery and the slave trade.

The remains of the 325 people excavated in 2008 had been temporarily placed in boxes and stored for future reburial. Exhumed with them were their most prized possessions: pieces of them that, in time, become pieces of me, now gathered ready to be displayed in a museum exhibition in Liverpool. I stared at them and felt everything fading away.

Jewellery found with the remains.
Artefacts including well preserved beads (top) that were excavated from the burial grounds and a buried braid (above). Photograph: Guardian

I could see only the hair that looked like mine. The most delicate, perfect braid, found with one of the 325 men, women and children. Impeccably preserved. The braid was no more than 5cm in length and 4mm in width, held in a museum glass case on a bed of foam. A colour between clove and cocoa. Perfect. I saw my grandmother’s braids. I felt the inside of my mother’s knees against my cheeks while seated on the carpet in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon. She was braiding my hair for school the next day. I wanted to touch the braid so desperately, make it more real than what I was feeling inside.

This one braid had the power to turn those bones into people like me. People with lived lives and moments that made them so human. In that moment I knew that I was in a privileged position, to have sight of something so sacred. In the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, on this island, in that museum, in that room, in that case, in 5cm and 4mm, in that moment there was more humanity and connection to another than I had ever experienced. I felt humbled and honoured, hope and fear, alone and connected, all at once. I wanted to share this feeling, that made me feel so alive and numb at the same time. That made my heart beat faster and slower all at once.

This was the closest I had felt to humanity, to belonging. I felt as if I belonged here, in the boxes and buried in the dirt, more than I had felt in all my existence. But although I belong, this feeling does not belong to me. I am only the medium: this has to be channelled, communicated. And with every ounce of my being, it must be protected.

I realised I could not do this alone. It would demand all my physical, emotional and spiritual capacity. I reached out to Peggy King Jorde, the woman who 30 years earlier had fought for the African American Burial Ground in the heart of New York City. A desperate online search would tether me to a sister in the struggle.

It felt like connecting with a source that was created over generations to address exactly the situation that we found ourselves in. Connected by our shared history.

Annina van Neel and Peggy King Jorde. Photograph: Guardian
Enslaved Africans in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena, in 1850. Photograph: Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images

I did not choose this path, it chose me, and continues to choose me every day. I feel as though my arrival on the island was in response to a call, an echo. I resigned from my position on the construction project to work with the St Helena National Trust and lead work on memorialising the African heritage in Rupert’s Valley.

I collaborated with the community to recreate the scenes of the burial grounds and replicate their beads with local jewellers. We held community meetings that would allow for uncomfortable discussions in a safe environment. I spent the next 10 years fighting for a proper reburial that would honour the 325. All of these things that would help this community connect with the outside world, not through air access, but through a shared human story.

All of these actions and little deeds would decolonise and reconnect me to the most significant trace of my humanity. After a decade of living on the rock in the middle of the South Atlantic, I returned to Namibia. I will keep fighting to protect other African burial grounds. The lost girl who moved to the island 12 years ago has been buried. Now, I walk with the descendants of millions, the diaspora, and the most significant trace is within me.

A woman and her small son placing white rocks in a line in the dirt

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