This blog post may not be for you…it explores some of my feelings around the history of slavery on St Helena and how it impacts on my identity now. It is weighty and long. Read it if you are interested – but otherwise come back and read later blogs which you may enjoy more. This is a stark tale charting the cruelty and long reach of slavery.
I have been engaging in more reading than writing of late. It hasn’t stopped my squiggling thoughts, just swamped them with ideas and provocations. The voices of others both on Twitter and in literature have overwhelmed me. The academic voices seem so knowledgeable. What do I know? I have hidden behind whiteness for so many years and taken that privilege as my own, knowing no better. How do I stand up and speak? I have been shut down and fearful for so long, silent and silenced. Where do I begin? There is so many wrongs and often I feel inadequate and tongue-tied. My mind has been so bombarded with the words and ideas of others, my own squiggling thoughts have been stoppered. I imagine those thoughts being like the rush of people for the exit after a concert, with that jam at the door as we all push to get out. I am hoping that eventually they spew out, like the people onto the pavement, to join with others and a homeward journey, in this case though the production of some more positive writing. Mmmm…
I have found that the books that challenge me, and provoke these thoughts are not nighttime reading. They do not aid me to sleep, they keep me awake. So in bed I have been reading a rather weighty tome. I bought it a year ago whilst recovering from some surgery. It was started, but sat on my bedside gathering dust, too complex for my anaesthetic-fuddled brain. After tossing and turning for ages one night a month ago, causing the duvet to bind-me like a strait-jacket, I switched on the bedside light and there it was; the book staring at me accusingly, “ Oi you, isn’t it about time you re-started me?” And I obeyed, dusting it off (god, I hate housework) and started to read “A Bitter Draught. St Helena and the Abolition of Slavery” by Colin Fox. It is a hardback book of over 400 pages, so not to be read lightly (excuse the pun). The reading of it has been slow, partly because it was hard work even holding the book up to read in bed, but also because it contains excerpts from communication between the island and it’s then owner, the East India Company, and therefore contains complex, antiquated language. Both of these factors often meant I read a few pages and felt my eyes drooping in sleepiness – however I persevered as a must for me in my ongoing quest to understand my heritage.
The frontispiece of this book bears a quote which stays with me:
“Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still, slavery! said I – still thou art a bitter draught! And though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, thou art no less bitter on that account.” [Laurence Sterne 1713-1768]
Previous blogs have explained that my mother was born on St Helena, an over-seas territory of the UK, and came to England in the 1950’s. She never returned to her place of birth and spoke very little of it. In 2005 I started to try and find out more about my ancestors and where I came from. I also hoped to find out where they came from before St Helena, which had no indigenous population. It was a frustrating quest. When I had watched ‘Who do you think you are?’ on the BBC in 2004 I remember emailing them to suggest my heritage would be an interesting ‘ordinary person’s story’. This cheeky plea went unanswered of course. However during later programmes I found out about discovering ancestry via DNA. The National Geographic had started ‘The Genographic Project’ in 2005 to try to ‘capture a genetic snapshot’ of human history following the ‘scattering’ of indigenous people through globalisation and declining numbers ‘as dominant populations engulf and incorporate them’. They were seeking people to contribute their DNA for analysis to build a database and chart people’s movement (at a cost of course). I submitted my DNA in 2005 and discovered that according to my mitochondrial DNA, my haplogroup was L01, which is most common in West and Central sub-Saharan Africa. It was funny to describe myself as a daughter of ‘Eve’ as this haplogroup was the first branch to diverge from Mitochondrial Eve…but once the thrill of that waned I was left with so many unanswered questions. But where in this huge space did my ancestors actually come from? How did my ancestors get to St Helena?
Once the results came back in the Autumn of 2005, I tried various ways of researching online but there were few sites that recorded births and deaths on St Helena or provided any coherent way of researching back. I discovered via an online forum that the only way of finding out more was to email the archivist on St Helena. This involved a backwards and forwards email exchange which took time as it was an informal addition to her day job (often during her lunch-hour), requiring a small-to-me payment. She had access to birth and death records, and church recordings of baptisms and funerals. It was a difficult task for her because the older records there are termite-eaten and hard-to-read due to deterioration and intelligible writing, if kept at all. Details (even names) were often missing. My first attempt only went back to my grandmother’s mother. Frustrated I again tried looking online and although the Latter Day Saints had microfiched a number of the archived records from St Helena, my searching proved useless. Too many people with the same names sent me in an endless loop of frustration. I gave up for many years, but in 2012 with the birth of a grandchild and a wish to pass on details of our shared heritage, I went back to the new archivist on St Helena. The results that came often involved best guesses from names and dates, but eventually the archivist had pieced together a jigsaw of family names through the maternal line before hitting the complication of poor records as a hang-on from the days of slavery. I had two names, James Samuel and Mary Ann Thomas as the parents of Margaret Samuel (born 1864) my descendant, and that is where her search ended. A later online search by me revealed that the parish records for St Helena had been photographed by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and this is where my quest reached a full stop…at least so far. Every so often I try to work back to find links beyond the marriage records of James and Mary Ann, but am frustrated by the typical lack of care in recording the details of people viewed as of low worth. Often no surnames were recorded for slaves and their descendants at this time, and many were given similar first names, making my search fruitless – a range of possibilities, but no concrete line. I am not sure my quest will ever give me any success beyond these two names, and is unlikely to tell me where from Africa their descendants were dragged from. It fills me with a yearning I cannot describe in words. In so many ways it doesn’t matter one iota to who I am today, but the not-knowing cuts deep and my wish to understand where I come from.
So my current nighttime reading which details the abolition of slavery on St Helena (Fox, 2017) fills a gap in my knowledge of how my ancestors were treated as chattel on that small island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. I will never know when they arrived, or on which ship. It is likely they were brought from East Africa (Madagascar or Mozambique) as this book suggests. It would appear that the abolition of slavery on the island unfolded over a period of time. Some might suggest that this was not helped by how difficult it was to communicate with the East India Company (EIC) in London – as the owners of the island any suggestions by the governor of the island, and the slave owners had to be sanctioned by them. However, what comes across in the book is the slavery owners reluctance to lose their goods – the fact that these were humans seemed to matter very little to them. However, the decision was finally made that after Christmas Day 1818 all children born of a slave woman were declared free but to be considered as ‘apprentices’ to the owners of the mothers until 18 years of age for boys, and 16 for girls. All children up to 7 years of age for boys, and 6 for females were also declared ‘free’ with children under 18 (boys), and 16 (girls) to become ‘servants’ of the EIC. The ‘small print’ demonstrated the lack of humanity however. If the slave woman was sold and the ‘free’ child was over 4 years the child had to stay with the original slave owner (unless negotiated by the new slave owner). If later a slave mother was freed the owner had the choice of keeping the child. Christmas 1818 began the official destruction of slavery on St Helena, but the practice of buying and selling of adult humans continued. In 1825 the subject of emancipation for all slaves was discussed by the Governor of the time, Alexander Walker. The slave owners agreed with him, as long as they were remunerated for the loss of their goods. But who would pay? It was proposed that of course the slaves would pay! They would be loaned an amount of money from the EIC:
“Over and above their living costs, emancipated slaves would earn between 12% and 15% of their value. They could therefore put aside two-thirds of that [between 8% and 10%] to pay off their debt to the EIC. It would take therefore between twelve years [12×8% =96%] and ten years [10×10% =100%] to pay off their full debt. The individual would also be expected to subscribe to the Benefit Society and to deposit the remaining one third of their income in the Savings Bank.” (Fox, 2017, p.62)
The subscription to the benefit society was to prevent the slave ever being ‘burdensome to the parish’. It was desired that slaves be ‘meritorious’ and those that were judged as attending to the “interests of their employers” (read as slave owners!) were awarded medals for being “honest, diligent, faithful and sober” and looked upon favourably in any assessment for freedom.
It later became apparent that the EIC did not want to stump up the loans, but thought the slave owners should free the slaves first, and let those freed pay back their value to their owner over a period of years. The slow communication methods of the time, to and fro from an island weeks away from anywhere, left this decision up in the air, but in July 1827 a committee of government officials and slave owners began the process of valuation of all slaves in preparation. The list, recorded in the appendix of Fox’s book, shook me to the core. Slaves were classed and divided by ‘character and merits’ with some from each class to be ‘freed’ annually. The descriptions of ‘good’, ‘fair’, ‘sickly’, ‘bred as a fisherman’, ‘no encumbrances’, ‘well or ill behaved’, ‘incorrigible’, ‘useful’, ‘old worn-out’ filled me with sadness. What sent me into a spin was in looking at the names to try and guess whether I belonged to that slave and in wondering whether we might be connected by blood. I still look at that list hoping a name will jump out at me, that some inner voice, some spirit ,will make a name stand out to claim me. *sighs* Moving on…
In reality this initial valuation became out of date because the EIC took until 1832 to finally agree to loan slaves their monetary value and for this loan “to be repayable by instalments without interest” (p.102). The EIC would pay the slave owner, the slave would pay back this amount to the EIC. A second valuation took place with the proposal of “manumission…over a five year period” (p.102). It was decided that slaves over 45 years of age would be freed first – a jaded view such as mine, would suggest this was because the older a slave, the less able and therefore less useful…ditch them first. The following year, although a ‘lottery’ system had been suggested to decide the next slaves to be ‘freed’ after the aged, a ticketing system was devised instead. Each slave owner would be given 2 ‘freedom’ tickets and 6 blank tickets per 8 slaves. The names of those slaves would be drawn randomly against these tickets. The fate of human lives decided by a turn of the cards.
It is interesting that in Britain on 28th August 1833 a bill was passed to abolish slavery in the British Empire. However, territories in the possession of the EIC were not included in this, and it wasn’t until 27 May 1839 that slavery was officially abolished on St Helena.
A notable event in this timeline occurred on 28th August 1833. Although EIC retained political control, the property of St Helena was surrendered to the Crown in return for an annuity and a guarantee fund. In essence this change precipitated a financial downturn for St Helena and it’s people. The military garrison was disbanded and people returned home, or were deployed elsewhere. They no longer required their freed slaves leaving the majority behind. All government departments on St Helena had their budget and wages slashed dramatically. The government still wanted freed slaves to repay their loans, but work became scarce. Wages plummeted as jobs were few and willing employees from the free-slave population easy to come by. Now these previously enslaved people who were previously fed, housed and clothed by their owners had to find their own means of survival. Increasing numbers of ex-slaves found it impossible to feed and clothe themselves and their family, let alone pay back a loan. Finally, in 1840 the British government realised that trying to collect a debt from the impoverished was an impossible task and instructed the St Helena governor to give up on collecting this. Freedom was hard won: the EIC and the slave owners the undoubted winners in the process, the ex-slaves whilst free struggling to barely survive in a place they had been deposited in against their will. This maybe part of my history who knows?
I say this because from 1840 and for the next decade St Helena became a haven for liberated slaves. When illegal transportation vessels were intercepted by the navy in the Atlantic after abolition, sometimes St Helena was the most convenient stop off. Some slaves were seriously ill and needed care and attention. At times they did not even reach the island alive. Lemon valley, and later Rupert’s Valley became a burial site for those that didn’t survive, the latter being discovered during excavations for the airport in 2007 as described in the research report ‘Infernal Traffic’ (Pearson et al, 2013). Those that did survive were often later transported to places such as the West Indies, Sierra Leone and Lagos, as they had no idea where in Africa they had been taken from. Their saviours had no time, or wanted to bear the cost to return them ‘home’ anyway. The liberated slaves’ onward journey to these places often meant they were still in effect enslaved but instead as apprentices, indentured labourers or in ‘compulsory service’ in those places…not so far removed from the slavery they were bound for perhaps. This indenture was explained by the British as “a legitimate reimbursement of transportation costs to the colonies” (Pearson, 2013, p.36-37). Whilst many departed St Helena’s shores for a new life, some remained on the Island. Looking at the dates of my Mary Ann and Jame’s marriage it could be that one of them was one of these liberated slaves. I have no way to tell…
In many ways the role that St Helena played in liberating slaves was a life-saver for the inhabitants too. The navy’s use of the island meant considerable revenue and saved them from the decline felt after the EIC departed and the Crown took over. However as Mellis (1875 in Pearson, 2013, p.38) suggests islanders were somewhat bitter about their lot having “played a major part in the suppression of the slave trade”, but not benefited:
“The place, once so gay with naval men and ships, now knows them no more. But the negroes, who could have been best spared, still remain”.
So my thoughts after reading of the abolition of slavery on St Helena are dark. The lack of humanity in the process fills me with anger. Those are my ancestors bound and chained, treated worse than animals and made to pay for their own freedom whilst those that enslaved them walked away with payment for treating them so badly. I will never truly know where my ancestors came from, or which part of a vast land was their home. I am resentful that this part of who I am will remain unknown and stolen from me and mine. The official process of the abolition of slavery, and freeing of slaves on St Helena started at Christmas 1818, packaged as the beneficence of Christian white men, as a gift to their poor black property. In everything I read now of discrimination and of white supremacy, in every question I have about my own heritage which leaves a hole in my being that will never be filled, I see the taint of slavery. Although the freedom of my ancestors was said to begin on that Christmas Day 200 years ago, I am just left wondering when will that promised freedom actually come for me and black people like me? When will that ‘Bitter Draught’ be truly done?