Thoughts on Slave Ships, Refugee Camps, and Mass Graves

In Jamestown, St. Helena, 150 miles off the shore of southwest Africa, thousands of trafficked and enslaved Africans met their fate in refugee camps after being forced to disembark from slave ships amid Britain’s abolition and suppression of the slave trade in the Caribbeans in the first decade of the 19th century.

St. Helena

A reporter for The Guardian wrote, “About 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, with most being landed at a depot in Rupert’s Bay. Rupert’s Valley – an arid, shadeless and always windy tract – was also poorly suited for use as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers.”

Their mass graves were not discovered and disinterred until 2012, when the island nation sought to build an airport.

What did the archaeologists find? They found an estimated 5000 bodies, of which only five  were buried in coffins. These exceptional burial sites held the bodies of one adolescent and four stillborn or newborn babies. The stillborn children were buried in makeshift coffins. The remaining 4,995 or so bodies were buried in solitary, multiple or mass graves.

I do not know enough about who was buried or who did the burying to speculate or craft a narrative about these trafficked and enslaved Africans turned refugees. It is remarkable that they were caught between the British empire’s impetus to be a moral authority, while maintaining the dominance in global markets, and the stark devaluation of their lives and bodies that much of abolitionist rhetoric never questioned. At the same time, it is interesting that these trafficked and enslaved Africans were moved from one total institution to another- that is, they were moved from slave fortresses to slave ships, to refugee camps. In all of these spaces, they inhabited marginal social situations as unwanted persons, natally-alienated persons, and as refugees respectively.

(Notably, it remains unclear what happened to other Africans in St. Helena’s refugee camps.)

1789 – Brookes Slave Ship Plan

The slave ship as a Total Institution

Like the prison, factory, or asylum, the slave ship was designed with specific purposes, such that the organization of space followed an instrumental logic. The image above is a ship designed to carry 454 trafficked and enslaved Africans. The design was considered optimal, and compliant to Britain’s Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.

“A few had managed to retain items of jewellery such as beads and bracelets, despite the physical stripping process that would have taken place after their capture.”

That sentence was reminiscent of works by Foucault, Goffman, and Rothman on Total Institutions. When one enters the Total Institution, one is subjected to a stripping process that subordinates one’s personal autonomy to the gaze of the warden- be it a slaver, a prison guard, or a nurse. Self-effacement, enclosure, and temporal, spatial and bodily controls characterize the Total Institutions.

Chains, shackles, time-tables, and systems of punishment and reward (even if that reward was survival via the absence or lessening of violence wrought upon docile bodies) were present on slave ships. And those same systems of punishment and reward served to introduce a system of ‘hierarchizing penality,’ which has the effect of (1) distributing persons according to “the use that could be made of them when they left the [institution]” and (2) fostering conformity to a model of ‘subordination, docility’ etc’ (in short: it has a normalizing effect) (Foucault, 182).

Nonetheless, it is notable that trafficked and enslaved Africans resisted the stripping process, carrying beads and seeds. There is evidence that African women aboard slave ships transported seeds in their hair, bringing species of rice and okra to the Americas. The ones who survived the passage brought the seeds of sustenance with them.

Now I wonder if the trafficked and enslaved Africans in St. Helena’s refugee camps were able to improve their chances of survival by these means or others. In that in-between place between home and destination, the refugee camp is a marginal space which has a tendency to outlive its intended use. Refugees are not supposed to remain in the camps long enough to become residents. And if they should die in the refugee camp, there is no guarantee that the dishonor in which they lived does not follow them into the grave. Mass graves are the resting place of the socially dead, for they are dishonored in life and death.

Works Cited:

  1. The Guardian, (8 March, 2012) Archaeologists find graves containing bodies of 5,000 slaves on remote island (accessed 6 April, 2013)
  2. Foucault, Michel. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books
  3.  Rothman, David (2002). The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Transaction Publishers. pp. xxix.
  4. Goffman, Erving (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Anchor Books.
  5. Carney, Judith. (2004) “With Grains in Her Hair”: Rice in Colonial Brazil. Slavery and Abolition, Vol.25, No.1, 2004, pp.1-27 (accessed 6 April 2013)
  6. Patterson, Orlando. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  7. Hartman, Saidya. (2007). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlanti Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

See also:


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