harbour of rio de janeiro

What DNA reveals about St Helena’s freed slaves

In 1849, Anglican bishop Robert Gray described a slave ship being unloaded on the island of St Helena. “I never beheld a more piteous sight,” he observed of the people on board. Some were dead; many more were close to it. “They had a worn look and wasted appearance, and were moved into the boats like bales of goods, apparently without any will of their own.”

These men and women were refugees of the British Navy’s campaign against the slave trade. The United Kingdom had outlawed the trade in 1807, and anti-slaver patrols were intercepting boats along the Middle Passage — the trade route from Africa to the Americas — even venturing into the harbour of Rio de Janeiro. Situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, St Helena became a favoured drop-off point for people freed from the ships. From 1840 to the late 1860s, scores of ships carrying some 27,000 slaves were captured and brought to the island. The slaves who survived were granted freedom and most were eventually relocated, but for nearly 10,000, many of them children, a rocky valley on St Helena became their final resting place. Read more.