A team of British archaeologists uncovered the first graves last year after preparation had begun to build an access road to the site of the planned new airport on St Helena.
The bodies, many of them children, were discovered where they had been buried after being brought to St Helena between 1840 and 1874 by Royal Navy patrols hunting the slavers. The captured ships were forced into the island where the traders were arrested and their victims liberated. By then, however, many were already dead in the fetid holds where they had been packed together for the long journey.
Many of the survivors also died soon after they were brought to Rupert’s Valley, near the capital Jamestown. It was used as a treatment and holding depot by the navy’s West Africa Squadron. Smallpox, dysentery and other diseases claimed many of those who had endured hunger, thirst and the terrible conditions below decks.
The discovery of so many bones is of enormous importance in researching the history of slavery. Few graves have been found of captives who died before they were sold in Cuba, Brazil, the United States and other parts of the New World. The find may stimulate fresh emotional debate, especially in the US and other countries involved in the slave trade until the mid-19th century.