When Annina van Neel started working for a company building an airport on Saint Helena, she says ‘it was the adventure I was looking for’. She had no idea this adventure would take a wholly different turn. In the following years, she dedicated her life to fighting for a worthy memorial for an estimated 9.000 formerly enslaved Africans buried in mass graves on the island.
In 1807, Britain outlawed the slave trade and began intercepting slave ships of other colonial powers. But the ‘liberated Africans’, as the British called them, were not returned to Africa. They were brought to British-ruled Saint Helena. From there, many were sent to work on plantations in the Caribbean.
‘The conditions on the slave ships would have been appalling,’ explains Annina Van Neel in an episode of the podcast ‘History Hit’. ‘By the time they got [on Saint Helena], a third would have been dead. The remaining two-thirds would be sick or dying.’ Thousands were buried in mass graves in Saint Helena’s Rupert’s Valley.
As Environmental Officer working for a construction company building Saint Helena’s first airport, Annina Van Neel’s job was to make sure the discovery of the graves would not cause the project to delay. ‘I had to pretend it didn’t mean anything,’ she says in Joseph Curran’s documentary A Story of Bones. ‘I have to deal with that. That’s my demon to fight.’ But although she still regrets not having sprung into action sooner, eventually she couldn’t look away anymore.
Annina discovered that the human remains dug up during the airport construction – along with ornaments, clothes and hair – were still being held in boxes where they were placed as ‘a temporary measure’. Outraged, she decided they should have a proper resting place. And that the history of those estimated 9.000 people – one third of whom were children – buried anonymously on the island, had to be acknowledged. ‘Nine thousand lives wasted. Where’s the message?’ she says in an emotional scene from the documentary. ‘Where’s the lesson learned?’
A Story of Bones shows Annina’s fight to formulate this lesson. It is an uphill battle, very much plagued by the persistent legacy of colonialism. And a battle that still hasn’t been won. But when you visit Rupert’s Valley now, you can see the boundary of the burial ground demarcated by white painted cobblestones, placed there by Annina Van Neel. ‘It is a reminder,’ she says, ‘that this is actually a sacred space.’
A Story of Bones is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2023, where Annina Van Neel will be a special guest.