A History of Bones – The DocUpdate

Annina Van Neel / VPRO

Everybody stand up Saint Helena know the story of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French general and dictator (1769-1821) spent the last six years of his life on the island in the Atlantic Ocean, about two thousand kilometers west of Africa. His grave is still considered a tourist attraction. But what do the islanders and their visitors know about the slaves who were once deposited in their native land and who are still buried there? And do they perhaps descend from it themselves?

On the island, part of the UK, victims of the so-called ‘Middle Passage‘, the dangerous route by which more than three million slaves were brought from Africa to America in recent centuries. When the British themselves stopped the slave trade in 1807, they immediately began stopping ships from other powers. They were transported to Saint Helena. Some 30,000 Africans ended up in the British colony.

More than 500 survivors ended up in a depot in Rupert Valley and lived there in appalling conditions. They were given the designation ‘liberated Africans’, but were never allowed to return home, they say Joseph Curan And Dominic Aubrey deVere in the serene documentary A story of bones (94 minutes). It is estimated that at least 9,000 bodies now rest in the valley, roughly double the current population of the island.

If they build an airport in Saint Helena, these graves will be part of a political debate. “Why did we build a feeder road through a cemetery? ” asked Annina Van Neel, a Namibian woman who emerges as an important voice in this debate and becomes the protagonist of this documentary. “I hope the answer is not as simple as color. And that these people are therefore less important and have value.

However, according to local historian Phil Mercury, such an attitude is part of the legacy of colonialism. “If you’re white, you’re fine,” he says. “If you’re brunette, stick around. If you’re black, back off. Since 2008, 325 bodies have been found by archaeologists. They are still being held in the former Pipe Store detention center in Jamestown. “It’s a prison, not a resting place,” one woman said vehemently at an information meeting for the local community.

‘It’s more than a bunch of old bones,’ says enthusiastic local politician Cruyff Buckley. The bodies should be reburied and treated with as much care as Napoleon, Van Neel and his supporters believe, who come into contact with kindred spirits in the United States. Similar initiatives are taken there to reconcile with the history of slavery, as evidenced for example by a thematic film like Descendant.

It is a laborious and vulnerable process, as has already been shown in the Netherlands, which is delicately portrayed in this film. Annina Van Neel has to take the necessary disappointments along the way. “Black lives don’t matter,” she concluded in frustration at one point. ‘End of the story.’ And then the militant activist pulls herself together. Because this project is bigger than themselves. And Curran and Aubrey de Vere rightly point this out in A Story Of Bones.

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