Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Waterwitch, 1839

Waterwitch Column, Castle Gardens, Jamestown, May 2010

Following Britain’s decision to abolish its slave trade in 1807, in 1808 the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to patrol the South Atlantic in search of illegal slaving operations.  In 1819 a naval station was created in West Africa at a captured slaving port that the British renamed Freetown, later to become the capital of the first British colony in West Africa, Sierra Leone.  Slave ships found to be acting unlawfully were commandeered and, following its establishment in 1840, many were brought to judgment before a Vice Admiralty Court on St Helena.

The Court operated from 1840 to 1865, and during this period a very large number of slaves were taken to the island aboard captured vessels.  The ships were sold or broken up while the human cargoes were fed, clothed and kept, first at Lemon Valley, then at the Liberated African Depot in Rupert’s Valley which operated until 1874.  Most of the slaves who recovered were given passage to the West Indies or British Guiana as labourers; some chose to remain as servants or were used on various public works.

 Rupert's Bay, Hospital of the Liberated Slaves Depot, March 2010

The absolute number is unclear, but it is estimated that over 26,000 “liberated” Africans were received during this period.  About one-third of those landed did not survive, and were buried in large institutional graveyards and approximately 5,000 are thought to lie in Rupert’s Valley.

Simmonds Colonial Magazine and Foreign Miscellany recorded the first arrivals:
“The first slaves, captured on the western coast of Africa, and conveyed to the Island of St. Helena were taken there by the brig Waterwitch on 9th June 1840 and amounted to only four.  On 6th July the slave vessel Andorinha captured by the brig Brisk arrived with one slave on board and on the 25th two more were added, further increased by fifteen on the 24th October.  All these Africans, amounting to only 22, having been liberated by the judgement of the Vice-Admiralty Court were easily disposed of as servants to the people of the island, and were consequently of little expense to the Government”.

The Waterwitch Column in the Castle gardens in Jamestown is one of the reminders of this period of St Helena’s history.

The inscription on the East face of the column reads:
“This Column was erected by the Commander, Officers and Crew of her Majesty's Brig Waterwitch to the memory of their shipmates who died while serving on the coast of Africa A.D. 1839-1843.  The greater number died while absent in captured slave vessels.  Their remains were either left in different parts of Africa or given to the sea their graves alike undistinguished.
This Island is selected for the record because three lie buried here and because the deceased as well as their surviving comrades, ever met the warmest welcome from its inhabitants”.

St Helena, Released Slaves, from EL Jackson 1905


Many slaves were lost prior to their ships being boarded and slaves were often jettisoned to avoid the slave ship being captured.  On February 7, 1846, the St. Helena Gazette contained the following:  “We have here a Portuguese schooner, captured by the Waterwitch, for condemnation, with 230 slaves on board. They have the small-pox very bad.  Those that are free from it are landed at Lemon Valley, which place is kept under strict quarantine.  When the Waterwitch first gave chase, the captain endeavoured to get away by lightening the vessel; for which purpose he threw overboard about 130 slaves, having originally on board 350.  He then ran his vessel on shore and made his escape.  The boats of the Waterwitch saved about seventy from drowning, but the greater part of them died afterwards from exhaustion.”

The Gazette for September 13th 1745 reported:
“We learn from our vessels of war, stationed on the western coast of Africa, that from the 1st of April, 1844, to 6th July, 1845, no fewer than 75 slavers have been captured by them, the Americans having, during the same period, captured 1 slaver making a total of 76 captured vessels during a period of fifteen months and six days”.

Indicative of the scale of the operation is a report of the event known as the “Rollers of 1846” which occurred on February
16th and 17th: “Eighteen slave vessels were lying in the roads, some of which had been condemned and sold and were partially broken up.....in seven hours no fewer than thirteen vessels were dashed to atoms within a few yards of the shore, eleven of them were captured slavers.”

St Helena, Bruce, The Rollers of 1846

Although the work of liberating slaves brought money and employment to the Island, it also brought termites among the timbers of a Brazilian slave ship which was broken up and stored in Jamestown.  Eating their way through house timbers and documents they caused the collapse of a number of buildings and considerable economic damage over several decades and the reconstruction had to make use of cast iron, iron rails and termite-proof timbers.  The Market building is a prime example of this; made in cast iron and prefabricated in England in 1865.

St Helena, Jamestown, The Market, May 2010




1 comment:

Hristo Yanev said...

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