Story of Bones

As Chief Environmental Officer for Saint Helena’s doomed €310m airport project, Annina van Neel witnessed the unearthing of the island’s most terrible secret - a mass burial ground of an estimated 8,000 formerly enslaved Africans. Haunted by this historical injustice - and echoes of her childhood in Apartheid Namibia - she now fights for the proper memorialisation of these forgotten victims.

The British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena – a tiny and remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean – is home to just 4,130 people. Most famous as Napoleon’s place of exile after he was defeated at Waterloo, the island still plays host to Bonaparte’s empty grave – a potent symbol of Britain’s former Empire and colonial past.
Now, a new era is coming. The Royal Mail Ship (RMS), which has sustained the island for decades by bringing people, supplies and medicine, is finally to be retired. In its place, the UK Government has invested £285m (€310m / $350m) in a state-of-the art airport, designed to re-invigorate the island as a tourist destination, and wean the local population off economic subsidies from London, (£30m a year).
Unfortunately, due to a catastrophic engineering error, dangerous levels of wind sheer mean that commercial planes cannot land safely. Newspapers label it ‘the most useless airport in the world’, making the island an international laughing stock.
But, behind the headlines, a far more sinister story has been uncovered.
During the rapid construction of airport access roads in nearby Rupert’s Valley, a mass burial ground of an estimated 8,000 formerly enslaved Africans was uncovered. It is the single largest remaining trace of the transatlantic slave trade on earth. Concerned not to fall behind schedule, the UK Government order the excavation and exhumation of 325 articulated human skeletons, a third of these are children. They were placed in boxes and moved into ‘temporary storage’. In fact, these remains have now been left in the so-called ‘Pipe Store’ – located in a wing of the island’s prison – for over a decade.
Annina van Neel arrived on Saint Helena in 2012 as the airport project’s Chief Environmental Officer. Responsible for any further remains discovered in Rupert’s Valley, Annina confesses that ‘every time we discover another piece of human remains, I can’t sleep that night,’ her bosses for the airport contractor are far less circumspect.
As further development in Rupert’s Valley continues, Annina’s dismay grows and she resigns from the airport project. The repeated delays in reburying and memorializing the bones is compounded by the discovery of audio tapes revealing that the UK Government has known about the burial grounds for decades. Outraged, Annina sets out to hold the Government to account.
However, when she takes her campaign to the people for support, she is faced with apathy and suspicion. Far from supporting her, the majority of Saints seem unable to reconcile their fierce sense of ‘Britishness’ with an acknowledgement that their collective history is inextricably linked with the transatlantic slave trade. This collective pushback forces Annina to confront the trauma of her own childhood in Apartheid Namibia, during which she describes having been subject to ‘disowning my African-ness since the day I was born’.
Feeling increasingly isolated on the island, Annina reaches out to renowned African-American preservation activist Peggy King-Jorde, whose work on the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York was born of a similar struggle. When Peggy arrives on Saint Helena, she is astounded by the size and significance of the burial grounds, which unambiguously place the island at the centre of the Middle Passage, tethering the British Empire to the institution of slavery in the US and the Caribbean. In Peggy’s words, ‘this history is tied to my history, so I am here to bear witness…You cannot erase people, and you cannot erase who they are and the contributions that they make. I won’t let that happen.’
As the pair unite to fight for the global recognition of the Saint Helena burial site, Annina finally leaves the stifling atmosphere of the island to build a movement for change spanning from London to New York – and then home to Namibia. In doing so, she finds herself on the frontline of the 2016 midterm elections in the US and the Brexit debate in Britain, taking on governmental ambivalence and systematic prejudice to expose the disturbing truths of the West’s colonial past and present.


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