How we choose to remember matters: A Story of Bones (film review)
October 14, 2022/Featured, Past Events, Social & Racial Equity
October is Black History Month in the UK, a month dedicated to remembrance, acknowledgement, reflection, celebration, agency, and education. The Conduit collaborated with Doc Society to screen Annina van Neel’s powerful and haunting journey of discovery of one of the most significant traces of the transatlantic slave trade, and her fight to reclaim the neglected history of Saint Helena. ’A Story of Bones’ is an exposé of historical injustice, a lesson on the gravity of remembering, and a chronicle of the power and potential for community action to ignite change.
In 2012, Annina Van Neel became the Chief Environmental Officer for Saint Helena’s £285m airport project, a troubled economic endeavour headed by the UK Government to bolster tourism to the remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Upon her relocation to the remote island, Annina was thrust into controversy she hadn’t foreseen when she discovered the government had ordered the excavation of the remains of 325 individuals, following airport contractors’ discovery of an African burial ground which they estimated to be the resting place of 10,000 formerly enslaved Africans. This discovery would take Annina on a historical, political, and emotional journey in a fight to do right by those who lived before us.
The remote island of Saint Helena has a profound and disturbing history. As the resting place of the exiled French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, the island draws in individuals from across the world to visit and remember the life of a man who reinstated slavery in France in 1802. Saint Helena also retains incredible geographic and historical significance, as a poignant part of the forced voyage during the Middle Passage. It is estimated that 3,415,500 slaves were transported across the Atlantic, and when the abolitionist movement began in 1807, slave ships were diverted to the island. The individuals onboard were processed at a depot and ‘liberated’, although they continued to be transported to plantations in the Caribbean. In total, 543 individuals remained in Saint Helena, but due to the appalling conditions in which the former slaves were kept, around 10,000 of the 30,000 who were processed on the island did not make the journey to the ‘New World’. The African Burial site at Saint Helena represents the legacy of these enslaved people.
Having decided to construct an access road for the airport over the burial ground, the government neglect the excavated remains of the 325 individuals, storing them in a wing of the island’s prison. They were boxed in dire conditions from 2009. Meanwhile contractors continued to unearth bones and physical traces of the transatlantic atrocities. False promises by the government to reinter and establish a site of formal remembrance for the Africans were confounded by their continued commemoration of an exiled colonialist (who’s tomb actually stands empty!) Annina, alongside dedicated local councillors, campaigned for the excavated remains to be reinterred, protected, and memorialised.
In their mission to reclaim Saint Helena’s history and the humanity of the Africans, Annina discovered how actions of the past echoed the present. Tapes documenting the construction of a power station in 1985 over the burial grounds revealed the UK Government’s long-standing awareness of the site and its history. Horrified by the government’s current inaction, and the knowledge that they consciously disturbed the burial ground for decades in the pursuit for profit, Annina resigned and pursued a fight against governmental hypocrisy. Whether ignorance or decided inaction, the smokescreen of government care towards the burial ground and the remains – which were stored for over a decade – was symbolic of the fact that the Africans were as on the margin of the graveyard as they were in society still.
This local struggle is also a global struggle, and as Annina sought to unearth the wider institutional and international forces at play, her fight for dignity revealed inextricable connections shared across the globe. She reached out to Peggy King Jorde, a legendary African American activist and preservationist who fought a similar fight in New York, after she was assigned to oversee the construction of an office building on top of a burial ground for enslaved Africans in Lower Manhattan. Her work to expose the government’s actions and to bring justice to the individuals who lay in the burial ground culminated in the African Burial Ground project. Annina fought alongside Peggyand the disenfranchised community of Saint Helena for the right to reclaim the humanity of the forgotten enslaved Africans, and for the proper memorialisation of their legacy.
Despite the incredible history of the island, the significance of the global connections the burial grounds represent, and the fact that many of the islanders are direct descendants of the formerly enslaved, the resistance they faced enlightens us to the persistent forces of colonial power which to this day operates to deny humanity to marginalised individuals. The film ends with a strong message: It matters how we choose to remember.
During the Q&A, Peggy reminds us that not remembering is a choice, and that we define humanity as how we respect our dead. African slaves were treated as subhuman; their humanity is and was contested. African burial grounds are sacred because their memorialisation grants an opportunity to reclaim their humanity. A Story of Bones is an immense journey of individual agency and community action to ignite change and fight systemic injustice. Laws need to change, attitudes need to change, and narratives need to change. In August 2022, the government of Saint Helena announced a reburial for the excavated individuals, just two weeks prior to its occurrence. Annina describes the event as both beautiful and painful.
A Story of Bones sparks a conversation about how we choose to remember. If remembering was not done yesterday, then today is the day to act, to remember, and to reclaim history and heritage for everyone. To remember the legacy of the past in the present, to connect our histories, and acknowledge the inextricable connections that build us as individuals and bind us globally.
“It matters how we choose to remember” – Peggy King Jorde
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