“ If you dig in the soil of Sint-Eustatius, you dig in history,” says Sherees Timber. She is one of the inhabitants of the island who hopes to find the story of her ancestors, now that archaeologists have discovered an ancient slave cemetery. There may be a hundred skeletons left.
The cemetery was located on the site where Oranjestad Airport is now located. Archaeologists have now dug up 53 skeletons. The find is unique. Never before was such a cemetery of this intercourse discovered on one of the islands in the Caribbean. The discovery is also special for the inhabitants of Sint-Eustatius. There may be ancestors buried. Research has to show that.
Timber is excited about the excavations and hopes to learn more about her ancestors: “I have a picture of my great-grandmother, but thats where it stops. Her parents, my great-great-grandparents, must still have experienced slavery.”
She walks along the excavations with archaeologist and project leader Ruud Stelten. A team of twelve archaeologists is working on the meticulous release of the found skeletons.
“ It is striking that most enslaved people are buried in boxes,” says Stelten. “The wood of it has almost completely decayed, and the remains of the lid have fallen on the bodies. Those remains must be meticulously removed. From the many nails that lie on and off the skeletons, we deduce that most boxes have dozens of panels, sometimes more.”
Buried with head to the left
Virtually all skeletons are buried head to the left. According to Stelten, thats a Christian tradition. “We have found three graves in which people are not like that. Those are graves without a coffin, and there are people with flaked teeth in them. Thats a West African custom and was banned by slave-holders. These three skeletons are therefore almost certainly the first generation enslaved. People who were not born here.”
Sint-Eustatius was colonised by the Netherlands in 1636. The island, located in the north-east of the Caribbean, became an important transit port for regional sugar trade and enslaved from West Africa.
Several universities, including Leiden University, have pledged to cooperate in studying and analysing the remains to learn more about the lives of the buried individuals. A DNA analysis examines where these people came from, and protein studies look at the diseases they suffered from. Once the excavation is complete and the DNA bank has been created, residents can report to see if their ancestors were buried there.
According to archaeologists, the discovery of the cemetery therefore offers new insights into the lives of enslaved people from their own perspective. Most of the stories were recorded by the people who were in power or controlled the plantations.
New perspective on slavery
Timber also emphasises the importance of other perspectives on the slavery past. Not only on Sint-Eustatius, but also in the Netherlands. “The exhibition on slavery in the Rijksmuseum is encouraging. It is a good sign that it has been opened by King William Alexander. This means that the Netherlands is taking its first steps to process the history of slavery.”