Will the bones of Saint Lucian Freedom Fighters Come Home Again?
So weighty was Ben Bousquet’s activism for the black and immigrant population in Notting Hill, London that some 20 years after a profound discovery, historian Pat Barrow is still devoted to keeping a promise made to Bousquet long before his death in 2006.
Bousquet was born in Saint Lucia and, in 1957, when he was eighteen, he moved to England where he first found paid employment in a BBC show that publicized racial injustices in England at the time. He later became a supporter, campaigner and politician for the UK Labour Party. While these were significant periods in Bousquet’s professional life he was mostly known for serving in various movements in the fight for racial equality, especially in a series of events that culminated in the Notting Hill Carnival.
Bousquet and Pat Barrow crossed paths in 1997 over dead slaves. The London, a ship sailing from the Caribbean, crashed onto rocks in Rapparee Cove, Ilfracombe, on the north coast of Devon, causing scores of Saint Lucian slaves to splutter to their deaths as they sank, shackled. Records of the shipwreck date back to October 1796 and, decades later, Ilfracombe locals were still finding treasure from the only unrecovered chest, of an original five, on the ship.
In 1997, someone found a bone fragment instead of a shiny coin, which led Pat Barrow and archaeologist Mark Horton to commission a dig under direction of the North Devon District Council.
What was supposed to be historical headway, turned out to be a Pandora’s Box instead. Whatever was discovered was much contested by the district council, Saint Lucians, the archaeologist and Pat Barrow separately because they all had different beliefs about the remains. Some argue that those imprisoned were not slaves but freedom fighters or brigands involved in the French-British rivalry over Saint Lucia. Others claim that the bones belonged to no-one but lost fishermen from Devon; or that they belonged to slaves who were taken from Africa, and should be buried there. British records show that the captain of the London brought back gold plus French soldiers and Negroes who had been captured in Saint Lucia.
Pat Barrow told this reporter: “The word ‘slave’ was widely disputed but old records seen by me used it on several occasions . . . I know that Ben had done a lot of history research on the island of Saint Lucia and fully believed that the brigands concerned were free men, fighting for their cause, and their lives.”
But when the bones were taken by Horton to be tested to confirm their origins, everything went quiet. There was never any justification of what some Saint Lucians believe, at least up until the latest reports around 2007.
Barrow, who had publicly stated his mistrust in Horton for not revealing the findings of the tests, started a group called Friends of the Rapparee, to which Ben Bousquet had pledged sincere support. In 2004, Barrow erected a memorial at Rapparee Cove using funds collected by Friends of the Rapparee, and it states that the London was “carrying St Lucian prisoners of war”.
Now, in 2018, the historian not only remains dedicated to finding clarity about the Rapparee Cove remains, but he also wants to adhere to Bousquet’s wishes. He said: “I found out that Ben wished dearly that any remains that could be proven to be from the wreck of the ship London, should be returned to Saint Lucia. In honour of Ben’s memory, I would comply with his wishes fully if I had the proof for which we have all so long waited.”
Barrow firmly believes that the bones of Saint Lucians still lie at Rapparee Cove. He explained that out of desperation, a few years ago he brought his own sample to a laboratory in England.
“The one good thing that came out of the analyses was that some fragments that looked like they came from a skull, were identified as being from a coconut shell . . . I suspect it is vintage Saint Lucia, 1796.” Barrow reasons that coconut shells, which are found in the Caribbean, together with the British records, point in the direction of human remains being those of Saint Lucians.
Barrow claims that he has been conducting research on Rapparee Cove for almost 50 years, and has sent some of it to the Saint Lucia National Archives, but as for sending the discovered remains home, his hands are shackled.
Margot Thomas, the island’s national archivist, who was actively campaigning for the case of the brigands, was unavailable for comment. The Saint Lucia Archaeological and Historical Society was also unavailable at press time to comment on their stance on the matter.
The memorial states that “Saint Lucian prisoners” were on board the ship that was wrecked on the rocks below Rapparee Cove. Ben Bousquet was convinced of this but died not knowing for sure.
Ben Bousquet (left) carrying a flag borrowed from the Saint Lucian High Commission to display at Pat Barrow’s (right) Friends of Rapparee memorial ceremony in May, 2004.