18th century graveyard found at former Caribbean plantation

An 18th-century burial ground has been discovered at a former sugar plantation on the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, officials said Monday, and archaeologists said it likely contains the remains of slaves and could provide a trove of information on the lives of enslaved people. Government officials said 48 skeletons had been found at the site so far, most of them males, but also some females and infants.

Alexandre Hinton, the director of the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research, said many more remains were expected to lie in the graves at the former Golden Rock Plantation. We are predicting that the number of individuals buried here will surpass the burial site discovered at Newton Plantation on Barbados, where 104 enslaved Africans were excavated. This is one of the largest sites of its kind ever discovered in the Caribbean.

Authorities said the site was found while archeologists checked an area needed for the expansion of an airport. 

Hinton said, we knew the potential for archaeological discoveries in this area was high, but this cemetery exceeds all expectations.

Given the location near the former plantation, Hinton said the graves most likely contain the remains of enslaved people. Initial analysis indicates that these are people of African descent. To date, we have found two individuals with the dental modification that is a West African custom. Typically plantation owners did not allow enslaved persons to do this. These individuals are thus most likely first-generation enslaved people who were shipped to St. Eustatius.

The majority of the burials contain remnants of coffins, coffin nails, and objects that were buried with the deceased, such as several intact tobacco pipes, beads, and ceramic plates. A coin from 1737 depicting King George II of England was found resting on a coffin lid. Experts at several universities around the world will analyze the remains to learn more about the lives of the buried individuals.

Hinton said Leiden University in the Netherlands will conduct "stable isotope analysis" to determine the peoples' diets as well as whether they were born on the island. Harvard will do the DNA analysis to find where the people came from, and England's Northumbria University will do protein studies to discover what diseases they might have suffered.

One of the most important outcomes of the research will be a more thorough understanding of the lives of slaves in the Caribbean. Most of what is known about their lives come from the writings of people in power, such as colonial administrators and plantation owners, sources that can be biased or incomplete.

St. Eustatius, which lies in the northeastern part of the Caribbean, was colonized by the Dutch in 1636 and became an important transit port for the regional trade in sugar and slaves from West Africa.

Archaeologists excavate in the former Golden Rock plantation west of the international Airport in Oranjestad, on the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, on the Leeward Islands, Thursday, May 27, 2021. Government officials said that 48 skeletons had been found at the site of an 18th century burial ground so far, most of them males, but also some females and infants, and that it could provide a trove of information on their lives. Credit: AP Photo/Dick Drayer

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