Reproduced from THE TIMES Monday February 24th 1997
Beach yields mass grave of shipwrecked slaves
A mass grave containing the bodies of shipwrecked slaves has been uncovered on a holiday beach after Atlantic storms.
Up to 60 bodies are thought to lie beneath the rugged cliffs of Rapparee Cove in north Devon, where the treasure ship London foundered with all hands 200 years ago.
An archaeological team has begun excavating the site near llfracombe, which has yielded dozens of bones and three perfectly preserved teeth. Yesterday the first iron fetters were discovered in the shale. During the past 20 years several gold and silver coins thought to have come from the London have been found in the cove.
Experts believe that the grave is the largest burial ground of slaves discovered on the British coast. The bodies were apparently considered heathen by the locals and unfit for Christian interment.
Skull bones emerged three weeks ago but the dig could not begin until police had established that there were no suspicious circumstances. Scientific tests have confirmed that the skulls are of African descent.
The dig is unlikely to solve all the mysteries surrounding the 300-tonne barque, which had been chartered as a transporter by the Admiralty during the French Revolutionary Wars.
She was thought to have been bound for Bristol with her booty and 60 French black slaves captured during General Sir Ralph Abercromby's Caribbean campaign. On the afternoon of October 9, 1796, the ships master, Captain Robertson, approached llfracombe seeking shelter from a gathering storm.
Pilots rowed out to help him to dock but he tried instead to moor to a buoy at the mouth of the harbour.
According to a later account by a Captain Chiswell, held in llfracombe museum, one pilot shouted: "Where are you from?" Robertson, described as a "ruffian captain", was said to have screamed back: "From Hell, bound for damnation."
His ambitious manoeuvre failed and the ship, with its prisoners chained in the hold, was dashed against the rocks. Chiswell wrote that the ship contained five treasure chests, only four of which were recovered.
He described the cove as "covered with the bodies of negroes" and recorded that the corpse of a young woman, "a naked lily fair", was also washed up.
The excavation will concentrate on a ten-yard area of the cliffs which has been eroded by winter storms. Pat Barrow, an amateur archaeologist who is co-ordinating the dig for llfracombe museum, has spent 25 years researching the London's history. He believes the slaves were officially listed as prisoners of war. Britain's abolition of slavery was still 38 years away, although by the early 19th century liberal politicians were campaigning against it.
Mr Barrow said: "There's no doubt the skipper could have sold the slaves, probably at Bristol, if he'd wanted to. It is unclear why he was so reluctant to dock at llfracombe. The reports of the time suggested the wind would have been favourable. I believe the skipper was worried that local people would discover the slaves in his hold and try to release them. This area had a very strong religious tradition."