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Bones on Devon beach could hold secret of struggle for black freedom

DNA testing could help solve the mystery of bones found buried on a north Devon beach. The boxes of bones could be the remains of Caribbean freedom-fighters - heroic prisoners-of-war who died in a West Country wreck. Or they could be the skeletons of Devon fishermen.

For Bernie Grant, the MP for Tottenham, north London, the bones are the adopted symbol of the black people's struggle.

Yesterday, he and other members of the African Reparation Movement travelled to Devon for a series of receptions marking the discovery of the bones, coinciding with Emancipation Day, the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery.

The bones were discovered in February when part of a sea wall at Rapparree Beach near Ilfracombe collapsed, laying them bare. They are undergoing analysis by Bristol University archaeologists who hope that DNA tests on teeth, and other examinations will confirm whether they are the remains of a group of St Lucians who died when a 300-ton barque, the London, sank off the coast in 1796.

If archaeologist Dr Mark Horton of Bristol University can prove they were Caribbean, not British, the find will be greeted with rejoicing in St Lucia.

Ben Bousquet, a spokesman for the island's government, said: "It's incredibly significant. These people were the first freedom-fighters out of the Caribbean."

Slavery was abolished in the then French-held island in 1792 in the wake of the French Revolution, but islanders feared a British re-capture would overturn that decision. They took the side of the French in battle and thousands were caught and made prisoners-of-war - including those who drowned in the wreck of the London.

Mr Bousquet said North Devon district council and the Home Office have agreed that if the bones' history can be proved, they will be sent back to the Caribbean for burial in a new "heroes' park". But they want to know. "I'm not sending a whole load of white bones to St Lucia," he said.

The African Reparation Movement, which aims to restore African artefacts and commemorates those who died in slavery, had not invited Mr Bousquet to the ceremonies and he was unclear what the group wanted.

Dr Horton, who was called in by the district council to investigate, said the bones could well be those of some of the 60 prisoners who perished in the storm. The pit is a mass grave and the bodies were thrown in in a haphazard manner. "It would all fit quite nicely," he said. But it was also standard practice to bury those who died at sea in mass graves to avoid the burial costs, so more evidence was needed. Dr Horton said an analysis of the bones should reveal what diet the people had lived on, giving a clear indication of whether it was tropical. "There are various other things we're going to try to come to a conclusion that can inform the decision on where they should be buried," he said.

The St Lucians were keen to clear up the matter, he said. "For St Lucia, it's their Elgin Marbles."