St Lucia stakes its claim to the bones of the 'heroic rebels' of Rapparee Cove

Slaves, freedom fighters, convicts or humble fishermen? The dead of Rapparee Cove are not telling and the confusion over the identity of their bones has led to an international custody battle.

Slaves, freedom fighters, convicts or humble fishermen? The dead of Rapparee Cove are not telling and the confusion over the identity of their bones has led to an international custody battle.

It began with the discovery of a single bone on a north Devon beach made by a young boy taking a walk, which suggested the cove's cliffs had intriguing secrets to tell. The mystery contained in the scenic coastline beside Ilfracombe has now gripped a government, three African campaigning groups, a district council, an archaeologist and a group of local historians, all of whom are frantically attempting to stake a claim to the find.

A study of the area made by the historian Pat Burrow claimed there could be a mass grave of about 40 people at the site. His group, the Friends of Rapparee, has raised £650 for a memorial stone, and it is calling for the remains to be buried at the scenic spot.

North Devon District Council commissioned a dig, and three years later the origins of the bones have yet to be revealed - but it is generally accepted that they probably came from the London, an Admiralty-chartered ship returning from the Caribbean. The identities of its passengers remain unclear, but accounts of the 1796 shipwreck state many were black.

African groups are confident they are the bones of slaves who had been transported from the Caribbean during the Napoleonic wars.

However, the government of the Caribbean island of St Lucia thinks differently. It insists they were heroic rebels, fighting for independence, who were being carried to a Bristol jail as prisoners of war, and is keen to play down the theory that those who perished were slaves.

Both parties want to take the bones and bury them in a way that is culturally fitting - whatever their culture actually is. Meanwhile, North Devon District Council has no intention of letting them out of Ilfracombe.

A council employee said: "What if they are taken to St Lucia and buried there, but turn out to be Ilfracombe fishermen? It would not exactly be the right thing to do."

The council, with control of Rapparee Cove, believes itself to be the legal custodian of the bones. Usual policy in similar circumstances is to bury the remains near to where they were found.

Bernie Grant, the late MP for Tottenham in north London, joined the battle when he visited the site in 1997 and led the Africa Reparations Movement at a ceremony for the dead.

Khanyisa Amoo, of the National Slavery Memorial Day campaigning group, has taken up the challenge. She said: "African tradition is that the spirits of the dead need to be laid to rest according to our peoples' beliefs. This can only happen if their remains are returned to their place of origin."

St Lucia has confirmed it will be making a formal approach to Britain to discuss repatriation of the bones. A St Lucia government spokesman, Earl Bousquet, said: "It would be in our national interest to share the history of this wreck. We are not trying to take over. We are happy to talk to all interested parties."

Dr Mark Horton, an archaeologist at Bristol University, has been studying the bones' origins. He is said to have conducted an isotopic investigation, showing whether a sub-tropical or local diet was consumed.

Dr Horton was not available for comment yesterday, but a source close to the research said: "At this stage it does not look like the diets were very different from anyone else in north Devon at the time."

Perhaps what has been forgotten in the long-runningargument is the victims themselves. A report from the Exeter Flying Post in 1796 said: "A melancholy accident happened at Ilfracombe. A ship called the London, from St Kitt's, having on board a considerable number of blacks (French prisoners), was driven on the rocks during a violent gale of wind, by which about 50 of the prisoners were drowned; those who got on shore exhibited a most wretched spectacle; and the scene altogether was too shocking for description."

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