Politics buries secrets of NY slaves' graves

THE FULL story behind an African who was buried in a British naval officer's uniform in lower Manhattan sometime in the 18th century may never be known because the burial ground in which he was found has become a political football for black nationalists led by the city's mayor, David Dinkins.

The remains of a black man wearing a decomposed uniform of which the gilded-brass buttons with the fouled-anchor insignia of the British navy were uncovered a few weeks ago by archaeologists working on a site known as the Negroes Burial Ground, just off Broadway in lower Manhattan. 'He was obviously associated with the British navy, maybe as an officer's servant or a musician, or even as a navigator from the West Indies,' said Brian Ludwig, the archaeologist overseeing the dig.

Hundreds of other skeletons have also been unearthed, in what is being described as the greatest archaeological find in the US this century, one which may contain the remains of 20,000 Africans. The full extent of the find may never be known, however, because black politicians have successfully prevented further excavation of the burial site. To the frustration of archaeologists, about 25 partially excavated graves were closed last week and Chief Algaba Egunfemi of the Bronx, a priest of the Yoruba religion based in Africa, was brought in to anoint the graves as the burial site was formally closed over.

Working under pressure from the federal government, which has already begun building an office block on the site of the dig, and from politicians playing up to the 'roots' side of black nationalism, the archaeologists have been forced to abandon plans to unearth a further 200 to 300 graves of slaves and freed blacks. In the past week, 25 graves have been covered up again, as the dig has ground to a halt because of pressure from Mr Dinkins.

The remains of 410 Africans have already been taken from the site and are now being examined by archaeologists and historians in an effort to assess the find. They will eventually be reburied, amid much pomp and ceremony in a cemetery to commemorate the slaves, who were buried in an unconsecrated potters' field just north of what is now City Hall.

Blacks first arrived in New Amsterdam, as it was then called, with the Dutch explorers. They brought slaves, but gave partial freedom to some blacks, granting them small farms from which they supplied the colony with fresh produce.

When the British took over, laws were passed forbidding blacks to own property and the Church completed the banishment by refusing to allow blacks to be buried in its cemeteries. The blacks were thus banished to the potters' field, which was in use from 1710 until 1790.

An account published in 1865 noted: 'So little seems to have been thought of the race that not even a dedication of their burial ground was made by the Church authorities or any others who might reasonably be supposed to have an interest in the matter. The lands were unappropriated, and though within convenient distance from the city, the locality was unattractive and desolate, so by permission the slave population were allowed to inter their dead there.'

A preliminary examination of the 415 remains removed from the site has revealed some fascinating details about life in the 18th century for blacks. 'To our astonishment there were no mass burials,' said Mr Ludwig. 'All our preconceived notions of what the burial ground would look like were proved wrong.'

'We expected to find mass graves with no headstones,' he said, 'instead, we found that 90 per cent of the people were buried in coffins and that there were headstones as well as rocks and cobbles separating the graves.'

The archaeologists found that about half the blacks died at birth or in the first few years of life, but according to Mr Ludwig, 'those who survived were extremely robust people'. They succumbed in the end to such diseases as TB, syphilis and yellow fever, and many suffered from arthritis.

'We'll get a good look at the daily lives of the black population in the 18th century from what we have already uncovered,' Mr Ludwig said, but he vented his frustration at politicians for impeding the work by trying to make political capital out of the burial ground.

'These guys couldn't care less about their ancestors: they just want to look good by taking a stand,' he said. The result is that much of the dig site is going to remain unexcavated and, by opening graves and then being forced to cover them up to please politicians, the remains inside will quickly degenerate from exposure to the atmosphere.