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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 11:25 GMT
Human remains are bone of contention
The bones recovered from a Devon beach
The bones will undergo further scientific tests
By the BBC's West of England correspondent Jane O'Brien

An international dispute over who should bury the bones of people thought to be victims of a 200-year-old shipwreck in Devon, may soon be resolved.

In 1796 The London sank off Ilfracombe with its cargo of ivory, doubloons and jewels - and a number of black prisoners from the West Indies.

The government of St Lucia says the victims were freedom fighters and should be buried in Heroes Park, in St Lucia.

An African group says they were former slaves and should be returned to the continent.

We need to do the right thing with the bones. We need to be responsible for what happens to them now.

Alison Mills, Barnstaple Museum

But latest research shows the bones are probably those of local fishermen - and should be kept in Devon.

Wrapped in plastic in a cardboard box, the bones are being stored at Barnstaple Museum.

Deputy manager Alison Mills says they will not be released until their origin can be proved.

"We need to do the right thing with the bones. We need to be responsible for what happens to them now. We know there are a lot of interested parties.

"We know there may be a link with St Lucia. There may also be Ilfracombe people who have nothing to do with The London.

"Until we've gone as far as we can in finding the answer to that we can't reach a decision."

The research is being carried out at Bristol University.

Bone Samples

Dr Mark Horton is looking at the way diet has affected the composition of the bones.

He is waiting for comparative samples to arrive from St Lucia, but it already looks as though they are English and may be nothing to do with the wreck of The London.

An artist's recreation of The London
Artist's impression of The London
"The bone chemistry suggests that these bones are similar to local Devon people rather than coming from a tropical area," he said.

"The last thing we want to do is ship back a bunch of Devon fishermen to re-inter them in Heroes Park in St Lucia or say all sorts of fancy rights over the bones of the dead ancestors if they actually come from Devon"

For African pressure groups, keen for greater acknowledgement of Britain's slave trade links, the findings are a blow.

The late MP Bernie Grant visited Rapparee Cove, where the remains were discovered.

He said the bones were an important find for British black history and demanded an apology from the Queen.

If the evidence can't prove it one way or another... then we have a very good claim to have them back in Ilfracombe where they can be buried properly in a Christian way

Pat Barrow Historian

Khanyisa Amoo, spokeswoman for the National Slavery Memorial Day Tour, says there should be further excavations.

"Essentially what we have is a case where thousands of Africans have just been dumped around the coastlines of England and they haven't been buried.

"They have a human right, just like the Second World War victims to a proper burial. It's a humanitarian issue."

The St Lucian's however, say The London was carrying freedom fighters who may have once been slaves but were being transported to Britain as prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.

Pat Barrow is a historian who has written a book on the so-called slaves of Rapparee.

He said: "If the evidence can't prove it one way or another, which it seems like at the moment, then we have a very good claim to have them back in Ilfracombe where they can be buried properly in a Christian way or a way suitable for people who die at sea and nobody knows where they came from."

Wherever the bones of Rapparee belong there will be now be a monument at the bay to commemorate the deaths of all shipwreck victims around the Devon coast.

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