Review: Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole, an Eighteenth Century Graveyard Uncovered

Nelson arrived in Antigua in 1784 and later described English Harbour as ‘an infernal hole’. He was miserable during his time there. His complaints, however, were largely related to his boredom, restlessness and hopeless love for a woman who was already married to another man. His men most likely hated their time here as well, although for very different reasons.

Why?

Probably because the island was also known as the graveyard of the Englishman.

In Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole, Dr. Sam Willis mixes archival and archaeological research to try and reconstruct the lives of sailors in Antigua in the eighteenth century. An overriding question throughout the documentary is what it meant for people to go to, or be sent to, the Caribbean. Whilst most of the documentary focuses on an archaeological dig on Galleon Beach, where a mass grave of presumed sailors is being excavated, another dig on a former sugar plantation is also visited. Here, the attempt is to reconstruct and understand the hellish existence of the enslaved people on Antigua, and the difficulties of this attempt, are also explored.

The archaeology uncovered in this documentary underlines the human life, and human cost, of colonial expansion in the West Indies. The buttons of a man’s shirt and the thimble of a sailor, for example, are both used as mediums to discuss personhood and to stress the individual lives that were lost here. They might be uncovering a mass grave, but among that mass were men and boys. Who were they? Which ship did they serve on? Did their families ever find out what happened to them? The questions may well be impossible to answer, but questions are nevertheless important.

The experience of life in English Harbour and the Caribbean, built up over the course of the documentary, was not pleasant. Erie CGI reconstruction turns a tropical paradise into a cesspit, where human and industrial waste were first dumped and then trapped in the still harbour waters. Disease was rampant, carried by mosquitoes whose natural habitat was being destroyed by the sugar plantations. Sickness also spread like wildfire due to the cramped and unsanitary living conditions aboard ships; where the food turned rancid and the water green with slime. The rum ration acted in many ways as an anaesthetic. With drunkenness came the freedom of forgetting; where they were, what they were doing, what they had seen, who they had buried. However, the rum was also most likely making the sailors sick with lead poisoning and weakening their resistance to tropical disease even further.

A further, interesting point raised in this documentary is the contemporary relevance of historical knowledge and the power of its telling. The notion that history can become his story is highlighted. Archaeology and the examination of physical, architectural history can allow for a reassessment and a shift away from written accounts which rarely speak for all those who were there.

While this documentary is hardly easy viewing, it is engaging, challenging and thought-provoking. It demands to be watched.

 

Bibliography

‘Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole: An Eighteenth Century Graveyard Uncovered’, BBC4, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6gjx.

‘Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole: An Eighteenth Century Graveyard Uncovered’, BBC iPlayer, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01s6gjx/nelsons-caribbean-hellhole-an-eighteenth-century-navy-graveyard-uncovered.

Please note that Behind The Past cannot accept any responsibility for the content of external links.

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