Marjorie H Morgan

Researcher - Writer - Playwright


The London Shipwreck of Rapparee Cove, Devon, 1796

| By Marjorie Morgan

The London Shipwreck of Rapparee Cove, Devon, 1796

In February 1997, there was a discovery of human remains buried in a mass grave at the foot of steep cliffs in Rapparee Cove, Devon. The media interest in this discovery created a trail that led back to information about a ship that had been wrecked in Rapparee Cove, north Devon on October 9th, 1796. The uncovered history has led to years of international argument and speculation. The questions raised include: how did a slave transportation ship, the London, end up off the coast of Devon and who were the people who died over two hundred years before in this marine tragedy?

The bones and bounty retrieved have been the source of many discussions and wrangling about who was aboard the ship and why. For many years gold and silver coins, of Portuguese origin, had been discovered on this Devonshire coast and people had readily claimed them as bounty of the sea. However, the uncovering of the human bones – from people denied a decent burial – has provoked many discussions and disagreements regarding ownership and burial rights of these remains.

No definitive answers have been given, although there is substantial proof to indicate that many of those on board were St Lucian and were being transported to Bristol.How did people from Africa migrate to St Lucia, then die in the sea near Ilfracombe?This is a truly a case of history and geography intersecting in a violent manner.

It is reported that the Black people on boards were French prisoners or slaves being taken, possibly, to Bristol to be sold. Many of these people died, along with several local men who tried to rescue the ship when it was in trouble in the storm. Reports from the time say that the black French prisoners on board ‘were drowned with iron fetters on their legs’. The beach was said to be covered with bodies of drowned people the following day, both British and French, both black and white. As a report of the time stated: ‘The sea had made no distinctions between black and white victims.’

Although there was a media frenzy at the time of the discovery in February 1997, public interest soon waned in the subject as the as fight for recognition of the incident persisted with the archaeological inquest continuing in Devon. Although national news reports soon ceased, there was, however, enough of a memory of this event to influence an episode of the BBC drama, Bone Kickers, that was screened in 2008. In one particular episode the plotline focuses on the discovery of murdered 18th century slaves on the beach. A coincidence? Perhaps.

In the past decade archivists from St Lucia have made a claim for the bones of those who died in Rapparee Cove, they assert that the dead men were heroic rebels fighting for freedom and should be returned to the island to be buried with honour.

This mystery of history and geography has not yet been resolved. I wonder when it will be.Below is a copy of the original report that came to my attention about this incident. (The link is no longer functioning, however, I have reproduced it from my notes intact for your continued research and interest.)

accessed 9/11/04

Beach yields mass grave of shipwrecked slavesBy Nick Constable and Karen Farrington

Reproduced from THE TIMES Monday February 24th 1997

This article appears with the permission of the authors – Westcoast News Agency, Devon, England, to which enquiries about this article can be referred.A mass grave containing the bodies of shipwrecked slaves has been uncovered on a holiday beach after Atlantic storms.

Up to 60 bodies are thought to lie beneath the rugged cliffs of Rapparee Cove in north Devon, where the treasure ship London foundered with all hands 200 years ago.

An archaeological team has begun excavating the site near llfracombe, which has yielded dozens of bones and three perfectly preserved teeth. Yesterday the first iron fetters were discovered in the shale. During the past 20 years several gold and silver coins thought to have come from the London have been found in the cove.

Experts believe that the grave is the largest burial ground of slaves discovered on the British coast. The bodies were apparently considered heathen by the locals and unfit for Christian interment.

Skull bones emerged three weeks ago but the dig could not begin until police had established that there were no suspicious circumstances. Scientific tests have confirmed that the skulls are of African descent.

The dig is unlikely to solve all the mysteries surrounding the 300-tonne barque, which had been chartered as a transporter by the Admiralty during the French Revolutionary Wars.

She was thought to have been bound for Bristol with her booty and 60 French black slaves captured during General Sir Ralph Abercromby’s Caribbean campaign. On the afternoon of October 9, 1796, the ships master, Captain Robertson, approached llfracombe seeking shelter from a gathering storm.

Pilots rowed out to help him to dock but he tried instead to moor to a buoy at the mouth of the harbour.

According to a later account by a Captain Chiswell, held in llfracombe museum, one pilot shouted: “Where are you from?” Robertson, described as a “ruffian captain”, was said to have screamed back: “From Hell, bound for damnation.”

His ambitious manoeuvre failed and the ship, with its prisoners chained in the hold, was dashed against the rocks. Chiswell wrote that the ship contained five treasure chests, only four of which were recovered.

He described the cove as “covered with the bodies of negroes” and recorded that the corpse of a young woman, “a naked lily fair”, was also washed up.

The excavation will concentrate on a ten-yard area of the cliffs which has been eroded by winter storms. Pat Barrow, an amateur archaeologist who is co-ordinating the dig for llfracombe museum, has spent 25 years researching the London’s history. He believes the slaves were officially listed as prisoners of war. Britain’s abolition of slavery was still 38 years away, although by the early 19th century liberal politicians were campaigning against it.

Mr Barrow said: “There’s no doubt the skipper could have sold the slaves, probably at Bristol, if he’d wanted to. It is unclear why he was so reluctant to dock at llfracombe. The reports of the time suggested the wind would have been favourable. I believe the skipper was worried that local people would discover the slaves in his hold and try to release them. This area had a very strong religious tradition.”

about the author

Marjorie H Morgan

Researcher, writer, playwright, journalist with an interest in the themes of history, society, identity, and home.