This First Person article is written by Bushra Junaid, an artist, curator and writer of Caribbean and African descent raised in St. John’s. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.
“We have the remains of a Black sailor in our permanent collection,” museum conservator Wade Greeley told me.
Goosebumps broke out on my flesh and I was stunned into silence.
We were at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s, where I grew up.
I was looking for artifacts, objects and artworks to include alongside the work of four contemporary artists — but I never imagined that The Rooms had actual human remains.
Wade explained that the sailor’s remains were discovered in 1987 when an eroding cliff near the small fishing village of L’Anse-au-Loup on the Labrador coast revealed a burial site.
Passersby had seen bones, fabric and wood sticking out of the ground. Archeologists and other experts soon arrived. A coffin was exhumed, and on the inside, a skeleton was lying on top of soft woolen padding; a wool blanket tucked around it and wrapped snugly around its head.
Amazingly, some of the sailor’s personal belongings were buried with him, including a dark jacket and pair of trousers, a wooden knife handle with the initials “W.H.” carved into it, a leather shoe with “W” etched into the sole, and a 20-centimetre-long wooden marlinspike (a pointed tool that sailors use to separate or join strands of rope).
Based on their analysis, experts concluded this was the grave of a Black man, who was about 22 when he died, likely in the 1800s.
I felt emotional when I got to see WH’s personal belongings and uniform being carefully handled by The Rooms staff. Those items became the centerpiece of What Carries Us.
In my curatorial statement I explained that, “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know the story of their origins well. They carry the memories of their past and honour their history. Yet, in the words of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley: ‘half the story has never been told.’
“As a Newfoundlander of African and Caribbean descent, I believe it is important to bring the three strands of my family history together, and to shed light on the hidden histories of African-descended peoples here, where I grew up.”
Who was he?
From the moment I heard about him, WH captured my imagination, and I kept thinking about him long after the exhibition closed.
I kept wondering, Who was he? Where was he born and raised? Who were his people? What did he witness or experience on his travels? How did he end up buried, isolated, alone and forgotten on the Labrador coast, in a place that was likely far away from home? I felt connected with him, and came to think of him as kin.
My obsession with the mystery of WH inspired me to write and illustrate a narrative poem called The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor as a way of honouring him and the history he represents.
My work has revived attention in these remains and further institutional investigation of WH’s identity, analysis of microscopic samples of his skeleton and threads from his clothing is being pursued.
WH’s story is important to me as it speaks to the long-intertwined history of African descended people and Newfoundland and Labrador.
This history has been forgotten, and perhaps suppressed. I certainly didn’t hear anything about it growing up in St. John’s. W.H. is tangible evidence of those real connections that date back centuries.
Exploring this history and presence artistically, through curating exhibitions and my book has given me a deeper sense of belonging and connection. I’m committed to learning more and sharing what I discover.
So for me, it is important to claim W.H. as somebody whose life mattered, who spent time — no matter how briefly it was — in Newfoundland and Labrador. He represents the Black history of the place, the Black experience, and Black life on the North Atlantic.
For those of us from the African diaspora whose histories have been erased, this is a reclaiming. We matter. We belong here. We have a right to be here. We have been here. We have contributed and continue to contribute to this place.
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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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