Most slave shipwrecks have been overlooked—until now

400 years after slavery began in the United States, black scuba divers are searching for ships that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas.

Meet a group of vibrant scuba divers determined to find, document, and positively identify slave ship wrecks.

Most slave shipwrecks have been overlooked—until now

400 years after slavery began in the United States, black scuba divers are searching for ships that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas.

Meet a group of vibrant scuba divers determined to find, document, and positively identify slave ship wrecks.

No one ever asked the free Africans if they wanted to leave their homeland. They were stolen, shackled, crammed head-to-toe in European slave ships, traded for goods or sold outright. Such was the intended fate for Africans aboard Portugal’s São José Paquete de Africa when it sailed from Mozambique in 1794 destined for Brazil. When the ship became wedged between two coral reefs off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa it broke in half, and turbulent waves killed 212 of the 512 African captives on board.

“Before I even got to it, I began to sort of get goosebumps getting a sense of the tragedy.” says Kamau Sadiki, a lead instructor for Diving With a Purpose, the maritime archaeology program whose divers search for slave wrecks and helped with the discovery and verification of the São José. “I could feel the vibration, the energy, and the pain, and the suffering and the horror,” says Sadiki, who was part of the São José research dive team.

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Diving With a Purpose lead instructor Kamau Sadiki hovers over and examines part of a wreck in the Florida Keys.

Scuba diving to find slave shipwrecks and then piecing together historical truths about the people on board ships like the São José that transported enslaved Africans to the Americas is the lifeblood of Diving With a Purpose (DWP). The group works to unearth, reconstruct and resurrect the maritime history of Africa and the African Diaspora. The organization is in the spotlight as the 400th anniversary of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the U.S. is commemorated. The first enslaved Africans arrived in Point Comfort, Virginia, now Hampton, in August 1619.

“There were over 12,000 ships making over 40,000 voyages over 250 years of slave trade,” Sadiki says. “To date, there are only five [slave] ships in maritime history in the data base. Why is that?”

The São José Paquete de Africa is the first vessel confirmed to have been carrying enslaved human cargo when it sank. Artifacts retrieved from São José are on display in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The iron ballast used to counter-balance human weight aboard the ship, remnants of shackles and a wooden pulley humanize the lives onboard.

The expertise of DWP is essential to the work of the Slave Wrecks Project, a group of organizations exploring the history and telling the stories of 12.5 million enslaved Africans. Launched in 2008 and hosted by the NMAAHC, the international partners of the Slave Wrecks Project include George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, the U.S. National Park Service and others. The organizations share research in archaeology, anthropology and history to save wreck sites, reconstruct disrupted cultural heritage and connect communities to their past. Members of the Slave Wrecks Project “search for wrecks across the globe to bring this history back into memory one voyage at a time”, says Paul Gardullo, co-director of the Slave Wrecks Project and Director of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the NMAAHC.

A known, yet unverified wreck, the pirated slave ship Guerrero, inspired Ken Stewart, a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, to co-found Diving With a Purpose along with the National Park Service at Biscayne National Park. Stewart learned the Guerrero, a pirated slave ship bound for Cuba in 1827, wrecked killing 41 of its 541 enslaved Africans, is among the countless number of undocumented shipwrecks—many believed to be slave ships—still embedded along the coast of the Florida Keys. Biscayne National Park had only one maritime archaeologist who could not dive for and document ships alone. When she asked Stewart for help, he realized diving could have a real purpose.

DWP scuba divers are volunteers certified as underwater archaeology advocates. Since 2005, 350 adults and 100 children have been trained in conservation and preservation of submerged marine archeology. Be it slave vessels, underwater crash sites of WWII Tuskegee Airmen test planes or expeditions with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the goal is use physical remains to tell the story history books cannot.

In field school, all DWP divers learn to measure the wreck surface, sketch underwater, retrieve artifacts, and draw them to scale. Then they transfer all information to a master site map which stands as the legal document for site monitoring.

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Cars on the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge drive past a mural of the Clotilda, made by artist Labarron Lewis in 2017, on Bay Bridge Road in Africatown.

“With DWP we verified a vessel NOAA could not identify,’ says Matthew Lawrence, a NOAA maritime archaeologist who oversees marine sanctuaries in Key Largo, Florida. DWP members helped confirm the Hannah M. Bell, a British steam ship which wrecked and sank in 1911. “About 30 DWP volunteers come to the dives. Volunteers make it possible to do this work, especially with the relatively small staff at NOAA in Florida.”

DWP divers readily volunteer their own time and money to don mask and fins, and snap together the puzzle pieces of the slave trade.

“This is not recreational diving,” says Jay Haigler, a DWP lead instructor and dive safety officer. “The advocacy which DWP offers gives you the basis for a certification as an archaeology survey diver. That means, they could be on a dive as an assistant.”

DWP leaders are unapologetic about the need for more Africans and African Americans in the field of maritime archaeology. Public education is DWP’s “boots on the ground” tactic for community engagement. In Africatown, Alabama for descendants of the recently-confirmed Clotilda—the last known slave ship to arrive in the U.S., 52-years after the importation of enslaved Africans was abolished—DWP is conducting Discover Scuba Diving training to introduce high school and college students to fundamentals of diving and maritime careers. (See how archaeologists pieced together clues to identify the long-lost slave ship.)

In anticipation of future collaborations on St. Croix, DWP also is training some members of the Society of Black Archaeologists. Ayana Flewellen co-founded SBA and has dived with DWP for three years. “SBA wants to create a pipeline to train graduate students to do terrestrial work alongside DWP to tie the [land and sea] stories together.”

The tragedy is that colonial history makes scant mention of what scholars believe are thousands of slave shipwrecks embedded along international coastlines. Even though the Transatlantic Slave Trade resulted in the largest forced migration of a people in history between the 15th and 18th centuries, only recently is a more comprehensive story being unearthed about slave ships, their captives and the global, cultural and social-economic impact the enormous maritime process of importing slaves has had on society.

DWP is working to piece together the lost stories of African Americans whose ancestors came to the United States on slave ships.

“We’re now in a moment in time where there is an interest in understanding all the many perspectives that make up a story,” explains Tara Roberts, a DWP-trained diver, journalist and National Geographic explorer writing about DWP’s dives while in the field. “It’s no longer okay for just the people who came in and conquered to tell stories." (Read Roberts' personal essay about diving with DWP.)

The stories imbedded in the wrecks are what DWP and its Slave Wrecks Project partners seek to create a new dialogue about slavery.

“The work of DWP is more relevant today than any other time,” says Haigler. “DWP’s core is focused on bringing the memories to present, the cultural and historical perspectives of a people, of African people, to tell globally the horrific history of slavery told through shipwrecks.”

Submerged slave wrecks can lie naturally preserved for hundreds of years. Mozambique Island was the popular slave port to the east. Some 50 slave wrecks surround Mozambique, according to Sadiki. Yet, the African contribution to maritime history is absent, after 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule.

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Kamau Sidiki was part of the team that confirmed the discovery of the Clotilda earlier this year.

The discovery of slave wrecks is opening the door to tell new and different stories about the slave experience.

Authentication of the São José has challenged longheld truths, says Steve Lubkemann, a George Washington University anthropologist and co-director of the Slave Wrecks Project. “Whose story really is the São José’s? It’s both South African and Mozambican, also a Brazilian story as some slaves on board ended up in Brazil before the ship arrived (and crashed) in South Africa.”

Slave Wrecks Project members including DWP are training Mozambicans as community monitors, to educate others, reclaim their African maritime heritage and protect wreck sites from piracy.

Research confirms the slave ship Wanderer, off the eastern coast of Cuba, and the Dutch ship Leusden, which sank with more than 700 Africans deliberately sealed in the hold before captain and crew abandoned ship.

Raising the spirits of the ancestors is what Roberts, the DWP diver and storyteller, sees as the beauty in the dives. “No one has mourned enough of them, given name to enough of them. We will never know if it’s hundreds, thousands, or millions lost.“

Diving with a Purpose hopes its work will lead to the discovery of more undocumented shipwrecks and help people better understand what happened to their ancestors. “The work we are doing is like CSI. Look at the incredible crime that was done. How do we recover?” asks Sadiki. “The work of DWP is scratching below the service in some way, to bring people together.”