National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts upends her life—including leaving her job—to join a group of Black scuba divers searching for the wrecks of ships that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas. The journey will require an uncomfortable reckoning with the traumatic history of the slave trade. Then she learns about legendary diver Doc Jones and the underwater memorial he placed at the wreck site of the British ship Henrietta Marie in honor of the 272 Africans who had been trafficked to the West Indies from its cargo hold. As fellow National Geographic Explorer and poet Alyea Pierce gives the captive Africans a voice and speaks their names, Tara realizes there is far more to this history than pain and trauma alone.
TARA ROBERTS (HOST): It was three years ago when my life changed. Let me explain.
It happened at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. The Blacksonian.
It had recently opened. Lonnie Bunch III was the founding director.
LONNIE BUNCH III (HISTORIAN): I believe history matters. I believe history is an amazing tool to help you not just look back, but to live your life. To understand what has shaped who you are at this very moment.
ROBERTS: The thing is, I find looking at the past is hard. And I know I’m not alone. A lot of the last 400 years is just not a comfortable place for us Black people to revisit. So many of our stories focus on slavery and its aftermath—on our pain and suffering.
And I’m not going to lie: The slavery exhibit on the lower level of the museum was tough. But when I got to the second floor, I stopped in my tracks.
Framed on the wall was a photo of scuba divers. They were mostly Black women on a boat, in wetsuits, hugging an older Black guy. They were laughing. All different ages. They reminded me of superheroes.
The group was called Diving With a Purpose.
Black divers searching for the shipwrecks that had carried captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean.
KAMAU SADIKI (DIVER): I wasn't sure what it was. It was encrusted.
SANGYE BRENES (DIVER): I opened my eyes, and I see something brown …
SADIKI: It had a loop, and a rod, and another loop …
DR. ALBERT JOSÉ JONES (DIVER): It felt eerie. This puts the whole thing in a different light.
ROBERTS: I decided to ditch everything, including my job, to join these divers. To tell stories about their work finding and documenting these ships.
(Underwater communications of diver Gabrielle Miller saying, “Wow, that’s crazy.”)
ROBERTS: As I got to know the divers, the ships they had found, the stories of those who had been captured, I realized this was a way to come to grips with those 400 years, with this traumatic history.
Through these ships we could bring lost stories up from the depths and back into collective memory.
Just as important, it was a way to help me understand my roots—my own family’s history—and where I, and we, belong as Black Americans right now, when issues of identity are in the forefront.
I’m Tara Roberts, and this is Into the Depths. Part one of a six-part series.
In each episode we’ll explore a shipwreck in depth.
And we’ll travel …
From Mozambique to South Africa. From Senegal to Costa Rica. Around the U.S.
We’ll meet quite a few divers and discover history that may just make you say, Whaaaat? I didn’t know that!
And I get real personal. I share my ups and downs. My growth and discoveries. My attempts to find a sense of identity and wholeness as I dig into the past.
Stay with us. We’ll be going Into the Depths, right after the break.
ROBERTS: Looking at that picture of the group Diving With a Purpose in the museum, I felt my mind blow open. It was like a pressure valve released.
The caption beside it said they were scuba divers searching for slave shipwrecks across the globe.
Around 1.8 million Africans died crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
An estimated thousand ships sunk.
And these Black divers were searching for this history at the bottom of the ocean.
BUNCH: I think [of] Diving With a Purpose as a group of people who are using their skills to dive, to help us find the stories that are buried under the water. In some ways there’s so much we know about slavery. But there’s so much we still don’t know. And I would argue the last frontier is what’s under the water.
ROBERTS: I became fascinated by these divers.
I went home and looked them up online.
There were about 500 divers affiliated with Diving With a Purpose: retired military officers, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, civil servants, students, even teenagers. People who just love to dive and wanted to make a difference in the world somehow.
I read more.
And found the story of the Henrietta Marie, a British ship that laid the groundwork for Diving With a Purpose.
And the work of the legendary diver Dr. Albert José Jones.
JAY HAIGLER (DIVER): Royalty.
ANDREA WILLIAMS (DIVER) Pioneer, guru.
HAIGLER: Fulbright scholar.
WILLIAMS: Teddy bear, because he’s so cute.
HAIGLER: Black belt.
SHIRLEY LEE (DIVER): He’s a very fantastic guy.
ROBERTS: He’s a big deal. Over 6,000 dives.
HAIGLER: Tae kwon do champion.
WILLIAMS: Encouraging, empowering.
HAIGLER: Purple Heart recipient.
SADIKI: Jacques Cousteau is the white Dr. Jones.
HAIGLER: Only African American that has been inducted in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.
SADIKI: Enough said.
JONES: I’d never take that credit. I think they are being very, very gracious.
ROBERTS: Doc Jones loved water even as a kid.
JONES: I was a kid in the neighborhood who had all the frogs and the turtles, and a garage full of things. I had my own personal little zoo. And a gentleman came in [to school] and started talking about marine biology, and I said, Oh, wow.
ROBERTS: Doc learned to dive in the military. That’s actually the way it started for a lot of the divers. He traveled the world, diving. Even dived on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 1959 as a Fulbright scholar.
JONES: One lady told me, “You speak English unusually well.” And I said, “Oh yeah, well, most of the people where I come from speak English well.” She said, “Where you from?” I said, “Washington, D.C.” And she just fell out laughing.
ROBERTS: Doc Jones came back and decided to start a diving club for Black folks, since they weren’t welcome elsewhere in the diving world, and ended up cofounding the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, or NABS. Over 2,000 members around the world now. And they like to go on dive trips together. En masse.
In 1991 he was in the process of organizing the first annual conference for NABS, when he got a call …
JONES: Saying that they had found a slave ship—they knew it was a slave ship because they had brought up shackles—and would we like to have a couple of speakers, maritime archaeologists, come to our summit and give a talk. We said absolutely. And they brought with them the shackles from the Henrietta Marie.
ROBERTS: Now the Henrietta Marie was a ship that traveled back and forth from London to the West Indies in the late 17th century.
JONES: They would load up merchandise in London. Sail to Africa. Trade the merchandise for slaves.
ROBERTS: It was part of a vast industry spreading across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries.
NAFEES KHAN (PROFESSOR): The number of people estimated to have been put on board ships: around 12 and a half million people.
ROBERTS: Nafees Khan, an adviser for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which has tracked these routes. The route was more or less triangular.
KHAN: The triangle part is the trade component of the manufactured goods, the materials from plantations being sent back to Europe.
ROBERTS: Europe to Africa, then Africa to the Americas, and finally the Americas to Europe. Historians call the second leg the Middle Passage. There were about 36,000 voyages.
KHAN: And about 10 and a half or 10.7 million people survived the journey. So you have about 1.8 million people who did not survive, right? So the average mortality rate is around 12 percent.
ROBERTS: The average duration of the journey was about 60 days.
KHAN: That’s two months, right?
ROBERTS: The voyages were carefully thought out.
KHAN: The practice, the logistics of carrying people for two months onboard a ship—people weren’t held below decks the entire time. During the day, when the weather was calm, all the captives were brought above deck and then at night were brought below deck.
ROBERTS: The logistics are mind-boggling.
KHAN: How do you move people who are chained—who are shackled in pairs—then chained to two long chains? Logistically unhooking, moving, and then, remember, there’s a threat of revolt, because they don’t want to be there. It speaks to that intentionality around this trade. Right? The effort that was went through to maintain the control and the degradation onboard those ships. Right?
ROBERTS: The database tells us that the last voyage of the Henrietta Marie was in 1700, that 274 people embarked. We know the name of the vessel owner, the captain’s name, but not a single detail of those captured and sold. The ship’s journey would have been anything but silent. Speech was forbidden, but the archives tell us how the Africans communicated in the hold.
National Geographic Explorer and poet Alyea Pierce imagines the journey.
ALYEA PIERCE (POET):
Can you hear it? Are you really listening?
To the reverberated rhythm
Chorus of call and response
Hands, slap-slapping on bare thighs
Bare feet stomp-stomping on wooden boards
This hollow theater made of iron and wood
Brought together an orchestra of people across the continent
Instruments of human body, and voice, and ship
Crescendo into a song of strategy
Sounds of revolt amplifying through the very fibers of the floor
This organized performance of humanity deemed confusion
Are you really listening?
Rhythm and repetition, beats booming in coordination through the acoustic architecture.
Sound. A new language of resistance.
A code only the 274 captured knew.
Built from the body as a reminder,
“I am still human. I am still here.”
ROBERTS: The Henrietta Marie made it to Jamaica, though around 80 died along the way.
But the ship and its crew never made it back to England.
It headed back to London in June 1700, sailing around the southeastern coast of the U.S.
JONES: You know the Florida Keys, a bunch of little islands, close together.
ROBERTS: When a storm hit.
JONES: They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so they were slammed up against the reef.
ROBERTS: The Henrietta Marie shattered and sank. And lay at the bottom of the ocean for almost three centuries until it was found by accident by a salvager off Key West in 1972.
He was searching for a treasure trove worth around $400 million dollars when he stumbled across the Henrietta Marie. It had no sparkling jewels, but it did have evidence of humans that had been trafficked: elephant teeth and shackles.
And it was these artifacts mentioned in the call that Doc Jones got for his conference.
Two archaeologists who worked with the artifacts through a Florida-based foundation came along to give a talk.
JONES: The speech did more than just inform us about the Henrietta Marie. It really touched the heartstrings of a lot of the people who were there. As a matter of fact, some people were trying on the shackles. They were in tears. Then it was sort of got to us to see these 200-pound heavyweight tough guys, a lot of them ex-Marines and military people like me, actually crying when they saw these shackles. So several of us got together and said, You know, we really need to do something; we can’t let it just drop right here.
ROBERTS: Doc Jones wanted to memorialize the site. Put a plaque down, an underwater monument on the ocean floor where the ship had sunk.
He assembled a team of 12 scuba divers, archaeologists, and scholars. He had a monument constructed out of concrete, so it would last in the salt water. It weighed almost 3,000 pounds.
Then in 1993 they dove to place it on the site.
(Bubbling sounds underwater)
JONES: It felt eerie. It was like diving on a grave site. It felt like you were touching the souls of your ancestors when you were down there. And it involves people that could be your own family. It was a very strange dive.
ROBERTS: It was an underwater remembrance of the transatlantic slave trade.
JONES: So we put the plaque down, turned it around so that the message on the plaque was facing Africa. Put it on the bottom, and then had people come down one by one and touch the plaque.
ROBERTS: It read: “In memory and recognition of the courage, pain, and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors.”
But for Doc Jones, this was just the beginning. There were more wrecks out there that he could find.
JONES: We made a list of countries: Brazil, Senegal, Ghana. We made a list of countries that we wanted to target. And I went to all of them myself personally to find these slave ships.
ROBERTS: The seed of the idea was planted.
More after the break.
ROBERTS: The more I read, the more I was drawn to these divers and these ships. It was 2016, and the world was shifting and growling. I was a freelance magazine writer and editor, and a communications director in D.C., schlepping on the red and blue trains to my job every day. Issues around identity had taken center stage nationally. And I felt uneasy and restless, like I should be doing more.
So I looked up what I would need to do to join Diving With a Purpose, or DWP. I needed to get my scuba certification, and I needed to do 30 ocean dives before I could participate in their training course.
I loved the idea of the adventure and the diving, but I was still kinda nervous about this history, about stepping back so squarely into the specifics of the slave trade. Bringing all that pain and trauma into awareness.
I began to wonder if knowing which ship my ancestors had come over on could better equip me to handle this adventure. If it would change anything about how I understood myself and this history.
So I called up my cousin Karen. She’s spent years tracing our family tree.
ROBERTS: You see how easy this is going to be? It’s just us. And we’re just chatting. That’s all.
KAREN ROBERTS (COUSIN): OK. OK.
KAREN ROBERTS: I told my friend, “I don’t know what she’s going to ask me. She’s a journalist. I don’t know what to tell her!”
ROBERTS: Our family is from Edenton, North Carolina. It’s where my mom and her 13 brothers and sisters grew up. Karen’s dad—we called him Teeny—and my mom were siblings. My mom, the youngest.
Can you say a little bit about Grandma and what you remember about her? What kind of woman she was?
KAREN ROBERTS: I always thought she had to be a strong woman because she gave birth to that many children.
I remember that she used to make her own wine. (Tara giggling) And we used to sneak a taste of it.
ROBERTS: So how far back can you trace?
KAREN ROBERTS: Our great-grandparents, John and Harriet. And then beyond that, the great-great-grandparents, who were the freed slaves, were Jack and Mary.
ROBERTS: I have a black-and-white picture of Great-Great-Grandpa Jack and Grandma Mary. They’re both handsome. Grandpa Jack has short white cropped hair and a neatly trimmed white goatee. And Mary, she has on a bow tie. A bow tie, y’all.
But that’s all we know. Our lineage stops there, like it does for most African Americans.
And why does knowing your history matter?
KAREN ROBERTS: ’Cause I think everybody should, should want to know where they came from. The story of Roots—Alex Haley—one of my favorite movies. And I’m like, he was able to find his family all the way in Africa. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It’s … (laughs) it’s just … it’s just …
ROBERTS: Just imagine for a second, imagine that you did know what tribe you came from.
KAREN ROBERTS: Yeah.
ROBERTS: Can you—like what difference would that make?
KAREN ROBERTS: I think it would make me feel more complete. If that makes sense? You know?
’Cause right now, it’s like there is a hole. Like you know, it’s your life story. But for me it starts in Edenton, North Carolina. But I know that’s not true, because there’s a whole ’nother set of people who had it not been for them, I wouldn’t be me. You know?
So, I don’t know, I just wish and hope and pray that someday I can be like Alex Hayley and say, you know, I found you. You know? How he said about Kunta Kinte? I want to be able to do that!
ROBERTS: Karen has looked where I haven’t. Maybe there was laughter and love and tenderness and beauty on those plantations. Surely there were these things. But I feared the rest. I didn’t know if I had the courage to face the fact that my ancestors had been owned by someone, that they were someone else’s property.
BUNCH: You cannot find healing and reconciliation without finding the true past. Without having an unvarnished understanding of who we are. How race, how the African American experience has been so profoundly shaped and shapes the American experience.
ROBERTS: For Lonnie, you do need to find that courage.
BUNCH: Diving With a Purpose is really this powerful moment for me of a group who is learning something that most Black folks don’t do. But also is teaching new generations how to do this, and marrying it with a desire to understand themselves through uncovering history.
And I think looking at these ships that they’re diving on, they allow us to honor those that didn’t make it. They allow us to sort of almost touch sacred spaces that are not just spaces of death, but spaces of memory. And that as long as we find those spaces, as long as we dive for these ships, as long as we learn as much as we can, those people whose names we’ll never know, are not lost. They’re remembered.
ROBERTS: I think he’s talking about a way of approaching history that isn’t centered in our trauma, but that instead is about the celebration of our humanity. And I can get down with that.
BUNCH: I think that good history is about good storytelling. Because it reduces to human scale. It gives people an interaction with the past; it gives it life.
ROBERTS: I also called my friend Karima. I wanted her advice.
You are literally one of my oldest and dearest friends.
KARIMA GRANT ABBOTT (FRIEND): I know.
ROBERTS: It has been …
ABBOTT: Don’t count the years. (Laughs)
ROBERTS: I know! I’m gonna count ’em! I’m gonna count ’em! It has been over 30 years.
ABBOTT: I know. I said the same thing. And I also thought not only have we been friends for 30 years, but we’ve been through so many lifetimes in those 30 years.
ROBERTS: She grew up primarily in the States, the daughter of a Senegalese mother and a St. Lucian father. She’s this big-time educator and social entrepreneur who lives in Senegal now with her beautiful family.
I was torn. I felt called as a storyteller to share the global scope of this work. I didn’t have any funding, though, or an assignment. But it felt like telling this history could help deepen our story as Black people, help us better understand our place in the world.
And, perhaps, it could help me too. I mean, I was single, with no children. And I was a free spirit—I’d had 10 different addresses in the last 15 years.
Could embarking on a mission to find and share this story give me a sense of rootedness?
ABBOTT: You’ve been somebody who’s been consistently working on honing storytelling, and you’ve always gone after the unconventional story.
You have to do this! I feel like it’s just like, it’s the work that needs to be done, you know? And you’re now able to say, “OK, you know that missing period, when we actually fell apart? This is what it probably looked like. And I’m going to look at it from my lens.”
That’s why you are doing what you have to do. That’s it. I think you’re gonna find the magic of what it means to be Black.
Plus, you can do it! You can do it, girl! Just do it!
ROBERTS: OK! Time to take the leap. I’d researched the ships, called my family and friends, figured out the training requirements. And then I started.
In 2017 I called up DWP. Turned out that I lived in the epicenter of Black scuba diving in the United States—Washington, D.C.—and they could get me in the three-month-long PADI open-water class they offered.
I met Doc Jones, who taught the textbook part of the course. These were weekly classes in a bookstore up the street from Howard University. In this small, stuffy room.
Doc’s quiet, dry humor got me through all the math and calculations I had to learn. Stuff like surface air consumption rate and total bottom time.
And then pool dates at Gallaudet University every week. Learning mask skills, buoyancy, scuba hand signals. They said I was a pretty good swimmer, and I must say, I wasn’t bad. I had taught myself to swim at the age of five.
All this training was run by Black divers from the Underwater Adventure Seekers Dive Club offering up their Tuesday and Friday evenings for free. Training up the next generation of divers.
Then in 2018, I quit my job.
I used my frequent-flier miles, took off, and ended up spending three months in Southeast Asia—Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Thailand—getting my 30 dives in. I lived in cheap guesthouses. Borrowed equipment. Dived off of small motorboats. Worked on getting better.
I practiced. And practiced. Prepping equipment. Reading my dive watch. Breathing slowly and calmly. Memorizing the calculations to keep me alive underwater.
Until I was ready.
ROBERTS: Mom? Hi, I’m home!
(A door opening)
My mom lives in Atlanta.
She’s a retired reading instructor. She worked at Spelman College, the oldest Black women’s college in the U.S. It goes back to the 19th century. And a lot of notable Black women attended and worked there: Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman, Pearl Cleage, Ayoka Chenzira, Beverly Guy Sheftall, Johnetta Cole, Stacey Abrams.
All Black women superheroes.
To me, my mom totally deserved a place alongside them. She has been my guiding light and biggest cheerleader.
ROBERTS: What do you think about this work that I’m doing with slave shipwrecks?
LULA ROBERTS: Oh, I think it’s wonderful. It wasn’t in the history books when I taught in Maryland, Virginia, and even in Georgia. They may have had a page or a chapter about slave ships. And people who told it, they were white.
(Lula Roberts and a man chatting)
ROBERTS: I don’t really do church, but my mom invited her pastor, Bishop Jack, over to her house to bless the work.
BISHOP JACK BOMAR (PASTOR): As you’re doing this work, you’re doing it in the outer. That’s your research. You’re gathering information. That’s great.
Take it to the next level. Do that spiritual work. Meaning, get in tune. If you can get in tune with the essence, the spirit of our ancestors who were lost during that Middle Passage … Invite them, invite their blessing on the work.
You can do so by your prayer and meditation. You come across names—speak their names, speak the names, speak the names.
And then ask them to bless you. Ask them for permission to tell their story. Ask them to go before you to make the way straight, smooth, and harmonious.
And then, in so doing, you’re tapping into the ancestral spirit that’s always with us. We say it all the time. And so that would be my recommendation to you. My suggestion.
ROBERTS: I took Bishop Jack’s advice and asked my ancestors Mary and Jack for permission. Physically, I was ready to take the plunge, but emotionally, I was still a little scared.
But I figured, I just gotta trust.
I did, and fortunately everything worked out.
I applied to National Geographic to be an Explorer. And I got chosen as a Storytelling Fellow.
I could travel.
PIERCE: (begins reciting poem) Listen
ROBERTS: (begins reciting names) Kossola …
ROBERTS: (continues reciting names as poem is read) … Oluale, Adissa, Lahla, Abache, Shamba, Abile(a), Somee, Sakaru, Deza.
PIERCE: I hold their stories in my arms.
Stories from the depths of my ocean
I’ve memorized every inch of their heartbeats
There is a song growing in my waves
We have not heard before.
It speaks their names.
ROBERTS: I’m National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts, host and executive producer.
Next time on Into the Depths, I learn about a ship that DWP has been looking for, for almost 20 years. And I get trained, so I can hang with these divers on this amazing journey. So stay with us!
If you loved this podcast, you can dive deeper at natgeo.com/intothedepths, where we’ve got a ton of resources to help you explore this history. You’ll find more on my work with these divers and stunning photos from photographer Wayne Lawrence. And for all our teachers, we have some great tools you can use in your classroom. Also, check out our special in-depth feature in the March issue.
Plus, don’t miss Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship—a film from National Geographic Studios premiering on Hulu in February. You can find all the links in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
Please rate and review us. And to support more content like this, consider a National Geographic subscription and listen to Overheard, our weekly podcast. That’s the best way to support us and hear more adventures from around the world. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
Into the Depths is a production of National Geographic Partners and is funded in part by the National Geographic Society.
It’s directed by the awesome Francesca Panetta, who got us to the finish line. Thank you!
And produced by the tireless, ever ready Bianca Martin and my ride-or-die Mike Olcott.
Our poet is the brilliant wordsmith, National Geographic Explorer Alyea Pierce.
Our executive editor is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Kate Sinclair and Heidi Schultz.
Our copy editor is Jennifer Vilaga.
Our production assistant is Ezra Lerner.
Our sound designer, engineer, and composer is Alexis “Lex” Adimora.
Our audio engineers are Jerry Busher and Grahame Davies.
Our development producer, helping us get the project to the starting gate, is Kristen Clark.
Additional reporting was done by Tiffany McNeil.
Special thanks to Ainehi Edoro.
And our consultants—who offered sharp critiques, insights, and encouraging words when we needed them—are Ramtin Arablouie, John Asante, Greg Carr, Celeste Headlee, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Linda Villarosa.
Debra Adams Simmons is National Geographic’s executive editor of history and culture.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences for National Geographic.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
Thank you to Fleur Paysour, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Slave Wrecks Project, for opening doors, literally.
To MIT Open Documentary Lab for being an amazing sounding board.
Thanks to all our friends and family who listened to these episodes and gave early feedback. We appreciate you so much!
Finally, we couldn’t have done this series without the support, cooperation, and friendship of Diving With a Purpose, Ambassadors of the Sea, the Society of Black Archaeologists, and the Slave Wrecks Project.
To learn more about Diving With a Purpose, follow them online at divingwithapurpose.org.
Oh, and to my mom, Lula Roberts, for being our biggest cheerleader and reminding us always that the best is yet to come.
Thank you for listening, and see you all next time.
Check out our Into the Depths hub to learn more about Tara’s journey following Black scuba divers, find previous Nat Geo coverage on the search for slave shipwrecks, and get a sneak peek at the March cover.
And download a tool kit for hosting an Into the Depths listening party to spark conversation and journey deeper into the material.
Find out more information about Diving With a Purpose and its work training adults and youth in maritime archaeology and ocean conservation.
Dive into the records of the more than 36,000 voyages made during the transatlantic slave trade, including time lines, maps, and 3-D reconstructions of slave ships.
Students can learn more about the Henrietta Marie in journalist Michael H. Cottman’s book Shackles from the Deep.
The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society's support of Tara Roberts and all of its Explorers.