When National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts meets Ken Stewart, the co-founder of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), she’s moved by his near 20-year mission to find the Spanish pirate ship Guerrero, which wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1827. Tara decides to train with DWP, learning how to find and map a shipwreck. With the help of poet and fellow Explorer Alyea Pierce, Tara tries to imagine the journey of the enslaved Africans on the Guerrero and how their spirits might have flown home after they perished at sea.
ALBERT JOSÉ JONES (DIVER): You’re weightless.
AYANA FLEWELLEN (DIVER): This is breathtaking.
TARA ROBERTS (HOST): Under the water, I can actually breathe.
JONES: You feel like you’re flying. You can just be at a hundred feet and do nothing and you just hang there.
ROBERTS: There is a freedom in the water.
JONES: It really takes your breath.
FLEWELLEN: Like … (inhales)
JONES: And a lot of the friendly fish. It’s like them just saying, “Welcome. Welcome to my world.”
ROBERTS: Welcome home.
FLEWELLEN: It’s already a feat within itself that we’re Black and we’re archaeologists. And now, you’re like, Hey, maybe we can do this and be in the water.
ROBERTS: These divers, man. They’re like flesh-and-blood superheroes.
FLEWELLEN: I grabbed my chest because I was like, either I’m going to die or this is going to be the most amazing experience of my entire life.
ROBERTS: Ayana. With her purple braids, bright pink lipstick, homemade door knocker earrings, and this huge, huge smile. She’s the co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists. And Jay, a retired engineer, 6'5" frame like a linebacker, booming voice. He’s been totally transformed by this work.
JAY HAIGLER (DIVER): It is a life-changing, spiritual experience being under the water.
ROBERTS: And then me.
Pump. (Roberts saying, “I have no idea how this thing works.”)
My name is Tara Roberts.
Last episode, I learned of Diving With a Purpose, a group of primarily Black scuba divers searching for the wrecks of ships from the transatlantic slave trade.
And I quit my job to join them.
Now, in this episode, I go back Into the Depths to ask who gets to find and tell this history. I investigate why authorship of the past matters. And I tell you the story of the Guerrero, a Spanish vessel that DWP has been looking for for almost 20 years.
I also get trained, y’all. I ramp up my diving skills and learn how to map a shipwreck. Get ready. We’re diving in.
Right after the break.
ROBERTS: I don’t think superheroes like Jay and Ayana would have been in the books of my past.
The heroes of my childhood stories were often white and usually male.
I would curl up in my bed with a flashlight and read into the wee hours of the morning, wanting to be Charles Wallace. Or Taran Wanderer. Or even Jupiter Jones.
But there was never a Jay. Or an Ayana. Or a Doc Jones in those books I loved as a kid.
I rarely saw myself as a hero. Or as a fully fleshed-out human being who was capable of making a difference in the world.
CALINDA LEE (HISTORIAN): You have to understand every book you read, every exhibit you visit, every humanities program you attend, all of those things have an editorial process embedded.
ROBERTS: That’s Calinda Lee, a historian who heads up programs and exhibitions at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, my hometown. She’s a badass.
LEE: And if that editorial process leaves you believing or leaves a classroom of children believing, leaves a yellow bus full of kids believing that the people from whom they’re descended didn’t do anything to shape this work, or didn’t do anything to effect their own emancipation, or haven’t done anything to create a more just and equitable society, or didn’t do anything to decimate people’s opportunities for justice and equality, and to learn from that and figure out how not to repeat that, then that’s a failure.
ROBERTS: It’s just like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out in a 2009 Ted Talk. You know her, the Nigerian novelist and feminist. She said, “You can’t just have one perspective.”
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE (AUTHOR; FROM A RECORDED TED TALK): What I like to call the danger of the single story. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.
ROBERTS: You might have a lot of books on a topic, but for Chimamanda, if it’s all from one perspective, it is a single story. One that oversimplifies our narratives and creates stereotypes about who we are. And it becomes the definitive story.
I think DWP might have a new perspective on the slave trade.
KEN STEWART (DIVER): OK, I’m ready! (Clears throat)
ROBERTS: That’s Ken Stewart. My buddy. My pal. He’s the man in the photo at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, at the Blacksonian.
Ken co-founded Diving With a Purpose almost two decades ago. He was the one who told me I lived in the epicenter of Black diving, and he got me the spot in the dive-training course with Doc Jones.
(Sounds of footsteps)
Ken still steps with the quickness and the slickness of an uptown New Yorker. And he is meticulously groomed—salt-and-pepper beard and mustache as neat as can be. And he has this voice that seems to me to rise and fall with the cadence of a soulful love song.
It was Ken who had the vision that Black folks should lead the charge telling the stories of these ships.
STEWART: To me, all the stories that have been told about Africans, slavery, have been told by white people. People who have their academic credentials.
I don’t want to take anything away from them. ’Cause I don’t have any academic credentials. Right? And I admire you. But you can’t tell it from our perspective, or the folks who lived it.
ROBERTS: We know very little about the people in the cargo hold, except the horrors.
I wonder if Black divers would notice different details. If they would focus on finding artifacts that help us understand the full humanity of the captive Africans.
Ken is actually telling the story of the Spanish ship Guerrero by finding it and diving it.
STEWART: And I didn’t think about this when I started searching for the Guerrero. Those are the stories that the white archaeologists cannot tell.
ROBERTS: The Guerrero started it for Ken. He’s been obsessed with it for almost 20 years.
It was a Spanish ship headed for Cuba, and it came to its end near the Florida Keys in 1827.
This was one of the first ships I heard about. Same for archaeologist Ayana Flewellen.
FLEWELLEN: The project itself is a really sort of epic saga.
The Guerrero was essentially a pirate ship that was carrying illicit cargo, and that illicit cargo were human—they were enslaved Africans.
ROBERTS: For Ken Stewart, finding this ship has become his mission.
STEWART: For me it’s personal.
FLEWELLEN: The foundation of DWP is the quest for this wreck.
STEWART: I don’t want to say “validate our existence.” But we could end this chapter.
ROBERTS: The search for the Guerrero started in 2003.
Later, Ken reached out to Brenda Lanzendorf, the maritime archaeologist for Biscayne National Park in Florida.
STEWART: She always said, “I know where the Guerrero is.”
ROBERTS: But they needed help: divers.
And that’s where Ken and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers could help.
STEWART: She said, “When you guys get up to speed and I think you can do it properly, I’m going to take you to the site and you’re gonna map it.”
That’s how we got everyone to come, right? I mean, we said, “Hey, man, you can be part of this search.”
ROBERTS: And that included Jay Haigler, the retired engineer.
HAIGLER: Now, the story of the Guerrero, the reason why it grounded, was it was being chased by the H.M.S Nimble, which was a British schooner, by the navy.
ROBERTS: The Guerrero was a pirate ship, sailing after the trading of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic had been made illegal.
The Spanish ship would sail the Atlantic, attacking other slave ships, and kidnapping Africans to take to Havana. Because remember, by this time in Spain, the U.S., and in the UK …
STEWART: … the slave trade had been abolished.
HAIGLER: The British Navy actually would patrol the shores of the New World—Florida—to make sure that the slave trade was not going on.
Captain Gomez was the captain of the Guerrero.
ROBERTS: But what about the rest of the story?
Our resident poet, Alyea Pierce, imagines, and Ken tells us the facts of what happened.
ALYEA PIERCE (POET): On a winter afternoon, on December 19, 1827, it was the H.M.S. Nimble that was patrolling the Florida Straits.
STEWART: The Nimble spots the Guerrero, hails them, and tries to get them to stop. But the Guerrero takes flight.
PIERCE: With only 250 miles more to sail before reaching the coast near Havana, the pursuit was on. The ships fired at each other with their cannons and muskets.
ROBERTS: It was a six-hour chase. Until …
STEWART: The Guerrero runs aground.
PIERCE: Crashing into the Florida reef and ripping open its hull.
STEWART: The Nimble runs aground also and loses its rudder.
PIERCE: Both ships were stranded.
ROBERTS: None of the hundreds of enslaved Africans on the Guerrero would have known what was happening that night. They wouldn’t have known where they were, what was going on above, or why the cannon fire.
Terrified and crammed in the hold, they were helpless. Screaming.
STEWART: There’s 561 Africans on board. Forty-one of them died that night.
PIERCE: Imagine if they grew wings
Traveled through the sky
And returned to Africa
Their souls seeped into the soil
To fall in love
And to have those who love them say their names again.
BISHOP JACK BOMAR (PASTOR): Speak their names.
PIERCE: Esso, Ahdabi, Kanko, Messa.
HAIGLER: I think about the lost souls when I’m in the water.
ROBERTS: And so that’s what Jay and Ken and other members of DWP have been doing for the last 18 years.
But what does it actually take to find a shipwreck?
More after the break.
HAIGLER: What most people, when you say shipwrecks, they think, they literally think about the Titanic. They think, Oh, this is an intact wreck, and we can see it. And then on the side, it literally says Titanic.
ROBERTS: A key part of finding shipwrecks is research. Lots and lots of detailed research.
FLEWELLEN: In an idealized world, we would have all of this extensive archival documentation on wrecks that occurred throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
So that archival research generally is housed in government-funded archival collections.
So, for instance, the slave voyages database is a collection of ship logs from around the world, but predominantly from Europe.
ROBERTS: Nafees Khan, an assistant professor at Clemson University, works on sharing that database with the public.
NAFEES KHAN (PROFESSOR): The foundation of this source material has been the business records, the transition, the logbooks, the sales, advertisements—those sorts of things.
Some ships, there’s more records. Some ships, you have the owners, the captain, the first mate. You have the number of people, how many stops they made.
ROBERTS: The archives also show how many industries were connected to the ships.
KHAN: The shipbuilding industry in Providence and in Baltimore—outside of Providence, Bristol, and Newport, and in Baltimore, were building ships that traded in Africans to Brazil and to Cuba, right?
The insurance companies, the banks in New York, who were the ones, you know, insuring the voyages of these ships. You know, it speaks to how much larger these connections were.
FLEWELLEN: But you have to understand that the archives themselves are not impartial.
ROBERTS: And they determine what is important about the find, about what narratives get told, about what future generations will focus on.
Less than one percent of maritime archaeologists are Black. So it’s nothing short of revolutionary that these divers—Ken, Jay, Ayana, and all the others—are documenting these wrecks.
The archives reveal all kinds of strange details.
KHAN: You can look at—the names of the ships themselves actually have their own kind of narrative.
There’s about, I think, 21 ships that are named Liberty. And the irony right there of a ship that’s carrying people into captivity is named Liberty, right? And even including the French version, Liberté, right?
ROBERTS: These absurd ship names are there in the records. But the names of the people they were carrying are often omitted entirely.
The captured Africans aboard the pirate ship Guerrero—that’s Spanish for “warrior”— must have felt they had been drawn into battle.
HAIGLER: First they were captured in their homeland—they were literally hijacked. Then, in the New World, they were the subject of what’s a modern-day car chase, a ship chase. Crash into the coral reef …
ROBERTS: A lightship crew stationed at Carysfort Reef off of Key Largo saw and heard the battle, which was about 10 miles away.
The archives tell DWP that. So they think it must be near.
But they’re not sure.
HAIGLER: Over the years, there are storms, and storms move artifacts. Sometimes storms will cover a wreck. Sometimes storms will move a wreck.
So now you start to understand the challenge that maritime archaeologists have when they are looking for certain ships.
ROBERTS: Once you have that rough area …
HAIGLER: Now you can do your first survey, which is a surface survey. And that’s using technology such as a magnetometer or a side-scan sonar.
FLEWELLEN: Sonar scanning, it’s expensive. (Laughs)
ROBERTS: These scanners sit on the boat as you go over the area where you think the wreck is. As does a magnetometer, which …
FLEWELLEN: … actually scans the ocean floor for magnetic anomalies.
ROBERTS: Objects that are steel or iron and are not natural on the ocean floor.
FLEWELLEN: So it picks up on metal. It’s looking for all of the small metal findings that held a ship together.
ROBERTS: The boat goes up and down the area you are scanning, one strip at a time.
HAIGLER: We call it, in maritime archaeology, mowing the lawn. It is not the most exciting thing that occurs along this process, but it’s necessary.
ROBERTS: There have been multiple scans for the Guerrero since the early 2000s.
Once you know what’s on the bottom of the ocean floor, then the diving can start.
HAIGLER: We conducted our first search for the Guerrero in 2012. Our second was in 2015. Third was 2017. And we will continue, COVID-conditions depending, this year.
ROBERTS: This is the part of DWP’s work that I learned how to do: how to document the wreck.
(Montage of divers speaking: “We’re just circling, though” … “Yeah and then we’re just” … “Please pay attention when we’re doing the safety briefing. Not only is it important information, again, it can do what?” … “Save your life!” … “OK.”)
ROBERTS: Each diver buddies up. And then you’re down in the water.
You take your Mylar paper, and you draw. And you use your tape measure to measure from the artifact to the baseline and figure out what’s in your area down there.
It’s a lot of math!
The diving and documenting needs to be meticulous, though. And it’s hard underwater. Because …
FLEWELLEN: The physics of diving, Tara. (Laughs)
Ordinarily, especially as a terrestrially trained archaeologist, we go out into the field, and we have our measuring tape in one pocket, our trial in the other pocket. We have, for me, I have the pencils, like, in my actual hair. I have my fieldwork; it’s great. I have the bags I’m going to collect artifacts in.
Underwater, all of that is buoyant, right? So buoyant means that it floats. We have to ensure that you are streamlined. Because once you disturb a site, there’s no making that site how it was before it’s been disturbed.
So it’s imperative that, you know, from that first moment in the water, we’re really intentional about how we are documenting, being very cognizant of what is in the water around us to ensure that we’re not disturbing the wreck, or ocean creatures.
ROBERTS: This can be tough. Those currents can push you around!
Even though the sea life sometimes likes to visit with you, you have to stay still or else you’ll find yourself tangled in the baseline or far away from the wreck.
HAIGLER: We do not move artifacts. We draw these artifacts in place, individually. Their size, their shape, some description, written description, and then their location relative to the baseline or that reference point.
ROBERTS: As Jay said, you’re unlikely to be looking at something that looks like an actual ship.
FLEWELLEN: Oftentimes, what we’re coming across are ballast piles. So these are piles of like, either iron, or they could be bricks, or they could be carved coral that would have balanced out the weight of humans on a particular ship. But also shackles as well, for adults. And for children.
ROBERTS: By cross-referencing your underwater findings to the archives, you can figure out whether you’ve found your ship.
FLEWELLEN: If we’re able to sort of, you know, link a particular wreck to an archival documentation of it, you might need something like the actual plate from that particular ship that has its name on it, or the bell that would have had the ship’s name on it. These like, you know, shot-in-the-dark kind of objects that we don’t, you know, in an idealized world, that would be fantastic. But oftentimes, it's not; it’s not the case.
So archaeologists essentially are piecing together fragments of the past. The work of piecing together those fragments requires us to know the provenience of where different fragments are being pulled from.
ROBERTS: As you dive, you’re looking for those objects that are going to help the archaeologists piece together the story and verify that ship.
HAIGLER: One site was really exciting, because we had china that was dated back to the area. We found some wood planking; I found cannonballs. Now, that was kind of a double-edged sword, because the cannonballs that we found wasn’t what the archival record showed was on the Guerrero.
ROBERTS: The wood analysis showed a wood type that could be a match for the Guerrero.
So backing up: Where are we with the Guerrero? How near are they to finding it?
HAIGLER: So I know where you are going. Are you close?
HAIGLER: Mm, don’t know! (Laughs)
FLEWELLEN: (Laughs) The ocean is very large. It’s a very large place.
ROBERTS: So you see: Finding a shipwreck isn’t that easy.
STEWART: I’ve spent a third of my life looking for this thing. I’mma see it to a close. I’m going to make this happen.
ROBERTS: I felt the finality of that. Yes, you will.
(Roberts and Stewart laughing)
ROBERTS: Diving With a Purpose is rewriting the story of African American history.
STEWART: I think DWP brings another perspective to it. Now, again, we’re 90 percent obviously African Americans.
A lot of the brothers and sisters have a unique perspective that they can bring to this story of not only the Guerrero and the Henrietta Marie.
And it’s our story, and we should be able to tell it without the stigma.
FLEWELLEN: There are a number of different ways that people see the world. And there are a number of different perspectives that people bring with them into how they see. It’s their worldview. And each of us with our different perspectives and the histories that come along with that. So it’s absolutely important that we have people that look like you and me doing this work.
ROBERTS: Calinda agrees. She has focused a lot of her work on how communities interpret their histories.
LEE: What is really different about this moment, is that people’s assumptions about how they have the right to help to shape the narrative is unprecedented.
People have had greater access and ease of access to the world than ever before.
Some of that looks like technology, and some of that looks like travel.
ROBERTS: This makes me think again of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chimamanda talks about power. ’Cause that’s what all of this is really about: power. And who has it. And who doesn’t.
ADICHIE (FROM RECORDED TED TALK): It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali.
It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.”
Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told are really dependent on power.
I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
Thank you. (Applause)
ROBERTS: Diving With a Purpose is reframing this history of the Middle Passage through science, passion, and a desire to recognize the full humanity of those who were lost.
Can you imagine what happens when an entire community does this?
Gear up, y’all, for a trip to Costa Rica where the community is like fire!
There, the kids are leading the charge to document these shipwrecks. It’s an amazing story.
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.
I’m National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts, host and executive producer.
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.
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.
Excerpt of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie © 2017 TED. To learn more about TED, visit TED.com.
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.
Listen to author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s full 2009 Ted Talk on the danger of a single story.
Learn more about Diving With a Purpose co-founder Ken Stewart and the organization’s ongoing efforts to find the Guerrero, and take a deeper dive into the wrecking of the ship off the Florida Keys in 1827.
Find out more information about Diving With a Purpose and its work training adults and youth in maritime archaeology and ocean conservation.