National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts witnesses a new type of maritime archaeology under way in Costa Rica, one with a community at its center and young people in the lead. As Tara meets journalist María Suárez Toro and her band of divers, she sees the power of a society shaping its own history. She also hears the tale of rebellions aboard the Danish ships Fredericus Quartusand Christianus Quintus. Tara dives to a wreck site thought to be the resting place for the ships and has a firsthand view of artifacts on the ocean floor. She and fellow Explorer Alyea Pierce try to picture a female-led insurrection on one of the ships.
MARÍA SUAREZ TORO (ACTIVIST): Tara, come to Costa Rica! Please!
TARA ROBERTS (HOST): I got a call from María Suarez Toro, who runs an organization called Ambassadors of the Sea. Her group collaborates often with Diving With a Purpose.
She’s 73 years young and a firecracker.
SUAREZ: People call us recreational divers, and we are re-creational. We are recreating diving.
ROBERTS: María wanted me to come and see the work her group was doing around two Danish ships: the Fredericus Quartus and Christianus Quintus.
Ships that had carried captive Africans and were believed to have wrecked in a nearby harbor.
And to witness a new type of maritime archeology emerging, one with the community at the center and young people in the lead.
SUAREZ: We are recreating the history of Costa Rica.
We are recreating the way that the kids relate to the ocean.
We are recreating.
ROBERTS: I knew I needed to come.
I came here about 15 years ago and fell in love with the place. I almost bought land, I was so enchanted. I saw myself living in a bungalow by the shore.
In this episode, I meet María and her kids. I see just how much can change when a community has the power to shape its own history.
I also hear an exciting story of a ship rebellion: One of the 300-400 rebellions that we know happened during the Middle Passage.
And, I fall in love with Costa Rica all over again.
I’m Tara Roberts, and this is Episode 3 of Into The Depths.
Stick with us.
ROBERTS: María and the community have been trying to identify the Christianus Quintus and the Fredericus Quartus, two Danish ships that were thought to have wrecked off the coast of Cahuita Point in the Cahuita National Park.
Two ships whose fates were shrouded in drama. We’re talking storms, mis-navigation, starvation, mutiny.
ALYEA PIERCE (POET): The two ships leave Copenhagen for West Africa.
ROBERTS: Their final destination…
PIERCE: St. Thomas.
ROBERTS: Denmark's colony in the Caribbean.
PIERCE: More captured Africans board the Fredericus in Ghana.
ROBERTS: They rebel.
PIERCE: But the effort is quashed.
ROBERTS: The ships leave…
PIERCE: …but without enough food and water due to a local conflict.
ROBERTS: The ships now travel in convoy. Worried about more rebellion.
PIERCE: The crew's food is rationed, and many are ill. The food for the Africans was likely almost non-existent.
ROBERTS: February 14, 1710
PIERCE: Land is in sight. But the wrong land. They are way off course.
ROBERTS: They reroute.
A few days later: 55 Africans on the Christianus have died. 80 on the Fredericus.
ROBERTS: A few weeks later: They spot land, again.
PIERCE: But again... it’s the wrong land.
PIERCE/ROBERTS: Costa Rica.
PIERCE: Mutiny. The crew has had enough. They threaten the captain, asking for money, and demand the captive Africans be released.
ROBERTS: Perhaps the rebellious captives took part in the negotiation. And perhaps the women were key. The more women on board a ship, the more likely a revolt. Rebel leaders were often female.
PIERCE: The Africans are released on the beach.
The crew breaks open chests and divides the ships’ gold among themselves.
Then sets the Fredericus on fire. And leaves the Christianus to break up in the surf.
ROBERTS: The two ill-fated ships came to a justified end.
Around 100 of the Africans who were freed, were later re-captured. The others disappeared into the hills. Into oral history and myth.
ROBERTS: María and the kids live in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
Two small towns full of life and soul. And Black people who speak English. And European and Indigenous descendants.
A vibrant community of cultures that seem to dance in harmony with each other.
It was this area on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica that spoke to my heart.
Around the vicinity, there had been rumors of lights coming up from the sea for years.
SUAREZ: Many people believed that was the light of the fishermen, But all of the Costa Rican Afro descendants said that those lights were the lights of the spirits of those who left us treasures in the bottom of the ocean. Who come once in a while to let us know.
ROBERTS: When they dove in the area off the Cahuita Point in 2014, this is what they found:
PETE STEPHENS RODRIGUEZ (DIVER): I find a pipe!
SUAREZ: Two huge anchors!
KEVIN RODRÍGUEZ (DIVER): Bottles.
SUAREZ: Bricks! Teapots!
SALVADOR VAN DYKE ARIAS (DIVER): And they have like an energy to them.
SUAREZ: One of them was thinking, we don't use tea pots in Costa Rica.
ROBERTS: But it was 14-year-old Sangye Wang Brenes who located a key clue that interested archaeologists and helped make the case that these artifacts could indeed be from the Danish wrecks.
SANGYE WANG BRENES (DIVER): I closed my eyes. I was just feeling the water. And suddenly I see something brown, with some sand on it. And I thought it was some like glass, broken glass from a beer bottle.
So I just went up. I told Salvador, who’s my buddy. And he was like, Oh that’s sick. I’m like ya, right?! He was like what do you think?! I was like I don’t, I don’t actually know. If it is, like you win, man. Like you have it all. Like you just found the missing piece. You know. Like you are the chosen one, man.
I told my mom. I told María. And they say maybe it can be the same age that the boat was.
ROBERTS: Sangye was diving fairly close to shore.
About 1,000 feet out and 30 feet down, right in the middle of Cahuita National Park.
There were other clues in the water, too.
ANDREAS BLOCH (ARCHAEOLOGIST): There you, you find a pile of bricks. It’s at times very, very difficult to see because it gets covered with sand. But it's 12 by 4 meters wide at least. And it's just bricks. Yellow bricks in stacks, beautifully packed.
ROBERTS: That’s Andreas Bloch. He’s a Danish archaeologist who came to Costa Rica in 2019, at María’s invitation, to support the work of documentation.
The bricks were used to offset the weight of the humans in the cargo hold.
I geared up and went down to take a look.
SUAREZ: So Tara, what are you doing?
ROBERTS: Hi!! I’m diving in Costa Rica …
They had taken me out to see the outline of the hull of the ship.
The water was this murky blue and green. It felt warm against my skin.
Schools of fish were swimming by.
I exhaled and descended further.
I felt so at home under the water.
Then I saw it.
The outline of an anchor. It was partially submerged on the sandy ocean floor.
BLOCH: The fish are cool, but that site is just amazing because you have an archaeological site exactly where you've got tourists snorkeling and enjoying the wildlife. But you have this amazing story that's just lying there as an open-air museum for everybody to see.
So, it's chilling that way. You've got this crazy story about capturing slaves, and then they're getting freed, but you've got this right on the beach and right in this beautiful place.
ROBERTS: More after the break.
ROBERTS: Most of the young people started diving when they were 13, 14 years old.
They are the descendants of fishermen and fisherwomen. So they already knew the water.
But through María’s organization, they developed a deep love for scuba diving and maritime archaeology. Most are now 20, 21 years old, and they are master divers, instructors. Expert underwater archaeology advocates.
Kevin Rodríguez is soft-spoken and a strong diver.
RODRÍGUEZ: You have to learn to do mapping, you have to learn to measure objects, to identify objects. You also have to learn to draw them under the water. And you also have to learn to follow a baseline together with a team, because it's teamwork.
ROBERTS: And they all learned well. Kevin’s cousin Pete Stephens Rodriguez and Salvador Van Dyke Arias, rightly give themselves bragging rights. Because the archeologists are coming to them to help find these artifacts. These guys know the area, can manage murky water, and seem to have eagle eyes. They can spot the artifacts that are encrusted under the gnarly coral.
Salvador translates for Pete.
STEPHENS RODRIGUEZ/ VAN DYKE ARIAS: They said, like, Wow, you guys find things that like not even I would kind of see or find. They were super impressed.
ROBERTS: Andreas appreciates María’s commitment to including the young people in this work.
BLOCH: She really fights for these kids, and fights for them to have a place in the world. Because of course there is a danger of them losing the story to academics, just taking over. As the rules are now, you can apply for a permit to be an archaeologist in Costa Rica, and then you can apply for a permit to excavate anywhere. I don't like the idea of academics coming into an area and not joining with the local community.
SUAREZ: I want the kids to appear in what they do. Look, I don't want us to appear in what we don't do. When we are going to lift things from the bottom of the ocean, the kids, especially the Afro kids, are going to do it.
JUSTIN DUNNAVANT (ARCHAEOLOGIST): To me, that’s the most important aspect to this work, is getting people in communities, getting young people, getting old people, to actively engage in this work, is probably more transformative than actually finding the results and putting it in a book.
ROBERTS: Justin Dunnavant.
Justin, a brilliant young archeologist. He is an instructor with DWP and co-founder with Ayana (remember her from the last episode?) of the Society of Black Archaeologists.
Justin cuts a cool figure in any setting with his long, thick, ropy locks, brown skin, and green eyes.
DUNNAVANT: Community engagement doesn’t just mean professional archaeologists quote, unquote coming in and doing work and asking community how to help, or having them engage in the process. It may mean in certain situations they actually take the entire process on and let us know if you need support on the back end.
ROBERTS: Sonia Rodriguez Brown is Kevin and Pete’s aunt.
So had you heard about the shipwreck in Cahuita before?
SONIA RODRIGUEZ BROWN (COMMUNITY MEMBER): No. I heard when María start to do all this research.
ROBERTS: Involving her and other adults means this research truly centers around the whole community.
RODRIGUEZ BROWN: I, I called María and said, María, I need more. Explain this to me. Explain this. How is? So, she say we have a lot of work and research.
SUAREZ: We began to realize that people had seen OTHER archeological objects. We began asking the elders because the elders in the community are mostly fishermen and women, who had seen those. We began asking them, and instead of talking only about the objects that indeed they had seen in the bottom of the ocean in looking for lobster, for fish.
ROBERTS: When the Africans from the ships disappeared into the hills, some mixed into the Bri Bri indigenous community.
Pete thinks that he might be descended from those West Africans.
STEPHENS RODRIGUEZ/ VAN DYKE ARIAS: So I was at my grandma’s house. And I heard my Aunt Sonia. She was actually talking about my great grandfather and how they heard that he had actually come here in a slave ship.
I really want to know what happened. What the history of what happened. And I also wanted to know when they actually arrived here. And what happened after they arrived here.
BLOCH: I remember quite clearly was when we had one of the fishermen out. Young guy in his early 20s, who’s been fishing for his entire life. He’s also an Afro descendant. He had known about the ships for years, but he’s been fishing and he’s been taking tourists out snorkeling. And then we took him to the two wrecks. And you could just see it in his eyes that you couldn't, you couldn't get him out of the water again. He was just, he’s just glowing, like, this is amazing. And I’ve been living here for that long without knowing that this was here.
RODRIGUEZ BROWN: In that point, all the questions start: Why this is not in history? Why our family never taught us that? Why the community never say anything? All the questions. So I make myself a question: Who I am? And I think that is the most beautiful question that any people can do to himself, who I am.
ROBERTS: Who I am. Who am I? Where do I belong? Where are my roots? The questions I’d been asking myself throughout this journey.
I felt relieved to know I wasn’t the only one. But disappointed to hear this history being denied in a seemingly idyllic place like Costa Rica.
WANG BRENES: Of course, they told me in school, they tell me about Christopher Columbus—about the story about Costa Rica. But this ship? This is like school. They didn't do it.
ROBERTS: But the elders have known, and have finally started sharing their stories.
RODRIGUEZ BROWN: So, they start with the elders. Do you know this? Do you know that? It was very interesting.
ROBERTS: Oh, so I didn’t know this piece. So, the finding of the shipwreck caused you all to go back to the community and to be like, Elders, you must hold some of this knowledge. Please tell us.
RODRIGUEZ BROWN: They start with Miss Elena. And Miss Elena said, Oh yeah, in my house we have a part of the ship.
I say, WHAT?! How this happen?
Oh, my grandfather found this piece in the beach.
Maria went and took pictures, make research, And Maria say, Yes this belongs to that boat. And all this start making people talking.
ROBERTS: And all this remembering has had an effect.
Laura Wilson is an Afro community leader and activist in Cahuita.
LAURA WILSON (ACTIVIST): I had so much feelings.
ROBERTS: Like what?
WILSON: I felt sad. I felt like crying. I wonder where these folks went. How are they communicating? I wonder if there were kids. I wonder if there were babies?
And then think I get angry too. Why it’s not been told.
ROBERTS: Do you think that the finding of the wreck here can help with that sort of larger story about race?
WILSON: I think it will help change a lot of things. One of the things it is going to change is like the mentality. A way of clarifying that Costa Rica has more to say about slave trade.
ROBERTS: What María is employing in Puerto Viejo is a new branch of archaeology that has been gaining traction in recent years. Community or public archaeology.
But the problem is that community archaeology hasn’t gotten widespread acceptance yet. Archeology is rooted in academia as a discipline.
BLOCH: We all want to tell this story. We all want to collaborate. But it’s difficult when you’ve got a discipline that’s completely new. So you’re always afraid that people are stealing, and people are not doing it properly.
ROBERTS: And not only does archeology sit in a traditional academic framework, it is also entrenched in colonialism, the domination of one nation by another.
DUNNAVANT: Colonialism is a, is a problem in our understanding of archaeology and history, in many ways, because of the ways in which archaeology has traditionally been done in a lot of these countries.
Colonialism has meant highlighting certain aspects of a country’s history over others, oftentimes looking at sort of the innovations of the Portuguese in West Africa, as opposed to looking at actual West African civilizations.
This assumption that somehow the most valuable artifacts need to be in the British Museum or need to be at the Met, or these sort of high-level museum places, and they’re not able to be curated or kept locally. Or that we even need to display them period.
ROBERTS: And then there’s the lack of diversity.
DUNNAVANT: We have a very big issue, as you know, in archaeology of representation.
We make up less than one percent of all archaeologists in the US.
ROBERTS: Justin says moving forward, communities need to feel empowered to do this work. And...
DUNNAVANT: We need to build the capacity so that more people like us are getting involved in the field and, you know, providing contributions above and beyond sort of just the sites that they excavate. And then, we wanted to have some sort of way to advocate on behalf of African and African diasporic material culture.
And this is why I got my PhD. Was that to lead an archeological excavation, in most places in the world, you need to have a PhD. And so now that we have, you know, like myself, Dr. Ayana Flewellen, we could actively lead excavations.
ROBERTS: It is highly unusual for the community to be at the forefront this way.
SUAREZ: We have invited international underwater archeologists. The youth become researchers together with the academics. So that it brings together the science and the traditional knowledge.
WANG BRENES: We have a book that has like, tells all the things that we done. We have articles in the internet, Facebook posts. And then I see my name saying how that I found out, And I'm like, Oh, hell yeah, that's my thing. I have one page for me in a book? And I don't know, I feel pretty happy about it.
BLOCH: What drew me into this story in Costa Rica was this, this was really, it was a really good story. It only takes two years for this ship to sail and to get completely destroyed, and everything is mayhem. But it actually tells you the whole story of how Denmark had colonies and how we were slave traders and how the sugar industry impacted the society.
ROBERTS: The story of Denmark’s part in this is important. AND Justin says we need a way to normalize the centering of communities like the one in Costa Rica.
DUNNAVANT: It’s another thing to talk about building a new institution or a new system. And so, I’m actively thinking more about what does it mean to indigenize or what does it mean to restore?
How do we create that ecosystem that allows that to flourish?
ROBERTS: Indigenizing. A way to build with the local people. And you can do that by ceding the work and storytelling to the community.
SUAREZ: This is why it’s important.
WILSON: This should be part of our written history. And again I would say, we have to write it. And these young kids should start writing what they see. Because this will stop. Someday María won’t be here any more.
ROBERTS: I left Puerto Viejo. But already, I wanted to return. Walking along the beach shore to get to town, diving with the teens, eating rondon with María and all the others, dancing wild and freely at the dance hall club on Wednesday nights (OK, that’s another story for another podcast).
But it just all felt exquisite. And to know the work of the community took it to another level.
As I flew below the clouds on a tiny prop plane back to San Jose, the capital city, I began to wonder: What if the entire African diaspora had agency like the community in Costa Rica? What if we, as a collective, could recreate history? What would change?
I realized I needed to go back to the ultimate source to see for myself what else had been left out.
Coming up in part 4, I head to Africa, to the Continent, and I get shook, y’all. All the assumptions about who I am as a Black girl get thrown back into my face and my world disassembles.
I also hear an incredible story of 16th century African divers who helped out an English King. That’s all I am going to say. It’s an eye-opening story.
OK, stay with us.
I’m Tara Roberts, and this is Into The Depths.
ROBERTS: I have received a DNA kit. Black envelope with a picture of the world in the background and it says, Trace your DNA, find your roots today.
So I am about to open this sucker up and the envelope postage has been paid. And now I can drop it in the mailbox.
OK. There we go, bye!
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-checker is Kate Sinclair.
Our production assistant is Ezra Lerner.
Our sound designer, engineer, and composer is Alexis “Lex” Adimora.
Our audio engineers are Jerry Busher and Graham Davis.
Additional reporting was done by Kristen Clark and Tiffany McNeil.
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 a sounding board.
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.
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.
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 about Ambassadors of the Sea and the community underwater archaeology efforts underway in Costa Rica.
Check out the work of National Geographic Explorer Justin Dunnavant, and his work with other Black archaeologists in Estate Little Princess, a former sugar cane and rum plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Croix.
Find out more information about Diving With a Purpose and its work training adults and youth in maritime archaeology and ocean conservation.