National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts heads to Africa, her ancestral homeland. She visits Doors of No Return, walks the slave trail in Benin, and learns about the long legacy of African free divers who excavated ships all over the world as far back as the 16th century. After an initial burst of Afro-joy, Tara soon realizes she’s viewed largely as American rather than Black on the continent. Her understanding of self, Blackness, and Africa are turned upside down. But later, while dancing to South African house music under the stars, she finds a connection once again.
TARA ROBERTS (HOST): It was time to head back to Africa. The land of my ancestors.
I needed to go to the Continent, to remember a time before the ships that carried captive Africans had even set sail.
Part of a long legacy of Africans in the Americas returning home.
MARCUS GARVEY (ACTIVIST): We of the Universal Negro Improvement Association are raising the cry of “Africa for the Africans.” Those at home and those abroad.
ROBERTS: Marcus Garvey, activist and co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He’s the one who championed, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
It seems like African descendants around the world are having their subconscious memories reactivated.
AFRICAN AMERICAN RETURNEE TO AFRICA: I wanted to experience life on the continent of my ancestors.
ROBERTS: I’d been following Diving With a Purpose for a while now. And the search for wrecks had opened a larger desire to connect with Africa and its people in a more real and tangible way.
DR. ALBERT JOSÉ JONES (DIVER): Your history didn’t start on the shores of the United States. It didn’t start with slavery. It didn’t start on that ship coming over here. Your history started on the east coast of Africa.
ROBERTS: Now it was my turn.
ROBERTS: I’m Tara Roberts, and this is Into the Depths, part four.
In this episode, I introduce you to 15th- and 16th-century African divers who excavated ships all over the world, including one owned by an English King.
And I walk the trail my ancestors might have, before they were taken from the Continent through a Door of No Return.
I’ve traveled to Africa several times before, even lived in Zimbabwe for a short spell, but I had never been with the intent to look back for my roots, to find a sense of home.
And I got shook when I learned that what I was looking for may not exist at all.
I gotta tell ya, this episode is a bit different. This part of my journey brings me serious realizations.
Get ready, y’all, we’re going back Into the Depths.
Right after this break.
ROBERTS: My first stop: Dakar, Senegal, where work to dive for slave shipwrecks in West Africa is happening and where my sister-friend Karima lives.
KARIMA GRANT ABBOTT (FRIEND): What’s up?
ROBERTS: I love you.
ABBOTT: Oh, I love you more.
ROBERTS: I stayed with her in her lovely house near the beach in Yoff. And I would walk on the beach on quiet mornings, reflecting on Black Americans’ complicated and often disconnected relationship with the water.
But I knew there was more. There was a time before.
Kevin Dawson is an expert and author on Black aquatic culture, and an associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced. He’s also a frequent surfer throughout West Africa.
Kevin broke it down for me.
KEVIN DAWSON (PROFESSOR): With the ocean, with these rivers, with these lakes, there’s lots of water for African people to enjoy and to exploit for their economic benefit. I ended up finding just lots of accounts of Africans from the 1400s to the 1800s fishing, using—building—dugout canoes to fish, diving down and setting traps, diving down to harvest different types of shellfish.
ROBERTS: He said most Europeans stopped swimming in the Middle Ages because of religious and medical beliefs.
But it turned out they needed diving skills. And there was one very special ship that needed their expertise.
The Mary Rose.
Now this is a ship that has captured the imagination of British folks for over 500 years.
DAWSON: The Mary Rose, which was Henry the Eighth’s flagship.
ROBERTS: And one of the world’s most modern battleships. It’s a well-known British story. As big a story as the Titanic. But it sinks in 1545 …
DAWSON: … off of England.
ROBERTS: Here, the story takes a turn and becomes relevant to us. Picture this: 16th-century London. The Dolphin Inn. And the search for the wreck is on.
Eight men from Mauritania have been hired to help salvage the wreck. An Italian team’s previous attempt to recover the ship had failed.
DAWSON: So then what they did is they had heard that Africans were good divers. So they went and hired an African diving team.
ROBERTS: They were brought to England and were put up in an inn and tavern.
DAWSON: The Dolphin Inn, it was a bar on the first floor and a hotel and a kind of a quote unquote brothel on the second floor, which would have made the experience different as well.
ROBERTS: Who were these divers exactly?
DAWSON: They’re probably members of the Lebu ethnic group. But they were hired out of an island—there was a Portuguese settlement there. And they’d also, the settlement was surrounded by shallows, and so they would oftentimes have to dive and salvage goods from Portuguese ships that sank.
ROBERTS: The salvage started. And to say they worked with far less equipment than we do today is an understatement.
They were free divers. They didn’t have masks or air tanks back then.
DAWSON: They’re free diving; they would have been used to tropical, warm tropical water. They were diving nude. With no wetsuits in water that was about 50 degrees, 60s at the surface, and would have gotten colder as they got, as they went down. So they were staying down about two to three minutes.
ROBERTS: Wow. And you found many incidences, or accounts, of Europeans hiring Africans? Like this was not a one-time thing?
DAWSON: They’re hiring them during the 1500s and then into the early 1600s, and they’re working in Europe, off the coast of England, off the coast of Spain, France, in the Mediterranean, and into Scandinavia.
And the accounts of them, hiring them and being employed, they’re really hard to come by. They typically don’t appear in the records unless there’s some sort of a legal dispute.
ROBERTS: I was thankful that a historian like Kevin Dawson was bringing back into memory these little-known stories. But on that beach, looking out at the expanse of waves, I hated that I didn’t already know them.
I had come to Dakar hoping to dive on a shipwreck, but I arrived at the wrong time of the year: winter. So no diving.
I decided instead to follow my DNA trail.
When my Ancestry.com results came back, the highest percentage of my DNA was from Benin and Togo. So that’s where I headed.
And that wasn’t a surprise. Benin and Togo are countries sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria at the center of West Africa’s so-called Slave Coast. In the late 1600s, the area became one of the top suppliers of enslaved people to the quote unquote New World. Many Africans in the Americas can find the genetic footprint of the region in their DNA.
I had seven days. And I started in Togo, where I found welcome and people who looked like me. I reveled as I saw my nose in her nose, my eyes in his eyes, my walk in their walk, even my afro style in their afro styles.
I disappeared into the similarities.
Then I drove to Benin, to Ouidah, only 60 miles away. The slave-trading capital of Benin and the second largest slave port in the triangular trade. I wanted to walk the slave trail there.
The trail includes the barracoon. Men, women, and children were kidnapped from villages inland and marched to ports to be held in stockades, known as barracoons, until the colonial ships arrived. Held sometimes for months.
There aren’t that many testimonies of this. But there is one, recently made famous by the publishing of the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by
anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite writers.
Kossola, later given the name Cudjo Lewis by his enslaver, was just 19 years old when he was captured by members of the Dahomey tribe.
KOSSOLA (FROM BARRACOON, AS READ BY JOSHUA C. THOMAS): When we git in de place dey put us in a barracoon behind a big white house and dey feed us some rice. We see many ships in de sea, but we cain see so good ’cause de white house, it ’tween us and de sea. But Cudjo see de white men, and dass somethin’ he ain’ never seen befo’.
… De barracoon we in ain’ de only slave pen at the place … Sometime we holler back and forth and find out where each other come from. But each nation in a barracoon by itself. We not so sad now, and we all young folks so we play game and clam up de side de barracoon so we see whut goin’ on outside.
ROBERTS: We’ll hear more of Kossola’s story in a later episode.
According to some accounts, the captives would have been made to walk around a tree seven times if they were women, nine times if they were men. The “tree of forgetfulness.” To forget their identity, their culture, their history, and become a blank canvas for their slave masters.
So there I walked …
So you walk around this tree seven times.
And finally to the Door of No Return. These doors signified the last point on the African continent before captives were put on a boat, never to return home. They were sometimes literal doors, other times open spaces.
There are many such doors along the coasts of Africa.
Today there is a big stone arch right smack in the middle of the beach that marks the walk Kossola took to the waiting boat. On the door’s entrance is a carved relief showing captive people walking. In a single-file line. Chained.
I can’t even imagine … and yet, I can.
More after the break.
ROBERTS: Back in Togo, I took a shower in my hotel.
BERNARD KASTLER (HOTEL MANAGER): Hotel Alizé. Alizé like the wind.
ROBERTS: I sat for dinner in the hotel’s open-air restaurant. Bernard, the manager, and I started chatting, and he asked me something that I found a bit odd. He asked if I knew how big Africa was.
KASTLER: Yes, Africa’s real size.
ROBERTS: He pulled up a map of Africa with other countries superimposed within its boundaries. In West Africa alone sat the lower 48 of the United States. From …
KASTLER: Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad. And after putting the U.S. in West Africa, you can put Europe, North Africa, China in center of Africa.
ROBERTS: And India and Japan. The U.S. mainland only takes up about a third of Africa’s landmass. All of China, Europe, India, and Japan fit in the other two-thirds.
But Africa is, after all, a continent with 54 countries. And it’s full of Black, brown, and white people. Several thousand ethnicities and 1,500 languages.
Just to help you get the size of this, Europe has only 160 ethnicities and 200 languages.
Bernard was right. I didn’t fully appreciate how big Africa was.
This chat with Bernard made me want to have deeper conversations with people to better understand Africa and my place in it.
Anna is one of those persons. I called her up to see if she remembered our talk. She did.
ANNA NTUMBA (ACQUAINTANCE): I remember you mentioned that you were kind of on a journey—a journey of discovery. I remember questioning you why. I kept asking questions just to understand where you are coming from.
ROBERTS: I met Anna at a church service that I’d been invited to attend. It was New Year’s Eve, and this whole church got down and celebrated and danced the new year in until five in the morning.
Anna and her kind siblings offered me a ride home. She’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo originally. Smart, articulate, young, sassy. Posh accent.
I remember sitting in the car, in the front seat—Anna was in the back—looking out at the buildings passing us by, at the children playing at roadside stops, thinking maybe I’d been looking at Africa from a 17th-century perspective, from the time of the transatlantic slave trade, rather than a current 21st-century one and seeing it for what it is now.
I mean, here was Anna, this young sparkly woman, representing the bright future of the Continent, and she was dropping some bombs on me.
She said she didn’t struggle with identity the way she observed Black Americans did.
NTUMBA: We are grounded with our identity. I know who I am. I know where I’m from. I know my family. I know where my ancestors are from. And how I would describe an African American is almost like a child that has been abducted and is looking for their family.
They almost have this ghost, ghost family almost in their mind and they keep—they imagine it but at the same time they’re trying to find the real truth behind it, which is something we do not. I do not have an inch of that in me at all.
ROBERTS: Do you consider yourself Black?
NTUMBA: It’s weird to ask this question to an African person living in Africa. I believe being Black isn’t, it’s not a thing. It doesn’t describe me in any way.
We identify ourselves more like, Hey, where are you from? Okay, I’m from the DRC. Or, you know, I’m from Kenya, for example. You know, we identify ourselves more from where we come from than the color of our skin.
ROBERTS: So where do I fit in this as an African American?
A quote I’d heard somewhere came to mind: To be African American is to be African without memory and to be American without any privilege.
When I returned to Senegal, I asked Karima to help me make sense of all of this.
I thought I would get sympathy from her. But she told me I was asking the wrong question.
ABBOTT: I think the wrong question is: Why don’t they accept me as African? When you’re coming to Africa, you’re building it still on the sense of, Hey, I am hurt. I’ve been rejected by the U.S. I’m still living there, but I’m here, and so I’m looking for the opposite of rejection.
ROBERTS: Wait, can you say more about that and what you think the right questions are?
ABBOTT: I think what you’re really trying to get at is: How do I get close to this continent? Like how do I feel and connect with this continent? That’s a much more powerful question.
ROBERTS: What I was just experiencing, as you were talking, was this longing. And I think this is such a unique thing for African Americans that don’t—like, where’s home for us? Like, what does that mean? Do you know?
Where does, like—I’m actually crying right now, which is so weird. But I’m thinking about those two words, “African American.” I’m like, what is, what do they mean? How do they butt up against each other?
And I’m really getting that I don’t understand Africa. That it is this romanticized notion in my head. It’s either this something that we feel, we romanticize, or it’s something that we feel shame about, but it’s not real. And so I don’t know just what’s present in my heart right now. It’s just, it is such a longing to belong somewhere.
ABBOTT: So I think it’s absolutely normal for you to be in tears, and I think more people need to be in tears.
That’s the thing that I want us to get to. Is that being Black and African is not going to be tied necessarily to this either/or, or this paradigm that was ultimately set up by somebody else.
But that’s somebody else’s narrative for you. Right? Whether it’s a colonial, whether it’s a racist narrative, whether it’s a narrative we had in our history books, it’s somebody else’s story about you.
And I think that, on some level, that’s where we are as a global Black world, is, how do we get ourselves out of telling these stories?
What does it mean to be globally Black?
ROBERTS: I asked her to say more, because I was still feeling raw.
Where did she think I should go from here?
ABBOTT: I feel like it’s sort of like with turtles. You know, turtles carry their homes with them. And I feel like that that’s where our spiritual journey is: We’ve got to carry our homes us.
Your particular home, Tara, might be here on this continent. It might be in the Caribbean. It might be in Paris. But it’s going to be that place which gives you what you need.
The thing that I realized for African Americans to find home is you have to be able to locate yourself. It is not going to be a geographical place. Until you find what you are.
Like, for you, Tara? I think it might be, I don’t know. How do you feel when you get on a South African dance floor? Girl, that might be where you belong.
ROBERTS: I knew what she meant. But I wanted the take of my spiritual mentor too. Djaloki Dessables. He’s Haitian; grew up in Senegal, Belgium, and France; and now lives in the U.S.
DJALOKI DESSABLES (SPIRITUAL MENTOR): We’re here, and we’re denied our identity as people of African descent. And so we idealize, we romanticize, Africa. And we—many of us—kind of conflagrate the mythical Africa we have in our mind with current Africa, which is different.
And so we go to Africa and boom, we are not received as brothers and sisters. And we don’t recognize the people as brothers and sisters.
African American people, they come in first, Ahh! I’m in a Black country, where Black people are the majority, and it’s run by Black people, so ahh, I’m home.
You’re not missing anything. You’re going through your journey, Tara. We’re all going through our journeys. And part of the journey is individual, and part of the journey is collective. And the journey is messy. Now, it’s the work to sort out what works, what doesn’t work.
Let’s share our stories, which, again, is a way to go back to an African practice. We are storytellers, griots.
Relationship is key. I’m almost sure you made some friendships.
ROBERTS: I did meet incredible people along the way.
DESSABLES: Maybe at some point, one of them can take you to their place in Africa. It may not be Mozambique or Senegal or another place. And you, your experience, I almost guarantee you, it’s going to be totally different. Totally different because you enter in another door.
When you enter someone’s heart, whatever the expression of that person—even if in society, you know, it’s a horrible person—when you know their heart, you start loving them. And they start loving you.
ROBERTS: Djaloki believes that it’s not just relationships with those around us, but it’s also our relationship with the ancestors that matters.
DESSABLES: Those who died before reaching the shores are our link, are the link between those who remained in Africa and those who reached the shore. So we need to reestablish that link. As long as we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen. And what is not done by our generation will have to be done with by the generation to come.
It is here that the healing happens. And so in order for us to do the full work, we have to reconnect with those who died before us. And there’s this, this whole, whole, whole— lost in the ocean.
ROBERTS: I feel like I’m actually not in touch with the ancestors. Like I don’t hear them speaking to me. I don’t feel connected in that way.
And so, part one of the question is like, what do you think that’s about?
And part two of the question, which I think you did begin to answer is, how do you honor the ancestors? And how do you connect with them?
DESSABLES: With a lot of respect, Tara, I have to laugh. And I think your ancestors are laughing right now. Look at her saying that she feels that she’s not in contact with us. And we’ve been guiding her into those shipwreck, and into Africa, and to this interview, and to all of her interests. And she’s just thinking that she’s not in contact with us.
Whaa, what? It’s funny!
ROBERTS: Oh! You’re saying that all of this guidance, all of this that I’m doing, I’m being guided?
DESSABLES: What do you feel? What do you think?
ROBERTS: You know what? I actually—I think that’s right. That feels very right.
This thing about the ancestors was kinda resonating. I guess it’s why I felt compelled to do this work with the shipwrecks.
But Anna’s words were still gnawing at me: ghost family. And then she said this:
NTUMBA: It breaks my heart that Black people in America have to go through so much, so much in a place where for hundreds of years, they have considered as home.
Even though I don’t understand what you go through, a huge part of me knows that you are also part of me. And if I could, I would help.
But just know that you’re in my mind in a way, and I know your struggle. And I’m really sorry that you have to go through that. And it’s really unfair that you have to go through that.
ROBERTS: Until she said it, I didn’t know how much I needed to hear this. How much I needed someone from the Continent, just one person, to speak to me on a soul level.
To say, “I see you, I feel you. I am so sorry for what happened to your ancestors, and I hold you in my heart.”
To show compassion, because I have—we have felt so lost at times.
I didn’t know I needed that.
Her words were like a balm.
(Sounds of high-energy music)
I go to South Africa, to Afropunk.
A light in a dark place.
I needed to dance the hurt away. Find joy in spite of the pain.
Afropunk is a bold, revolutionary, alternative festival. A celebration of Black music, Black style, and Black culture on the edge.
We’re talking purple hair. Glitter. Silver space boots. Tattoos. Piercings. Nose rings on surprising body parts. People that make you stare. Music that makes your heart thud. A vibe of camaraderie that makes you step out in the rain and the mud and reach for the sky.
With beats that make your head nod as you dance along with DJs spinning South African house tunes.
We’re talking communion. We’re talking music styles from the Tsongas, Xhosas, Zulus; from the Swazis, Sothos, Ndebeles; from Chicagoans, New Yorkers, Londoners; from the dirty South, y’all.
Self-defining not based on a location or on who others say we are but on who we are in our own unfettered imaginations. And using music as the foundation. As that baseline. As that through line.
I felt it. I danced alone. Under the stars.
ABBOTT: (Reverb in the background) How do you feel when you get on a South African dance floor? Like that’s maybe where you belong.
ROBERTS: I stomped in the mud. I swagged the right, surfed the left, worked the middle ’til it hurt a little.
Moonchild Sanelly, YoungstaCPT, Kossola, Doc Jones, Ayana, Justin, María and the kids in Costa Rica, and all the others. Morphing in front of me, taking a hazy shape, coming into focus.
I didn’t know if it all made complete sense yet, but I knew something was rising up inside of me, rather than pulling me down.
And that’s it. The end of episode four.
Join us for episode five for a story about a ceremony to honor the ancestors on a ship that went down in South Africa.
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 Ainehe 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.
Thanks to HarperCollins, publisher of Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Joshua C. Thomas was the voice of Kossola.
YoungstaCPT performed YVR, from the album 3T. Produced by Joven Fourie.
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.
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.
If you’re interested in the history of Black aquatic culture, Kevin Dawson lays out the connections between African people and the water in his book Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Cultures in the African Diaspora.
Read the powerful account of Kossola, also known by the name Cudjo Lewis, in author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’
Find out more about the many “doors of no return” that dot Africa’s west coast, including the sites at Ouidah and Elmina Castle, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.