Diving into history

Over 1.8 million people died on trans-Atlantic slave ships, including on hundreds that sank. Tara Roberts reports on the divers excavating the wrecks of a terrible trade

December 14, 2021 · 6 min read
Credit: Tara Roberts

On a hot summer day in the murky waters of the man-made Millbrook Quarry in Northern Virginia, two dozen people outfitted in scuba gear take turns going down to a depth of 30 feet, testing their compass-reading skills, flooding their masks and practising emergency ascents without air. The sight is not so unusual, since Millbrook is the main training site for scuba divers in the greater Washington DC area. What is unusual is that all of the divers are African American, and that the majority of them are certified and qualified to search for, document and help excavate slave trade shipwrecks.

They are members of Diving with a Purpose (DWP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to researching, conserving and protecting submerged heritage sites, including the documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks. DWP is part of a global network known as the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), based at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which uses shipwrecks as a point of entry into understanding the global history and impact of the slave trade. The SWP also works to create exhibitions, train divers and archaeologists, promote greater diversity in scholarship, and to engage and support local communities where the wrecks are found.

Sea heroes

Not all DWP divers are archaeologists or historians by training. Mainly, they are people who love to dive and who want to make a difference in the world.

The purpose of this work is not simply finding these shipwrecks and filling in the missing stories of the global slave trade. It also matters who tells those stories

Take Jay V Haigler, a retired engineer, PADI-certified master diver training instructor and accredited scientific diver. He’s big and tall, with a booming voice and an easy, infectious laugh. Or Kamau Sadiki, whose thin, wire-framed glasses complement his quietly serious manner. Or Dr Albert José Jones, founder of the first diving club for African Americans. He’s in his 80s and walks with a cane, but slides into the water with ease. Or finally, Ken Stewart, who got DWP off the ground. He’s in his 70s but walks with the slickness of an uptown New Yorker. In 2018, Ken was named ‘Sea Hero of the Year’ by Scuba Diving magazine.

These and other DWP divers, together with the black historians and archaeologists of the SWP, are by their very presence turning the maritime archaeological world on its head – providing a new and deeply personal lens through which to understand the history and legacies of the global slave trade.

Missing stories

Between 1501 and 1866, approximately 12.5 million Africans were forcibly transported via ships during the Middle Passage (the Atlantic Ocean crossing, or middle leg, of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas). Historians at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimate that 1.8 million of them perished during the journey. Although hundreds of slave ships sank, only a handful of vessels have been found.

Outside of the SWP, very few divers, maritime archaeologists, historians or treasure hunters are searching for these ships, most likely because their treasures perished onboard – and, of course, because the facts and figures of the slave trade have been glossed over in the history books. A 2017 Southern Poverty Law Center survey found that fewer than half of US high school seniors could define the Middle Passage. Most knew very little about slavery overall.

For DWP, the purpose of this work is not simply finding these shipwrecks and filling in the missing stories of the global slave trade. It also matters who tells those stories. Its ethos is that people of black African descent must find their own histories and tell their own stories: of vessels found; of the people analysing the wrecks; of the ancestors who perished and the descendants who survived them; of the relevance of this history today; of humanity, nuance, complexity and light.

Spiritual weight

The spirit of DWP’s work is captured in the memorialising of the São José Paquete Africa, when DWP members participated in key aspects of researching, diving on and honouring what is still the only working slave ship to be fully documented by maritime archaeologists.

Sunk with its captive human cargo still aboard in 1794, the São José was found off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1980s, but initially misidentified as a merchant ship. The true story of the wreck was verified in 2015, under the leadership of the SWP founding partners Iziko Museums of South Africa and the George Washington University, after years of painstaking research.

Kamau Sadiki, one of the lead divers on the São José, described travelling to South Africa, diving in those turbulent waters and touching an artifact from the ship as ‘like I was hearing the souls of the lost. It helped me imagine the slave trade in a personal way.’ Kamau later travelled to Mozambique with other SWP members and Lonnie G Bunch III, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to participate in a ceremony with the Makua, the descendants of those who perished on the São José.

The Makua chief gave Lonnie soil held in a special cowrie shell vessel, with instructions to scatter the earth at the wreck site, along with the message that their descendants have never forgotten them. Remembering the exchange, Lonnie later wrote: ‘I felt a chill run through me as I held the vessel. It was as if I were holding the spirits of our ancestors. I could feel a spiritual weight upon me, and for a few moments, I was simply taken away.’

Days later, Kamau and two colleagues, from South Africa and Mozambique – each with distinct personal connections to the diasporic journeys of Africans – waded into waters around the wreck and scattered the soil, giving the long-lost spirits of the Makua a chance to finally sleep in their homeland.

Tara Roberts is a National Geographic storytelling fellow and a fellow at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab

This article first appeared in issue #232 ‘Rue Britannia’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

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