Explorers Search for Slave Shipwreck Off Florida

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
July 30, 2004
In a few weeks researchers will begin scouring the Florida seafloor for a 177-year-old shipwreck—and the resting place of dozens of slaves who drowned in chains. Despite its drama, the story of the Guerrero remains little-known.

Around 7 p.m. on the evening of December 19, 1827, keeper John Whalton was tending to his lightship, a sort of mobile lighthouse. He was anchored a few miles off Key Largo when, he said later, "I saw the flash and heard the report of seven or eight guns."

Whalton was about to witness the tragic ending of a desperate chase in the waters off what was then the U.S. Territory of Florida. The Guerrero, with hundreds of Africans enchained in its hold and crewed by 90 Spaniards who were little more than pirates, was fleeing the Nimble, a British warship that was enforcing the international ban on slave trade.

British officials had gotten a tip that the Guerrero was bound for Cuba, where bribed officials would look the other way while the Guerrero's human cargo was exchanged for goods worth a fortune in Europe.

The Nimble and the Guerrero were swapping cannon fire as they skirted much too close to the shore. As Whalton watched, both ships piled onto Carysfort Reef, one of the many reefs that lie three or four miles (five or six kilometers) off of the Florida Keys.

The Nimble was aground but not badly damaged. The Guerrero, however, struck with such force that its masts snapped and collapsed, and the massive poles plunged into the hold where the Africans were imprisoned. The ship sank immediately in the shallow water, and some 40 captives drowned.

The men aboard the Nimble could hear the screams from two miles (three kilometers) away. "The cries of 561 slaves and (Guerrero's) crew were appalling beyond description," The Niles Weekly Register, a Baltimore newspaper, later reported.

Forgotten Tragedy

It was a spectacular maritime tragedy, and it was forgotten until writer Gail Swanson of Sebring, Florida, began a dogged effort to extract the tale from documents scattered in the United States and England.

Swanson's fascination with the wreck of the Guerrero spans more than a decade of work that eventually attracted the attention of historians, underwater archaeologists, and filmmakers.

In a few weeks, archaeologists from the RPM Nautical Foundation—a nonprofit organization that provides financial and logistical support for marine archaeology projects—will start looking for remains of the long-ago catastrophe that Swanson has so carefully documented. The exact date of the search depends on the weather and the availability of RPM Nautical's search equipment. The foundation is working with officials from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary program.

A film crew will be covering Swanson's research for a documentary.

The search for the Guerrero will be like looking for an unmarked grave in a crowded cemetery. The waters off the Florida Keys are strewn with the remains of ships that have run afoul of the reefs for the past four centuries. The searchers will be examining an area where dozens—perhaps hundreds—of luckless vessels have gone down.

"It's going to be kind of tricky, in a way," said RPM Nautical archaeologist Cory Malcolm. "It may be difficult to sort out these artifacts from other ships."

Artifacts Spotted

Still, the searchers think they can find the Guerrero. Diver Denis Trelewicz, who helped select the area to be examined, said the search will take place in Turtle Harbor, about three miles (about five kilometers) off the northern end of Key Largo. A charter-boat captain found an anchor from the era when the shipwreck occurred, and divers have been spotting artifacts there for years, Trelewicz said.

Salvagers went to the wreck site the day after the Guerrero and the Nimble ran aground in 1827 and recovered "anything they could get that had any value," Trelewicz said. But there may still be artifacts remaining, such as musket balls, utensils used to feed the Africans—and perhaps the shackles that held them in the hold of the Guerrero.

Divers won't be involved in the upcoming search expedition, however. Instead, the area will be examined with a magnetometer, a device that detects metal.

When the magnetometer detects an object—known to archaeologists as an anomaly—the searchers will make detailed notes of the finding, mark its position on a map, and turn the data over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA officials will decide if the data warrants having divers examine the site more carefully to determine whether the anomalies are artifacts from the Guerrero. What happens if it's decided that they have found remnants of that long-ago tragedy is less certain.

"We'll have to decide whether it's in the public interest to remove the artifacts for interpretive display," said Steve Beckwith of NOAA. "Right now, it's just a survey and inventory of the area. But if there's evidence that it's the wreck of the Guerrero, we'll have to cross that bridge when we get there."

Beckwith doesn't know how long it will be before NOAA will determine if they've found the Guerrero. "It takes a long time," he said.

Tragic Saga

The destruction of the Guerrero was only part of the tragic saga of the unlucky Africans aboard the vessel. Swanson unearthed their ordeal while doing research on British warships that had wrecked in the Keys before 1800.

At first she ignored local librarian Jim Clupper's mention of an 1827 British shipwreck. But she changed her mind, had a researcher in London dig up the log of the Nimble, and the lost tale of the tragedy on the reef began unfolding.

She started writing about the shipwreck for History Talk, a quarterly journal published by Jerry Wilkinson, president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys in Tavernier.

Swanson learned that about 40 Africans died in the Guerrero's hold when the ship hit the reef. The Guerrero's crew hijacked two of the vessels that came to their aid, forced about 400 surviving Africans aboard the new ships, and sailed to Cuba, where they sold the Africans into slavery.

Meanwhile, a salvage ship took the remaining 122 shipwreck survivors aboard, towed the Nimble to Key West for repairs, and put the Africans ashore there.

U.S. officials in Key West gave the Africans food and clothing, but the city wasn't equipped to handle so many refugees, Swanson said. And soon after they arrived, a terrifying rumor spread that a Spanish warship was sailing to Key West to take the Africans by force.

Treated Like Slaves

The refugees in Florida were moved hundreds of miles up the coast to St. Augustine, but instead of being returned to Africa, the federal marshal there rented many of them to nearby plantations.

"They were treated like slaves," Swanson said.

Finally, in September 1829, the refugees were put aboard a ship to Africa. The leaky vessel couldn't make the voyage, however, and docked at Barbados. After waiting for months, the Africans boarded another ship and arrived in Liberia in March 1830.

Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, an African-American artist and historian in Miami, said Swanson has uncovered a story that will help Americans understand the role that slavery played in building the nation. It's an uncomfortable part of U.S. history that the country is still struggling with, he said.

Tinnie would like to see a pair of historical markers erected—an underwater marker at the site of the Guerrero shipwreck and another marker on Key Largo.

"When the Guerrero is found, (slavery) is no longer an intellectual concept," Tinnie said. "Here's a tangible artifact, a site that becomes consecrated. People can make pilgrimages to the site. It removes all the myths and denials about slavery. There's a national need for us to have the opportunity, the occasion, the catalyst, to deal with the discomfiture of that shared history."

For more African-American history news, scroll down.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.