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.

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