Explorers Search for Slave Shipwreck Off Florida

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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.

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