Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wreckage of historic slave ship that carried illegal cargo of Africans found in the Caribbean

Marine archaeologists have stumbled upon the wreck of a Spanish ship that once carried an illegal cargo of African slaves believed to be the ancestors of many of today's inhabitants of the British colonies of Turks and Caicos.

They are confident the oaken timbers submerged under 9ft of water off East Caicos island are the remains of the Spanish slave ship Trouvadore, which sank in the Atlantic archipelago south of the Bahamas in 1841.

'We have compelling circumstantial evidence that this is the Trouvadore,' Donald Keith, president of the Ships of Discovery marine archeology institute said.

The Trouvadore carried 93 African captives and was headed to Cuba where they were to be enslaved in the sugar cane fields, according to historical documents.

It went down after hitting a reef and those aboard managed to wade ashore.

The crew shot and killed one African woman but the other 92 slaves survived and were freed in the Turks and Caicos, where Britain had abolished slavery eight years earlier.

The majority were apprenticed to work in the Island's salt ponds for a year in order to pay for their rescue, and then freed.

The incident was forgotten until 1993, when Grethe Seim, the late founder of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

He was accompanied by Donald Keith, president of the Ships of Discovery marine archeology institute. They were surprised to find a letter written by an artifact salesman on Grand Turk Island in 1878, describing the sale of two African wooden idols with glass eyes.

His letter said the dolls came from a Spanish slave ship that sank in 1841, and gave details about the shipwreck and the African passengers.

'Although the sinking of the Trouvadore was a major event on the Island, the story was lost to history over the following century and a half,' said Carrell.

'We were stunned to realize that Turks and Caicos residents had never heard of the shipwreck that brought their ancestors to the Island.'

Using historical accounts of where the Trouvadore went down, along with remote sensing and visual searches, archaeologists focused on a ship near a local landmark known as the Black Rock. Records showed the Trouvadore had sunk at Breezy Point, approximately two miles from the Black Rock Wreck location.

'But with the wind blowing constantly from the east, and a current running from that direction, the ship would have drifted,' Mr Keith said

His team used careful measurements of the hull and years of research to amass compelling circumstantial evidence that the Black Rock Wreck could only be the Trouvadore

Researchers are still hunting for the document they consider the Trouvadore's holy grail. Records show that regional authorities ordered local officials in the Turks and Caicos to send a list of the English names they had given the African survivors.

If it still exists, it could show which residents are their descendants.

Other loose ends remain. The artifact seller's glass-eyed dolls, which ended up in the Museum of Natural History in New York, turned out to be distinctive kava kava dolls produced only on Easter Island in the Pacific.

'Somehow or other, somebody on the Trouvadore had two kava kava figurines from Easter Island with them,' Mr Keith said. 'That's another mystery.'

Like their neighbors in the Bahamas and many Caribbean islands, most of the 30,000 modern residents of the Turks and Caicos are thought to be descended from African slaves. But the research suggests many could be descended from the Trouvadore passengers, who were spared enslavement by the shipwreck.

Archeologists also found a US navy ship, the Chippewa, known to have sunk near another island in the area in 1816.

The Chippewa was part of America's efforts to stop the African slave trade and piracy by patrolling the Caribbean.
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