Diving into the unfolding history of wrecked slave shipsHistorians in the News
tags: archaeology, ship wrecks, slave ships, diving
We are members of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a nonprofit organization started almost 16 years ago by the ever-dapper Ken Stewart, who at age 74 still moves with a dip in his step and communicates with a twinkle in his eye. He is meticulously groomed—salt-and-pepper beard neat as can be—with a beautiful voice that rises and falls with the cadence of a soulful love song.
Ken’s passion is this work. He spends his days moving forward this big, audacious, crazy mission to train up the next generation of black folks specifically, although all are welcome, to dive into the depths of the ocean and find their own history and tell their own stories.
Why does it matter that we search for slave shipwrecks?
About 35,000 ships brought nearly 12.5 million captive Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Of the estimated 500 to 1,000 ships that purportedly wrecked, only five have been found—and of those, only two have been properly documented.
Fragments of these wooden ships are notoriously hard to find after centuries in the water, but such a small number of finds also points to a larger societal disinterest in their discovery. Maybe that lack of interest is in part because rather than jewels and gold coins, the treasure of these ships exists primarily in the form of knowledge and lost memory. But maybe it is also because this thread of history has been glossed over in our history books—the experience and journey of captured Africans, only a footnote, a few paragraphs, a day’s covered material in class … a huge swath of history suppressed and forgotten.
But DWP has not forgotten, and has worked diligently over the years to train more than 300 divers to help retrieve these lost stories. These people are not necessarily archaeologists or historians either, although some are. They are engineers, teachers, artists, students, civil servants—just regular people who are passionate about scuba diving and who want to make a difference in the world somehow.
So far, DWP divers have participated in 18 missions around the world to find submerged artifacts relevant to Africans in the Americas. They work as partners of the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), a collaboration of organizations hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and include George Washington University, the National Park Service (Submerged Resources Center and Southeast Archaeological Center), African Centre for Heritage Studies and IZIKO Museums of South Africa. They also work on their own, looking for treasures like Tuskegee Airmen airplanes downed in the Great Lakes in the 1940s.
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