Diving into the past: The Black divers searching for slave shipwrecks

(CNN) — As he slipped by way of the kelp forest to the underside of the Atlantic Ocean, Kamau Sadiki’s eyes hooked onto one thing resembling the merchandise he and fellow divers had been looking for.

However, the water temperature was low on the website simply off the coast of Cape Town, and visibility was poor.

Veteran diver Sadiki remembers the surge pulling him backwards and forwards as he tried to get nearer to his “first visual of some tangible artifact” of the ship he’d heard a lot about.

“It was a piece of wood material that was lodged into the rocks,” he tells CNN Travel. “I hesitated before approaching it, and then the surge just carried me straight into it.”

Sadiki grew to become overcome with emotion when he grabbed maintain of a part of the wreckage of the Sao Jose-Paquete de Africa wreck, which sank off Cape Town whereas transporting over 500 enslaved Africans from Mozambique to Brazil in 1794.

It’s thought that 212 of the captives, together with the crew, drowned within the incident.

“It was like I could hear the voices,” says Sadiki, who was a part of the dive crew who positioned the wreck in 2015. “The screaming, the suffering, the terror, the pain and agony of all those individuals being shackled arm and leg, and then perishing in a wrecking event.

“I knew then that I wished to assist inform their story and get these silent voices into the historical past books.”

Buried history

Divers scatter sand from Mozambique near the site where the wreckage of the Sao Jose-Paquete de Africa was found.

Divers scatter sand from Mozambique close to the location the place the wreckage of the Sao Jose-Paquete de Africa was discovered.

Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, around 35,000 ships were used to bring over 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Some wouldn’t survive the journey, and an estimated 500 to 1,000 of the ships, including the Sao Jos-Paquete de Africa, wrecked before reaching their destination.

However, only five have been found in the many years since then, and just two have been adequately documented.

This ultimately means that the remains, along with the stories, of many of the captives who perished lie buried at the bottom of the sea.

Sadiki, lead diving instructor for Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a non-profit organization focused on the protection, documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks, is among those attempting to bring this painful history to the surface.

DWP was founded in 2003 by Ken Stewart, a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), and Brenda Lanzendorf, a maritime archeologist for Biscayne National Park, after both participated in the 2004 documentary, “The Guerrero Project.”

The film told the story of the Spanish pirate ship believed to have crashed while carrying 561 kidnapped Africans in the Biscayne National Park off the coast of Florida.

After wrapping up the project, Stewart says he contacted all the divers who appeared on screen and said, “Tired of the identical previous dives, let’s dive with a objective.”

He then teamed up with Lanzendorf, a park archaeologist at Biscayne, where a vast number of slave ships, along with the Guerrero, had wrecked.

Stewart pledged to help her locate some of the wrecks along the area and teach other Black divers maritime archaeology techniques, while Lanzendorf promised to provide him with a vital piece of information in return.

“She mentioned if we realized correctly she’d present us the place the Guerrero was,” explains Stewart.

Forgotten voices

An artifact from the Sao Jose-Paquete de Africa on show on the Slave Lodge museum in Cape Town.

An artifact from the Sao Jose-Paquete de Africa on display at the Slave Lodge museum in Cape Town.

Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

However, Lanzendorf died in 2008, five years after DWP was launched, and the team are still in the dark about the exact location of the wreck.

“If she knew the place (the Guerrero) was, she took it to the grave along with her,” he adds. “So we’re nonetheless wanting. “We’re doing a search this summer and hopefully we can finalize that (location).”

Over the years, DWP has taken half in round 18 missions to seek out submerged artifacts associated to Africans within the Americas, partnering with the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), a collaboration of organizations hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Underwater archaeologist and storyteller Tara Roberts has spent the previous two years following DWP, taking over a storyteller function.

Like Stewart and Sadiki, she believes that bringing to the forefront the forgotten voices of the enslaved Africans who died en route is critically essential.

“At least 1.8 million Africans died in the crossing. Who talks about that? Who’s mourning the lives of those people?” says Roberts.

“We’ll never know their names, we’ll never know anything about them. They’re lost people, and nobody is grieving them. Nobody is mourning them. They’re just lost. I don’t think that that’s okay.”

Roberts first realized of DWP when she noticed an image of a bunch of a number of the group’s Black feminine divers on show in 2019 on the National Museum of African American History and Culture and says she was completely transfixed.

“These divers are turning stereotypes on their heads just in the very nature of being who they are and doing what they’re doing,” she explains.

“They are disrupting these ideas of who Black people are and what Black people do. I think it’s so important for people to be able to see them, to see me, to know that this work is possible that we are in this space too.”

Roberts is one in every of 300 or so divers who’ve taken half within the DWP’s maritime archaeology program, which is open to anybody who’s an authorized diver with sturdy underwater talents.

“It requires some diving skills,” stresses Stewart. “You can’t just come. You need some dives (at least 30) under your belt.”

Those who enroll should undertake a week-long coaching session through which they spend not less than three days within the water studying find out how to doc shipwrecks and artifacts, in addition to be taught underwater investigative and analysis strategies.

“You have to have good what we call peak buoyancy, which means you can be very still in the water,” explains Sadiki, who initially met Stewart by way of NABS.

“That’s critically important, as we have to get very close to some of these artifacts to survey them and we don’t want to disturb them.”

However, Stewart admits that the method could be fairly grueling and is not suited to all divers.

“Some people do it and think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, because it’s quite intense,” he says.

Success tales

A mural of the Clotilda slave ship, which was successfully located in 2019, on display in Africatown, Alabama.

A mural of the Clotilda slave ship, which was efficiently positioned in 2019, on show in Africatown, Alabama.

Carmen Ok. Sisson/Cloudybright/Alamy

One of DWP’s most up-to-date triumphs was serving to to locate the Clotilda, the final recognized US slave ship to convey enslaved Africans to the United States, which was positioned close to Mobile, Alabama, again in 2019.

The ship is believed to have arrived someday between 1859 and 1860, years after the slave commerce was abolished in 1808.

“The Clotilda went illegally over to West Africa, loaded up with around 110 Africans and brought them back to Alabama,” explains Roberts.

While the ship landed safely, the Clotilda was torched after the slaves have been unloaded to destroy all proof of the unlawful crossing.

Many of the slaves who have been introduced over on the ship returned to the world once they have been emancipated with the hope of returning to West Africa.

In 1866, they based their very own city, Africatown, after saving sufficient cash to purchase land from their former homeowners.

Some of the graves of those who survived the Clotilda voyage can be found at the Old Plateau Cemetery in Africatown.

Some of the graves of those that survived the Clotilda voyage could be discovered on the Old Plateau Cemetery in Africatown.

Emily Kask/The New York Times/Redux

Unlike these on board a number of the different slave wrecks, the tales of these on board the Clotilda have been effectively documented.

In truth, numerous the descendants of these unique residents nonetheless dwell in Africatown, one of many first US cities based and managed by African Americans, and assessments are being performed to see if any of these folks match with the DNA discovered within the wreckage.

“What’s so incredible about that story is that not only was it illegal and a gross miscarriage of any sense of justice, but there’s still a very strong community associated with that vessel right now,” says Sadiki, who was among the many divers who helped to positively find the ship in 2019.

“So we’re working with the community to help tell the story of Clotilda. “

Africatown has been stricken by industrial air pollution, a declining inhabitants and a few years of poverty.

“Some horrendous things have happened to that community,” provides Sadiki. “But hopefully, with the discovery of the Clotilda, we can begin to bring some prosperity, peace, calm, and most importantly, justice to Africatown.”

Diving slightly deeper

Diving With A Purpose lead instructor Kamau Sadiki creates an in-situ drawing of a shipwreck artifact.

Diving With A Purpose lead teacher Kamau Sadiki creates an in-situ drawing of a shipwreck artifact.

Matt Lawrence/NOAA

Although Sao Jose and the Clotilda are amongst a small variety of success tales, the method of discovering slave wrecks is way from easy. In truth, it is a lengthy and arduous course of that may take many, a few years with little assure of a optimistic end result.

“Most wrecks start in the archives,” explains Roberts. “With researchers or historians going through the records and finding out where a wreck might have happened.

“Then archaeologists grow to be concerned, serving to to pinpoint the place that location may very well be primarily based on the data.”

Once the location has been identified, trained divers are brought in to search the area for artifacts, shackles, or anything that could link it to a particular ship.

“If we discover some proof, or artifacts which can be of curiosity, we dive slightly deeper,” adds Sadiki. “We go to that exact website to gather extra proof and information and knowledge, and if it appears like a strong shipwreck website, we do an in depth documentation of that website.

“In essence, we’re trying to tell the story of these vessels by literally lifting them from the sea floor.”

Roberts is recording a podcast recounting her experiences with DWP, connecting the wrecks to her personal id as an African American.

“One of the amazing things I think about this body of water is that it is the thing that connects us,” she says. “It connects the African diaspora, which has been spread all over the place.

“I feel loads of African Americans have an actual connection to the continent that’s past the way in which that the media portrays Africa.

“It feels like these ships provide a bridge for us to cross to really begin to learn about what came before.”

Reclaiming the previous

DWP founder Ken Stewart launched the Youth Diving With a Purpose program, pictured in 2013, in order to get young people involved in the project.

DWP founder Ken Stewart launched the Youth Diving With a Purpose program, pictured in 2013, to be able to get younger folks concerned within the challenge.


Roberts believes that by digging into the pasts of those that perished on the boat and reclaiming these tales, therapeutic can start.

“I think that much of the way that we (African Americans) see ourselves is through a lens of trauma, pain and sadness,” she says.

“Those kinds of ideas and feelings and experiences are often the way that black folks’ stories are told.

“I do not suppose that that is the total of us. And I’m way more within the complexity of our story. Our story would not begin in slavery.”

This sentiment is shared by Stewart, also a co-founder of the Tennessee Aquatic Project and Development Group, who has focused a lot of time on getting young people involved in the organization, as well as diving in general, noting that it’s simply unaffordable for some.

He began developing Youth Diving With a Purpose (YDWP,) aimed at those between 15 and 23, back in 2011.

For Stewart, having the younger generation on board is vitally important, as he feels that many simply aren’t aware of the full extent of slavery.

“Here within the US, our (African American) historical past has been ignored,” he adds. “They do not actually train something about slavery in faculties.

“And I think if you don’t teach your history, you’re bound to repeat it. That’s been proven over and over again.

“It’s essential that we train the following technology. Those are those which can be going to show this factor round.”

Now age 76, Stewart remains heavily involved with DWP’s missions, but is acutely aware that he’ll need to start winding things down at some point.

However, there’s one very important goal he hopes to achieve before stepping back from the organization.

“My tenure with DWP is coming to an in depth, and I’d positive like to finish it by discovering the Guerrero,” he admits. “But what I’d actually love to do is to coach and produce on some younger folks so we are able to maintain DWP going.

“There are thousands of ships out there that have not been found. We want to be part of that.”

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