Search for Slave ShipwrecksLatest update August 16, 2019 Started on October 12, 2018
I am following a group of Black scuba divers, historians and archaeologists who are searching for, documenting and helping to excavate slave trade shipwrecks around the globe.
This is Justin Dunnavant. He’s bad. In a good way. Archaeologist. Scuba diver. Investigator on the Slave Wrecks Project in St. Croix. Co-Founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists. Newly minted archaeology professor at Vanderbilt University. Diving With a Purpose (DWP) Instructor. Cancer Zodiac sign. Looks good against yellow-orange backdrops. :) ... But most importantly, Justin is one of the new, brilliant and beautiful faces of archaeology today.
Meet Ayana Flewellen - calm, wise, nurturing, an old soul who can turn up in the kitchen on a vegan and gluten-free tip. In my imagination, she’s a 21st-century manifestation of the goddess Yemaya. She’s also a soon-to-be tenured track archaeology professor at the University of California, Riverside, a co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists, a co-director of the Estate Little Princess project on St. Croix, and a Diving With a Purpose (DWP) instructor. She will be a DWP board member in October.
The new face of archaeology, y’all.
Lately, I’ve felt stuck and kinda discombobulated. And thus, I’ve been quiet. Silent. Wondering how to keep talking about slave shipwrecks and the slave trade and these amazing actors within it, frankly, in a cohesive, connected and interesting way.
The conversation is just so big—and complicated, and sharing these vignettes with you here doesn’t even begin to hint at what I am seeing and feeling and learning.
Or at least that is the way I framed the discomfort in my mind.
That is, until a few weeks ago.
Earlier this month, I landed in St. Croix (an island in the Caribbean), and as I rode in the shuttle van from the airport to Christiansted, I noted the landscape racing past my window—mini–strip malls, trash-strewn green spaces, buildings impacted by fierce Hurricane Maria. The scenes reminded me of the poorer, black neighborhoods of Atlanta, of Jersey City, of Dakar, of Cape Town, of Johannesburg, of Ouidah, of Togoville ... of so many cities everywhere with sizable black populations.
And as I reconciled my fantasy of a colorful oasis with the reality of the place today, I began to wonder if my stuckedness, this discombobulation I was feeling, runs deeper and is more symbolic of where we are in the conversation of race and slavery and colonization reconciliation globally.
Had I stumbled into, or rather finally become fully conscious of, a nauseous cloud floating in the ether? One that leaves the minds it encounters feeling lethargic and stagnant?
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is color in St. Croix. And beautiful people. And community. So much community. For instance, my friend Malaika, who visited while I was there, and I spent one stellar day with our AirBnB host, probably one of the most connected women on the island. We listened to her long-time friend scat at a quaint cafe; we walked the Mango Melee (a mango festival with an actual mango-eating contest, where I got to participate as a judge); and we sat at a bar on the beach drinking cocktails bought by friendly locals and watching the sunset.
A perfect day.
But St. Croix was one of the Caribbean centers of the slave trade. It has a revered history of community and rebellion, but still, over 50,000 people were enslaved and perhaps as many as 500,000 people traded—on this island. The French, the Spanish, the English, the Dutch, the Danish—all trying to rule a landmass only 28 miles long and seven miles wide. Four hundred plus years of domination shape a people, impact the land, color the very air of a place.
The Danish eventually sold St. Croix to the US in 1917. And the US made St. Croix a territory. But what does it mean to be a US territory? It means that the US has complete control over St. Croix. Crucians get a representative in Congress, but that person has no vote. So have things really changed for Crucians?
The world has not even begun to untangle the impact and legacy of slavery, colonization and ownership for the descendants of the 12.5 million Africans brought to this side of the world, and to places like St. Croix.
But maybe there is a light in the distance.
I spent almost a week in St. Croix with archaeologists, historians and students all working to document and excavate the Estate Little Princess sugar plantation site. I watched them toil in the hot sun. I talked early in the morning and late in the evening with many about healing and identity and faith. And I realized that the race conversation is actually not the same today as it was yesterday. It is shifting. It is deepening. It is lifting. Long-buried truths are surfacing. New, passionate, brilliant minds are stepping into the mix and bringing such nuance and purpose and varied perspective to the table.
And with that, they are beginning to break up that dense, heavy cloud that hangs over us all.
I forgive myself for my silence.
And I take solace in the fact that something new and powerful is emerging.
(pics: Building on the Estate Little Princess site; Dr. Justin Dunnavant [one of the organizers of the summer field school and a lead archaeologist documenting the site]; college students from US Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] and Crucian high school students learning archaeological techniques.)
Diving With a Purpose (DWP) hosted actor Samuel L. Jackson at the History of Diving Museum a week or so ago. Sam is one of the producers and the narrator of the 6-part documentary series entitled “Enslaved.” DWP plays a small part in this exciting series.
Sam also joined the team on their dive boat to visit the Grecian Rock, or “The Banana Patch,” the reef that DWP has unofficially adopted. DWP has out-planted more staghorn coral on Grecian Rock than any other reef in their 7-year history of partnering with the Coral Restoration Foundation. The team talked to Sam about the dangers that coral reefs face today and shared their attempts to help save and monitor reefs.
Sign up for the newsletter at https://divingwithapurpose.org to learn more about DWP's work and to hear air dates for "Enslaved" when it is completed.
I just love that the word about this great team is continuing to spread!
1 Sam and Ken Stewart, founder of DWP;
2 (l to r) Aubra Denson, Erik Denson, Alannah Vellacott, Sam and Ken Stewart;
3 Sam and Dr. Jones, co-founder of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers and DWP Board Member;
4 (l to r) Angela Jones, Nan Jones, Sam, Vanessa Haigler and Melody Garrett
On a long stretch of Florida Keys highway, past unmanned tolls and an oversized Whole Foods, only a hop, skip and jump from the famous Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, there is a right-side turn-off.
The turn-off leads to a cul-de-sac of blocky, concrete buildings—boring and uninviting … at least all but one. This one, at the very end of the half-circle, teems with life and laughter. Scuba gear dries on the grass and picnic tables out front. The front door slams open and closed as people move outside to chat and slap at the mosquitos buzzing around their skin. Smells of chicken—baked, fried, roasted—along with mac ‘n’ cheese and collard greens waft through cracks in the door.
Inside, co-founder Ken Stewart, with his jaunty NYC-styled strut, ambles to the front of the room and calls for attention. And the 30 or so mainly brown faces, hailing from Peru, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, as well as the US, settle down in anticipation of the evening’s lesson.
All these people are here to participate in Diving With a Purpose’s (DWP) annual, week-long, maritime archaeology training program. They are engineers, civil servants, scientists, archaeologists, IT professionals, students—and more. During the days, they dive and learn underwater archaeology techniques—how to find and map artifacts associated with a shipwreck. During the evenings, they learn about each other and the work that is happening around the world to find slave shipwrecks.
If you visited, boarded the dive boat and descended underwater with the group—not too deep, maybe only 12 feet or so—you would see some divers calmly hovering in place despite strong currents, sketching coral-encrusted artifacts; you’d see others swimming over to the baseline (a central measuring line stretching over 200 feet), taking accurate trilateration measurements; you would also notice that the group practices on a real shipwreck—not a slave ship, mind you—but a real ship that wrecked in the Florida Keys. And you might be impressed to learn that the data gathered here will be put to use by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to assist in their efforts to map the many wrecks in the area.
The divers—and I can actually include myself in this count—are lit up by the DWP mission. As new and returning underwater archaeology advocates, we are ultimately working to gain the skills necessary to join expeditions and participate in the documentation of real slave ships being found around the world, ships like the Sao Jose, Wanderer, Christianus Quintus, Guerrero, Clotilde or any of the 500+ ships suspected to litter the ocean floor.
But during this specific training season - DWP's 15th annual course - we are especially inspired.
… Inspired by the stories that Maria Suarez tells as we bunch together near the bow of the ship about Tona Ina, a light from a slave ship that travels throughout the centuries motivating people to search for these lost stories in the seas.
… Inspired by the sight of 80+-year-old Doc Albert Jose Jones, one of the founders of the black scuba diving movement, slipping into the ocean in his tank and mask, still moving like a fish in his wonder years.
… Inspired by the first-ever DWP roundtable of women scientists, archaeologists and dive professionals, holding space for each other, leaning on each other, sharing truths over beers on the launch dock.
It is magic, feeling the ocean breeze on your skin and the spray of seawater as the boat races home after a day’s work. It is soul-lifting to look at the tired faces of those around you and know they have shown up despite busy schedules and are devoting their time for no other reason than they believe in this important work.
And it means everything as some of us, along with about 50 or so non-DWPers, meet at 5:30 am at a sunrise ceremony on a historically black beach in Miami to honor the ancestors who passed in the Middle Passage.
We cleanse our bodies with sage. We hold hands. We watch silently as a makeshift boat with an offering of fruit is guided into the water. We quietly release a deep tightness in our hearts.
And suddenly, a dolphin shows up on the horizon and arcs not far the boat.
It leaps again.
The ancestors see us and thank us.
What more can be said.
(Video by Riane Tyler: Dolphin sighting at the sunrise ceremony)
... National Geographic in the house interviewing DWP members for a mini-documentary. Brilliant reflections, y'all. I think the video is gonna be epic when it launches in August ...
(pics: l to r. Maria Suarez, Dr. Albert Jose Jones, Erik Denson & Nat Geo team: John, Tiffany, Bill)
I'm in Key Largo, Florida for Diving With a Purpose's Maritime Archaeology Training Program. So much laughter, learning and hard work already. It's hot, though - 106 degrees in the shade. But all the usual characters - Jay, Kamau, Ken, Kramer, Rebecca, Gayle, Justin, Ayana, Justine, even Dr. Jones - are here and in top form.
We kicked everything off powerfully with the official launch of the DWP featured exhibit at the History of Diving Museum. The exhibit takes up almost half of this extraordinary museum and celebrates Diving With a Purpose's 15-year history searching for slave shipwrecks around the world and restoring coral reefs. If you are in the Keys between now and the end of the year, you gotta come check it out. Divers and non-divers alike will be impressed and can view other exhibits that show over 4,000 years of “man’s quest to explore under the sea.”
(Pic: Justine and Ken, Antonio, Kamau)
I was thankful to receive the Trident Underwater Drone from OpenROV this year. It
is a beautiful piece of equipment and makes viewing hard-to-see artifacts underwater so much easier.
Our drone’s inaugural voyage happened in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica with the Centro de Comunitario team. And they were ecstatic to put it to use. Check out this video co-founder Maria Suarez made of her team - and me - figuring out the specifics.
And if you haven't seen this breaking story that just came out on Nat Geo's channels, do check it out:
"Last American Slave Ship Discovered in Alabama"
(image from the Tribune)
Meet Pop Motsisi - the first person of color to become a PADI-certified scuba diver in all of South Africa and the first African to become a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS). Very deserving of his swagger. :)
I love that a DWP team (Kamau, Kramer and Melody) is in Costa Rica right now helping to train young Costa Ricans for Centro Comunitario de Buceo Embajadores y Embajadoras del Mar in their first on-site YDWP (Youth Diving With a Purpose) course.
This beautiful work is spreading!
On the Danish Slave Ships Christianus Quintus & Fredericus Quartus
Fact #1: In December 1708, the Danish ships Christianus Quintus and Fredericus Quartus set sail from Copenhagen, Denmark, armed with 24 cannons and a crew of 60. They sailed down the Atlantic Ocean around France and Portugal, past Morocco, to land somewhere on a coast in West Africa where they captured approximately 450 African men, women and children as slaves. They departed for the Danish “port” of St. Thomas in the Caribbean West Indies with a cargo hold brimming with African people and elephant ivory to trade for spices and goods when they arrived. Fearing rebellions, the captains of the two slavers sailed close together throughout the voyage, but navigation errors caused the ships to miss their goal. [Source: Community Maritime Archaeology in Costa Rica: Cahuita National Park Site Report (CNPSR), p. 14]
Myth/Oral Story Tradition #1: The journey, which took about two and a half months, was a harrowing experience for those chained together in the bottom of the ship. Mothers hummed and sang to their children; husbands and fathers prayed to their gods; brave souls, who spoke different languages, found common words and brought to memory those left behind. They also obsessed over plans of escape and whispered in the darkness — their souls were not broken. They had hope. They had fire. They had the belief of their ancestors that all things, including the ocean, have spirit and soul. They dreamt that the great goddess of the ocean, Yemaya, would set them free. [Source: My Imagination]
Fact #2: The two ships landed on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Nicaragua, right above Costa Rica, more than 1400 miles away from their intended destination of St. Thomas. After realizing their navigational errors and assessing the small quantity of remaining food, the crew realized they could not return to St. Thomas without restocking. Both captains decided to proceed to Portobelo, Panama, to sell some of the enslaved Africans and acquire supplies. But when the ships approached land, they encountered a heavy storm forcing an unanticipated landing on a shoreline they believed to be Punto Caretto in Nicaragua. Research suggests that the name and location of the peninsula correspond with Punta Cahuita, Costa Rica, close to 600 miles south of Santa Catalina. [Source: CNSPR]
Myth/Oral Story Tradition #2: “Ya see, my story begins in the early 1700s. There was a lot of trouble along the Caribbean coast and many people were involved in kidnapping people from other lands as far south as Africa. Back then slaves came up into Europe and Canada — even what today is known as the United States of America. But back then, some of the captains of clipper ships traveling along the coast did not know about the huge coral reef sitting way out in the ocean just off the coastline. Those huge ships would ram and rip big holes in the bottoms of their boats. Now, the slaves were all chained together and those sailors who cared about saving lives would unlock them. Everyone would race together up to the top deck and jump into the foaming sea, hoping to swim to safety. Now, hidden in the trees along the beach were members of the Miskito tribe. They quickly dove into the ocean waves and dragged the slaves way back into the dense protective rainforest and hid them away from their captors. In the years to come the tribe invited the travelers to make new families with their own people.” [Source: Folklore printed on the menu of Tipico Restaurant in Cahuita]
Fact #3: The crew of Fredericus Quartus confronted their captain, whose name was Pfieff, and demanded that the enslaved Africans be released so the remaining food could be divided among them. When the captain denied their request, as well as their subsequent demand for a month’s pay, the crew threatened mutiny. In an attempt to appease the sailors, Pfieff decided to release the slaves ashore, but the crew was no longer satisfied with the captain’s concessions. They broke open chests and divided the two ships’ gold amongst themselves, and then set the Fredericus Quartus on fire using a pile of refuse, tar and pitch. The anchor cable of the Christianus Quintus was cut and the vessel allowed to break up in the surf. The now combined crew hired a group of locals to transport them to Panama. Left with no other option, the captains eventually returned to Denmark. [Source: CNPSR p. 14-15]
Myth/Oral Story Tradition #3: The enslaved who made it to shore broke into small groups and headed in different directions to discourage and confuse pursuit. It was easy to separate based on language and region. One leader, Yaingo, a 19-year-old woman, strong, of Benin’s legendary Amazon tribe of women, with grief in her eyes but determination in her bones, led her group into the hills. She pushed them, even though they were hungry and tired. Her only thought — to get away from the Danish, to put as much distance as possible between these tired people and that ship and those slavers, to use this reprieve, this answer from the ocean, this blessing from the goddess Yemaya, as an opportunity to start anew and forge a destiny. [Source: My Imagination]
Fact #4: Research into the historical records for these vessels reveals that Christianus Quintus contained an outbound cargo of cloth, metal goods and weapons, along with building materials, bricks and boards to repair and enlarge Danish forts on the African coast. The cargo of Fredericus Quartus included 30 chests of sheets, eight chests of guns, two casks of knives, 522 bars of Norwegian iron, 648 bars of Swedish iron and 19 cases of gifts to sell and trade. The goods that did not sell in Africa were to be sold later in the Caribbean. [Source: CNPSR, p. 16]
Myth/Oral Story Tradition #4: Many members of the Cahuita community today say that they see and feel a magical aura at Punta Cahuita. They describe bright lights on the sea after a storm when no vessels are on the surface, water moving around like a blender, music coming from underneath the waves at night, something that looks like a window opening under the sea and showing the ribs of a large ship with great walls of chains, rings and shackles and long pieces of wood fitted with one ring next to another. [Source: “Tona Ina and the Mysterious Cave of a Lion Fish in Cahuita” by Maria Suarez Toro, University of Costa Rica, 2017]
Fact & Myth/Oral Story Tradition #5: William “Old Smith” Smith was born in 1828 in Panama, a frisky, bold, pioneering, English-speaking, Afro man, who traversed miles and miles of the Central American forest and jungle to settle in what is now Cahuita to start a new life. He built a thatched-roof house in a grove of lime trees that ran right to the seashore and planted coconuts, yams, cassava, plantains and flower gardens. He got friendly with the local indigenous women and fathered 52 children. He and his large family lived in 15 “pretty houses” and made a living by extracting rubber and by fishing, selling their catches in Puerto Limon. Old Smith is said to have found two wrecks on the north side of Cahuita Point. He dove often on these wrecks with his grandson Selles Johnson, born in 1894. Selles told stories that were passed down over the years of free-diving on the wrecks and finding all sorts of objects, including a large cannon on the seabed. [Source: CNPSR, p. 8-10]
TODAY Enter Centro Comunitário de Buceo Embajadores y Embajadoras del Mar, a community organization working to find sunken slave ships in and around Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, with its team of 31 young scuba divers. The group began scuba diving in 2014 and diving the wreck site in 2016. One teenage diver — Sangye — happened accidentally upon an artifact that may have come from a Danish ship. He was diving, bored in the water, almost asleep, when he suddenly spied something shining out of the corner of his eye and became intrigued. It was a bottle cap with a Danish crown. He brought the find to his other team members.
Now, the Centro team had already heard from local fisherpeople about findings of artifacts. Plus, one of the founders of Centro had happened upon a presentation by two maritime archaeologists at a Society of Historical Archaeology conference that referenced slave ships in the harbor. With these mounting clues, Centro eventually decided to make searching for sunken slave ships on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica a key mission of the organization.
And that decision has opened the door to a whole new world of exploration, including invitations accepted by academicians and renowned archaeologists to help them determine finally what is fact, what is myth and what is a beautiful, tangled blend of both.
(Pics below: Centro divers in action at the wreck site.)
Her name is Gaia, and she is the mother.
Her name is Yara, and she is the daughter.
Mother and daughter have a symbiotic, close, complicated relationship.
Their love for the ocean is one of the things that binds them together.
The mother wanted to be a marine biologist when she was the daughter’s age. She dreamed of an underwater world with strange sea creatures and herself immersed in the deep blue. But she got pregnant with the daughter during college and dropped out of school. And well, you know how these things go: relationships end, another child appears, moves to other parts of the country become necessary, life continues on its own twisty path. And then you wake up one day, and it’s 15 years later, and now you are a receptionist at a hotel, greeting customers with your shy smile.
But the mother is so proud of her tall, bright, shining girl on the brink of womanhood. She doesn’t feel she has sacrificed anything at all.
And she hasn’t ... because life works in a beautiful, completely unpredictable, magical way.
This daughter, who grew in her womb while that passion for the sea raged loudest, absorbed some of her passion. Maybe it was just a blip initially planted somewhere in the bottom of her belly, but that tiny dot has exploded grandly, loudly — Lordy, oh Lordy — it now crackles with sparkles and twinkles. The daughter, still just a babe in high school, heard the sea calling and answered. On her own.
She joined Centro Comunitário de Buceo Embajadores y Embajadoras del Mar for scuba diving and underwater archaeology training because she wants to use the ocean as a way to embrace her identity and find her roots. Her father is of Jamaican descent and has a possible connection to the suspected sunken slave ships in the harbor. She, somehow like the mother when she was the daughter’s age, feels the sea will provide her with a sense of self that she might not otherwise find.
And the mother realizes on a deep, wordless level that maybe this is her chance, too - that a dream deferred can be a dream regained. So she signs up for PADI–scuba dive training with her daughter. Hesitant at first, but then with certainty, she says that her daughter has given opportunity back to her, has embodied the wild spirit that lived within her so long ago, has encouraged that part of her to resurface and to be explored again. Together.
The daughter’s eyes fill with tears during this retelling. Why are you crying? I am so proud of her, she says. All go silent as the daughter sinks into the depth of that feeling and then fights her way back to the top again. She repeats quietly, voice cracking, I am just so proud of her.
New dreams on top of old dreams building a ladder to new realities.
This is the magic of life expressed through the power of the ocean … of motherhood and daughterhood ... of womanhood and girlhood … of Costa Rica and Puerto Viejo ... of freedom and wildness … of slave ships and ancestral searches … of the ocean, again of the ocean, of all that blue-green water … all mixed together in a mighty, healing blend.
Meet the Browns, a Puerto Viejan family with traceable roots in the area that extend back to the mid-1800s, and possibly even further.
The Browns, who live in this small enclave of Costa Rica, are a unique Corleone/Kardashian-hybrid-like family with a seemingly endless brood of relatives (200+ and counting) who look out for each other, and who come in a great variety of skin hues - even within the same family unit.
One of the family matriarchs is Irma.
Irma with the sweet smile and the quiet voice and the complicated history that stretches to Jamaica (her grandfather came from Jamaica to Costa Rica to work on the railroad) and on her ex-husband’s side to West Africa.
The family stewards are brothers Kevin, Andy and Esteban, 19, 21 and 22, and cousin Pete, 18. Four young men who are connecting the family’s present to its past through their search for slave ships reported to have wrecked in the nearby Cahuita harbor.
You see, stories passed down over the years, whispered in the dark and over campfires, say that the first Brown ancestor in these parts was on one of those ships.
How do they know for sure that slave ships made their way to Costa Rican shores?
Historians, researchers, divers and most recently, archaeologists have been able to gather evidence that suggests that artifacts in an archaeological site near Cahuita Point might belong to two Danish slave ships. These ships set sail from Denmark in the early 17th century, heading to the Danish colony of St. Thomas after raiding and enslaving Africans in West Africa. But the ships, traveling closely together, were blown off course by bad weather and eventually, might have landed in the Punta Cahuita harbor of Costa Rica instead. The documented archives show that the crews on both ships mutinied and wrecked the ships after taking the Africans to shore.
The trail goes lukewarm afterward, a disappearing line of breadcrumbs that fade into the hills, now reconstituted with a few faded images and tales that family elders pass down orally to their descendants.
Sonia, one of Irma’s daughters and Pete’s aunt and guardian, shares one tale: “My uncle showed me an old picture of a man with a long, white beard. He said this is your great grandpa. His father came to Jamaica in a slave ship. And he, in turn, came to Costa Rica to work the railroad, but he ran away to work in the highlands of Talamanca and eventually, he reached the indigenous territory.”
She looks up, incredulous, “I said, ‘What? I never knew this!’”
Kevin continues, “We heard he ran to the mountains and met the BriBri [the largest indigenous community in Costa Rica], where he was welcomed and could make a new life start.”
Records indicate that Kevin's great-great-grandfather married a Bribri woman and that there are likely others of mixed heritage in the Bribri highlands whose ancestors came directly from the slave ships wrecked on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. The family thinks a member of Irma's ex-husband's family stood on one of those ships. And they wonder if their Jamaican ancestors, who originally came from West Africa, too, may have found commonality and mixed easily with the descendants of the escaped Africans.
It’s a tangled web that will take much more time to uncover.
But the artifacts on the seafloor - bricks, cannons, anchors, fragments of bottles and pipes - clues that Centro Comunitário de Buceo Embajadores y Embajadoras del Mar are being trained by archaeologists and researchers to verify, just may provide more concrete missing links. Plus, fishermen in Cahuita reported that scuba divers searched the remains and found smoking-gun items like shackles. Centro is in talks with a family that has some of these items and is encouraging them to release them for further study.
Pete, Kevin and Esteban, all Sea Hunters, all members of Centro, all with the exact same thick and perfectly arched eyebrows, believe wholeheartedly in this work. They are clear that by understanding and embracing these ties to the past they will more powerfully shape their own journeys to manhood.
Esteban, who is bold and rather dashing, is also super handy. He can fix and jerry-rig almost anything. For Centro, he created a way to help its divers use nature (the mountains and the shoreline) to “trilaterate” the distance between points in order to mark artifacts under the water. He is also certified as a PADI-rescue diver, has completed two levels of the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS) and serves as an assistant in the PADI-intro course to help get youth rethinking and strengthening their connection to the ocean.
Pete is smaller in stature than his cousins. He used to be very shy, according to his family. But over the years he has gained confidence. Now, he is a partner with two other young divers in a social venture supported by Centro called the Puerto Viejo Old Town Tour. He and his partners guide visitors around town and in the water for short scuba or snorkel dives, providing them lessons about the town’s historical and underwater archaeological sites.
And Kevin, soft-spoken and laid-back, but clearly a leader in Centro as the others gravitate and defer to him, comes alive in the ocean. He swoops and laughs and plays when we dive. The joy on his face is infectious. He also has his PADI and NAS first level certifications and helps train new divers in the PADI intro course.
All three of them train children in Centro’s Children’s Snorkeling Camps.
Whether this family finds incontrovertible evidence about their ancestral connection to slave ships or not, the search process has already changed them for the better, giving them access to opportunities previously unimaginable and igniting passions that now burn deep.
“Since I was five years old, I was going fishing with my cousins and my friends,” says Pete. “We were fishing on the seashore. We fished all day. But to know you can breathe underwater … and you can learn about sunken ships … the first time I dived, I felt like I was coming out of my heart.”
“We have to be proud to be Afro-Costa Rican,” he adds, referring to the often suppressed acknowledgment that many Costa Ricans have African ancestry, a fact that rarely makes it into the history books. “I want more people here to support this project because this is the root of many of us - this work is part of us all.”
“We live along the coast of Puerto Viejo,” says Irma. “We love the ocean. And my grandchildren love this project. What they are finding is so interesting. Wow. Part of my blood may have been coming in those ships.”
She sighs, “I am so proud of all of them.”
(Pics below: Irma, Esteban, Kevin and Pete.)
*Andy is not pictured - he was not in Puerto Viejo when I visited.
I hang my head out of Maria’s jeep and feel the gentle wind on my check. I hear the howler monkeys hooting in the trees. I smell the salt from the sea.
And I exhale.
I feel gritty. Later. In Maria’s almost tree house. It’s not really a tree house, but it’s located up in the hills. A one-story wood house on columns, built from scratch with local wood and the help of her neighbors, surrounded by trees, tall plants and lush greenery, and run rather efficiently with rain water and solar energy. I sit on her deck as the sun goes down, sand still in my sea socks, and eat fried plantains covered with a soft, white, pungent cheese. And although I am here to tell the stories of brave, beautiful young souls searching for their history in the depths of the sea, making sense of identity in a society that has systematically denied this part of their lives, I realize I must pay homage to this special area first.
Puerto Viejo and Cahuita towns, nestled in the middle of the province of Limón, Costa Rica, have slowly been weaving their tentacles around me, soothing something in my spirit that I didn’t even know needed attention.
Maria Suarez is one of the founders of Centro Comunitário de Buceo Embajadores y Embajadoras del Mar, an incredible local enterprise supporting teen and young adult scuba divers in exploring underwater archaeology and training as stewards of the Costa Rican Caribbean Sea. And she has invited me to live with her while I visit and gather their stories.
But my heart is so full of this place ... with its Afro people, its BriBri people, its European-descended people, its Mestizos, often all coexisting fluidly, even within the same family; with its Spanish and English and Creole Patois languages mixing seamlessly in cafes and hovering in the air; with its gluten-free bakeries and roadside restaurants serving up delicious dishes of rice and beans with coconut milk, grilled fish with jerk sauce and mariscos soup; with its brilliant surf breaks, protected coral reefs, sunken shipwrecks and its swimmers, snorkelers, divers and fishermen on the ocean side of the road and its farmers and livestock on the jungle side.
From this area comes a fierce community-led environmental movement and an unwavering commitment to diversity that moves and touches me.
I visited once long ago - almost 15 years ago - and it struck a chord then. I didn’t expect the magic to grab me again so quickly, but it has already wrapped me in its arms and nestled me close to its bosom. It calls my name.
More to come on the young Sea Hunters and their bright faces soon.
Until then, I just wanted to bear witness to a slice of magic shining from the Afro-Caribbean Costa Rican sea.
(Pics: Maria on the deck of her lovely house.)
I landed on Friday in Limon, Costa Rica to interview a group of brave and enterprising teen divers who are searching for slave shipwrecks. Super excited to tell their stories!
11 Things To Know About the Slave Ship São José Paquete d’Africa
She was named after a Christian Saint—Saint Joseph and captained by Manuel João, a Portuguese man who actively captained slave ships until 1828.
She left Lisbon on April 27, 1794, destined for Mozambique with the order to sail to Maranhão, Brazil, and with a plan to resupply in Cape Town, South Africa.
512 Mozambicans were eventually captured and trapped in her cargo hold. Some of them would have been forced to walk for weeks from Mossuril or Quintagona, cities in the interior, to Nampula, and then across the bridge to Ilha de Moçambique. Others were brought down the Zambezi River and then north along the coast from Quelimane, a city on the sea. These captured Africans were most likely Makau, Sena, Yao and Makonde peoples.
The voyage was timed to beat the monsoons and catch the Atlantic’s favorable trade winds, and was expected to last for about three months.
On December 27, 1794, according to a deposition given by the captain to a lawyer from the Dutch East India Company, the ship ran aground somewhere near Camps Bay in Cape Town. It had encountered a strong southwesterly wind that prevented it from entering the bay. So the captain decided to wait nearby and hope better conditions would prevail the following day. But at 2:00 am the ship struck a rock and started taking in water. The captain ordered the crew to cast out an anchor, but the cable snapped; then he ordered a second anchor, but it was broken by the surge and strong winds, and the ship soon became wedged between two reefs. Since they were so close to shore, the captain sent a boat with a line ashore, but the boat splintered upon the rough waves. Next, a raft and another small boat with sailors and enslaved Africans were sent ashore. Then an official from the Dutch East India Company arrived and rigged a basket onto a rope, which they were able to attach to the ship and thus bring more of the crew and the enslaved to safety.
Abandon ship! At some point the captain and all of the crew abandoned ship and made it to shore, and left 212 of the shackled on board to die in the violent waves.
Instead of trying to engage another ship and continue to Brazil, the crew auctioned off the 300 survivors to local owners in Cape Town.
The Slave Wrecks Project team of divers used the archives to narrow down the location and began their search for the ship in Camps Bay. And for two years—2011–2013—swept the area with a device called a magnetometer, which measures the earth’s magnetic field and identifies metal and iron objects, looking for clues like anchors, nails, guns and ship fittings with no luck.
Smoking gun! Frustrated, lead investigator Jaco Boshoff returned to the archives—which were chock full of papers—and came across the above-referenced deposition that mentions the shipwreck occurring under a well-known landmark. And he realized they were searching in the wrong spot, that the wreck had actually happened a bit further north in Clifton Bay, a smaller cove with a clear view of a well-known local landmark called Lion’s Head.
Correction! With that shift, the pieces quickly fell into place. The team figured out that the wreck had actually already been found, but it had been mislabeled as another shipwreck. It took another two years, but through numerous and in-depth archaeological tests and more archival searches, the team proved that the humble and few artifacts found—timber, shackles, copper fastenings, pulley block, cannons, cannonballs and iron bars of ballast—were in fact remains of the São José.
The finding of the São José closes a few dangling loops and fills in history rather neatly by clearly illustrating the global nature of the slave trade between three continents—Europe, Africa and South America—and four countries in particular—Portugal, Mozambique, South Africa and Brazil—a geographical bigness that is often minimized in our current accounts of the slave trade. The first ship to successfully travel this route arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1795, only a year after the attempt made by the São José. So the São José may have been one of the first—and maybe even the first—ship to attempt to bring enslaved East Africans to the Americas. Perhaps there is now a measure of closure for those in Mossuril and elsewhere whose ancestors were stolen, and an interesting new link of ancestry between Mozambicans, South Africans and Brazilians to explore.
Info from “No Return: The 221-Year Journey of the Slave Ship São José” by Jaco Jacques Boshoff, Lonnie G. Bunch III, Paul Gardullo, Stephen Lubkemann (National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016)
In Senegal and Togo, I had the pleasure of sharing my work with bright young minds. Super rewarding to see the next generation wrestling to understand their history and working to make a difference in the world.
In Dakar, I spoke to seniors at the Senegalese American Bilingual School (SABS), thanks to an invitation by teachers Wilma Randle and Rugiyatu Kane. Students were sitting on the edges of their chairs with hands waving in the air - and not because of any great oration skills on my part - but because they were smart and engaged students, with thoughtful observations about what diving the depths means for them, for Africa and for the world.
And in Togo, I spoke at WoeLabs, thanks to an invitation by Ashoka Fellow Sename Koffi Agbodjinou and Mimi and Jean, his on-the-ground admin team. WoeLabs is an incubator for social entrepreneurs in Lomé with dedicated, young entrepreneurs nurturing innovative projects that are transforming local communities. The passion and commitment by these young people to birth a new Togo by shifting whole systems and freeing the country from the leftover sludges of colonization, was awe-inspiring.
The ultimate goal of my slave wrecks journey is to unearth and provoke new, powerful and surprising stories about black folks around the world, and especially about those on the continent of Africa, I hope to bring nuance and complexity to the way we think of the human journey of Africans globally.
And I think these young people help explode stereotypes and build hope for what is coming. See their beautiful, light-filled faces below, so eager, curious, open, and know that life is good.
In this map on the left by German designer Kai Krause, you can easily see the true size of Africa. It is not a country. Africa is a continent that could easily enfold the United States, most of Europe, the UK, Japan, China and India into its arms.
On many maps, Africa looks to be just a bit bigger than the US. But the Gall-Peters map on the right shows the true size of Africa in relation to the rest of the world. It is massive and central. And with over 3,000 ethnicities and 2,000 languages, it can not be understood as just one thing.
(...From a talk I gave in the Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic for Black History History Month on February 27, 2019)
I traveled to Benin and Togo a few weeks ago.
I walked through Ouidah, the slave-trading capital of Benin.
And I faded into nothing amid the noise and the hawkers and the dusty roads. The dust caked up on my clothes and my skin, flitted into my eyes, painted me the same color as the background.
Ewe are one of the peoples of the region. Ewe (pronounced aye-way) - a word that came to me in a dream months ago, before this journey started, loud and strong as though someone spoke the word in my ear … maybe proving that this visit was foretold, that these people mean something to me, that there is something important for me to find here.
I revel as I walk the streets - I see my nose in her nose, my eyes in his eyes, my walk in their walk, even my afro style in their afro style. I disappear into the similarities.
But I also flicker back into existence as I note the differences.
I struggle with cold-water showers, nonflushing toilets, relentless mosquitoes, French accents, smiles that initially greet me like a sister, “ça va bien?,” but that waver as I lift my heavy, English-only tongue and reveal my otherness, my Americanness.
It is in those moments that my perspective changes, sadly, and I suddenly see the people and the scenes before me with critical eyes, unforgiving eyes, “Western” eyes.
Until I force myself to breathe out … a big but gentle breath that travels before me slowly and then with speed, coating the people, the roads, the sky even, in pearly drops, in recognition, in communion.
And I realize that Togo and Benin, and by extension, Africa - the massive continent with a landmass that could encompass the United States, most of Europe, China, India and Japan, with over 3,000 ethnicities and 2,000 languages - are big, complicated, rich, old … that my relationship and connection are not simple or easy … but that there is opportunity to build a true - deep and abiding; real - relationship with this land … that there is much more I need to see and touch and feel … that Ghana, the Ivory Coast, the Congo, Namibia, Botswana and Ethiopia are now calling to me …
… that my discovery has just begun.
I knew it intellectually but am now experiencing within my very bones the truth that my history does not start in bondage on these shores. What a revelation! My history does not start in bondage! The trauma and pain of that moment in time is part of me - an important part of me - but it is not the beginning of me nor the all of me.
My story stretches back far with a people I am just beginning to see, let alone understand.
The oceans ... these sunken ships ... this beautiful, committed, dedicated search for missing stories, for untold history by people who look like me allow for healing and for closure and for absolution. It is a balm for a festering wound on the psyche of whole nations.
Over 40 million Africans were likely sold and enslaved across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and I believe that DNA codes lying dormant for centuries and spread across the world are now being activated … subconscious memories and longings for truth are resurrecting.
The ancestors - those who perished on the more than 35,000 ships that crossed the Atlantic - whose souls have never been acknowledged or mourned - are calling for remembrance … for embrace … for a reckoning … for a release.
And many - like me, like these divers, historians and archaeologists - are answering their call.
… again, the discovery has really only just begun.
A few more of the divers on Ilha de Moçambique ...
Amade Ismael Age: 58 Profession: Radio Host & Community Radio Station Coordinator [Community Monitor since 2017] Birthplace: Ilha de Moçambique Why He Is Involved: He says: “This work is very important for our story, for our country. There are slave trading routes from Ilha along the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and so there are wrecks everywhere. Before the Slave Wrecks Project, we didn’t know how to dive and preserve this heritage. We learned three years ago, and now, our role is to protect and to share. I am reporting on the radio - in the local language, Makua, and in Portuguese - and working to keep this underwater heritage alive.”
Momade Ossumane (Dinho) [Community Monitor since 2017]
Age: 53 Profession: Hospitality and tourism operator (President of Apetur, an association of tourism operators) Birthplace: Ilha de Moçambique Why He Is Involved: He was born on the Island and feels that he must fight for heritage conservation on Ilha, especially its underwater heritage, which he says was not included in the Island’s UNESCO World Heritage Convention. He is particularly concerned about treasure hunters that succeeded for decades in plundering artifacts from around Ilha’s shores. He hopes to mitigate the damage done and to prevent future abuse.
You’ve met the lady scuba divers of Ilha de Moçambique - Gisela and Samira - both of whom completed their dive training in December and became PADI-certified scuba divers, and who are now training as Community Monitors to protect the submerged heritage resources (i.e., sunken shipwrecks) around the Island. Now, meet the male divers who trained with them.
*(With reporting by Samira Jamú) *(Note: Eduardo dos Santos is already a Community Monitor and helped train all the divers this past year.)
Benedito Felex Shiole
Age: 30 Profession: Coastal police Birthplace: Nampula, Mozambique Why He Is Involved: He wanted to learn more about the Island’s heritage and figured learning how to dive would help him become a integral part of saving Mozambique’s resources.
Dino Alfredo Macada
Age: 34 Profession: Fisherman Birthplace: Ilha de Moçambique Why He Is Involved: He started fishing when he was only 10 years old and has always liked the sea and projects involving the sea. As a free diver, he can already stay submerged underwater at 25 meters for more than four - five minutes just holding his breath. But he wanted to learn how to dive with tanks and stay under longer, and he wanted to help preserve Ilha’s resources.
Eduardo dos Santos (Dinho) [Dive Trainer & Community Monitor]
Age: 55 Profession: Business Owner (Ilha Aquasport Dive Center) Birthplace: Nampula, Mozambique Why He Is Involved: He loves studying centuries-old maritime technology and learning how boats traveled so far without the kinds of instruments used today. But he also thinks it is very important not just to find wrecks, but to bring up lost stories so people can better understand the past.
Evódio Rafael Amade
Age: 27 Profession: Member of PRM (Police of the Republic of Mozambique) Birthplace: Nampula, Mozambique Why He Is Involved: Protecting people and enforcing the rules are a part of his work anyway, so safeguarding the country’s maritime resources seemed like a natural extension to him.
Age: 40 Profession: Sailor Birthplace: Memba, Mozambique Why He Is Involved: He used to dream about being a diver one day. And now, as a member of the Mozambican Navy, he realized the #slavewrecks training was the perfect opportunity to realize his dreams.
We Americans know well the stories of a few famous freed slaves like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington, people who rose from the dredges of enslavement to become thought leaders, presidential advisors and inspired voices whose words and ideas still resonate and guide generations today.
But has anyone heard of similar such rises in Japan? Or more specifically of one particular emancipation in the 1500s of an African reportedly from Mozambique (although it may have been elsewhere on the continent - details are understandably shaky), who threw off the chains of bondage by the force of his will, integrity and incredible physical strength to become a famous Afro-Japanese (I think I just made up that term) samurai?
This is the story of Yasuke.
Some say Yasuke was a Mozambican Makua, from the same community of folks who perished on the São José Paquete d’Africa (the shipwreck found off the coast of Cape Town in 1794) and who populate Ilha de Moçambique, but no one really knows for sure.
According to legend, he was dark - dark as the night, his skin colored as though with the ink of a thick black marker, rich and shiny, beautiful. He was big - tall as a mountain with thickly corded muscle and the strength of a thousand bulls in his arms and legs. And he was smart - smart with an enormous reservoir of cunning and intelligence like a flock of crows.
Okay, I made up those details - I just like the way they sound.
However, we do know this: An Italian Jesuit, Alessandro Valignano, charged with inspecting Jesuit missions in East Africa in the 1570s, bought Yasuke and traveled with him via ship from Africa to the countryside of Japan in 1579.
Yasuke, perhaps one of the first Africans to be seen in Japan, caused quite a stir when he accompanied Valignano to the capital later in 1581. People clamored to see him. The commotion caused Lord Odo Nobunaga, a powerful daimyō (noble feudal landowner) in the region, to seek an audience. Nobunaga, whose eyes couldn’t absorb the magnificence of all that rich color, demanded that Yasuke strip to the waist and scrub the color off his skin. When the color didn’t come off, Nobunaga became impressed with Yasuke and even intrigued. I imagine Nobunaga was taken by Yasuke’s inherent dignity, in the way that although he was a grown man being forced to strip and scrub in front of other men, he did so with nobility, character and, hopefully, quiet contempt.
Nobunaga bought Yasuke - we assume he was purchased but don’t know for how much - and brought him into his service. Unlike the Jesuits, Nobunaga gave Yasuke money, a house and work as his retainer and bodyguard. Soon, Yasuke was named the daimyō’s sword bearer and awarded his own katana, a long, single-edged sword given only to samurais to defend the land.
In this way, Yasuke officially became the first black samurai, a member of the military elite and an important member of Nobunaga’s entourage. By then Yasuke spoke fluent Japanese, and Nobunaga used to invite Yasuke to dine at his table, an unusual privilege back then, even for a samurai. Maybe Nobunaga recognized the pain and injustice of being stolen from home, forced to live in an entirely new culture with no one else who looks like you or can remotely understand your past, and had compassion for Yasuke. Perhaps, they even became friends.
Unfortunately, in 1582, Nobunaga was betrayed by his general, who started a coup to overthrow him. The general stormed the temple in Kyoto, where Nobunaga was staying, and defeated him. Nobunaga committed seppuku, ritual suicide. And Yasuke was captured.
Afterwards, the facts are disputed, but it is written that the general did not kill Yasuke. Reportedly, he was returned to the Jesuits ... then he faded from memory.
It is curious that the only moments we see of Yasuke’s life are the ones in which he encountered non-Africans. When his life did not involve Europeans or the Japanese, it dissolves into nothingness, perhaps neatly illustrating this idea that those who write the world’s history typically see blackness as a contrast to whiteness or as “other” ... and rarely appreciate the fullness and complexity and depth of black life ... in and of itself.
So let’s recast the end of this story.
Let’s imagine that Yasuke, who I think was also smart and cunning, escapes the soldiers before they can deposit him back to the Jesuits. He steals away into the countryside and hides out in an unpopulated place and lives off the land for awhile.
Memories surge stronger than ever of his mother, his father, his cousins, his nieces and nephews, his friends, all of whom he has ached for deeply over the years. He decides to finally return home or die trying. He gathers all the money he has made - and stored in a safe place in case he ever got the chance to make a quick getaway - and bides his time until he is able to buy passage in anonymity or slip unseen aboard a ship back to East Africa.
He makes the voyage and is reunited with those who never expected to see him again ... I imagine his mother and father wrapping their arms around him tight, tight, tight, standing on toes to kiss his brow, thanking the ancestors for his life and for his miraculous return, hands from the community touching his back and head in support and love and gratitude ... Yasuke falling to his knees and tears running down his face as he sees the people who look like him and as he inhales the smells of home.
Then Yasuke bows his head and holds up his hands to the sky and promises to use his strength, his cunning and his samurai sword to protect and defend his community forevermore ... and he lives happily ever after.
Celso, Cezar and Chafim - the 3Cs - young Mozambican archaeologists on the #slavewrecks project team, working to preserve the sunken slave ship heritage of Mozambique Island.
How ironic that these men, roughly the same age - 26, 26 and 27 - coming from various communities around Mozambique, all decided to take up the craft of archaeology around the same time and are now working the maritime and terrestrial sides of the same archaeological site.
Inspired initially by Indiana Jones movies and, specifically, Indy’s travel to exotic places to find treasure, all three now laugh about their naïveté around the field of archaeology. Says Celso, “I realized in my first [university] class that Indiana Jones wasn’t doing archaeology. He was doing salvage - he was treasure hunting. But archaeology is not about treasure hunting; it’s not recovering artifacts to sell. It is about recovering and reconstructing history to help people understand the past.”
“Archaeology helps you understand people by using their cultural materials,” Cezar explains further. “From a piece of pottery, you can understand what someone’s life was like 5,000 years ago and how they managed to do their daily activities.”
Chafim adds, “Archaeology is a science. We have techniques that we apply to study objects and understand them. But Indiana Jones never did any of this.”
Graduates of Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University (http://www.uem.mz/), an SWP network partner, and protégées of Ricardo Duarte (profiled in an earlier story), Celso and Cezar spent their time at the university learning maritime archaeology (the study of submerged heritage resources), and Chafim focusing on terrestrial archaeology (the study of history through the excavation of land-based sites). “I work in the Niassa province [about eight hours from Mozambique Island],” says Chafim, “where they gathered many slaves and took them to Mozambique Island and then on to the Americas. The interior is important, too. The interior and the coast joined tell the whole story.”
So how does their digging into the past help tell a stronger story of Mozambique?
Well, smack dab in the middle of Ilha de Moçambique’s three-mile length, sits the island’s only museum. It’s called the Museu da Ilha de Moçambique (https://www.ilhademocambique.co.mz/entidade/museu-da-ilha-de-mocambique). It is a lovely mansion, filled with delicate furnishings from over the centuries, lush paintings and complicated histories of Portuguese colonizers - but there are only a few mentions by name or image of the black Africans who lived, worked and were enslaved on the Island.
It is as if black Mozambicans only existed as background fodder to the larger and louder lives of the Portuguese, who arrived in Mozambique in the late 1400s and ruled until Mozambique gained its independence in 1975.
Unfortunately, soon after, in 1977, the country descended into an intense civil war that lasted for 15 years, which prevented the opportunity for it to do an independent and internal soul search and embrace. Mozambique has only been free to be itself ... to reset … to remember and reclaim its voice … for 25 years.
This is part of the reason why the #slavewrecks project is currently supporting Ilha’s museum curators and historians in building a more inclusive story about the history of the island, using the shipwrecks as a way to bring millions of people back into memory and providing a powerful example of a new approach to history for the rest of the country.
Mozambique is a new and young country now, with 65% of the population under the age of 24, according to Index Mundi.
The 3Cs represent the kind of future now possible for young Mozambicans, a future that shines bright like a diamond. What do they each hope and dream for themselves and the future of the #slavewrecks project?
“[SWP] is about linking people and establishing a connection,” says Cezar. “I want to know more about what happened to those people who went to the US, to Europe, to Asia and link us back together. The slave trade distributed people, but now we can get those people back. Now, we have this heritage, and I want to help keep it alive.”
“My dream is to train two generations in the next 20 years and extend the Slave Wrecks Project to Tanzania, Angola [and] other countries,” says Celso. “I want to be recognized as someone who did something to build this work up.”
“I am simple and quiet,” says Chafim. “And every moment I just want to learn with other people. I am proud to be an archaeologist. And I am excited to do this beautiful work.” He adds with a small smile, “This is very important history that everyone needs to know.”
Gisela Antman, Mozambican, mother, wife, co-owner/manager of the Villa Sands, arguably the swankiest hotel on Ilha de Moçambique, and newly graduated scuba diver from the #slavewrecksproject’s dive training program (see the below story for more details).
Gisela, pronounced the French way: Geez-zella, and Samira, pronounced the sweet way: with a smile, graduated this past December as the first female PADI-certified divers on Mozambique Island.
One worldly - Gee-zella is the kind of woman who haunts dreams, I think - everybody kinda falls in love with her. And the other promising - Samira just turned 18 and makes your heart swell with pride with all her brilliance, her composure, her promise as a future leader and changemaker in the world.
Both are sisters in spirit - they are equally kind, generous and supportive of each other, with Gisela in the role of mentor as a local business owner (she runs the swankiest hotel on the island) and Samira as mentee (she graduates from high school this year).
Both are sisters in the classroom; they are the only - and actually, first-ever - women in the island’s scuba diving training program, leaning on each other as buddies and lifelines under the water.
And now, both are sisters in mission - they will be community monitors for Ilha de Moçambique, charged with the job of protecting the submerged heritage resources around the island - particularly its sunken slave ships, sharing stories of the ancestors who perished underneath the sea and advocating for the relevance and importance of this forgotten history to neighbors and visitors to the island.
I talked to them about many things, but here, I’ll share their wishes for other women and girls on the Island and why they love Mozambique.
Tara: What do you both hope and wish for girls and women on Mozambique Island?
Samira (red dress): I want to talk to them. Well, not yet - because I am still a bit younger. But after five years, I want to talk to them and say to them: The things we know from home - Iike you get a husband, you marry and that’s your life - those things are not the limit. We can go beyond that.
Gisela (striped dress): Women here didn’t have the opportunity before. But now they have it. Women are the future. They are the ones educating the kids. At least that is our reality in Mozambique - women still have that obligation more than men. But now, they have the possibility to do something different, completely outside the box. They can transfer new knowledge to our kids, who are the future for this country.
Tara: You have two daughters. Gisela - five and seven. I saw them the other day watching you train at the pool. What do they say and ask about what you are doing?
Gisela: They are asking - would it be possible for us to do it, too?! Do we have to wait until we are 10 years old?! They see me, and are like, wow, you are so strong! They see me handling the tanks. They say, you look so different! (She laughs.)
Tara: Do you think there are barriers in front of you because you are female?
Samira: Yes! When you are female, they don’t always take you seriously. But I don’t care. That’s your opinion - keep it to yourself. This is my life!
Gisela: I really hope that women here realize how lucky they are in comparison to the majority of Mozambicans. To be born here, in a place like Ilha de Moçambique where the stories are rich, the culture is rich - it’s very easy to not see that. But I hope they realize how much privilege they have and take advantage of it.
Tara: Who inspires you both? Do you have any role models?
Samira: Michelle Obama! She is so strong.
Gisela: Oprah and Michelle Obama. I am reading Michelle’s book ‘Becoming’ right now. I also really like Graça Machel.
Tara: Samira, what are your plans after high school?
Samira: I want to study at Harvard … I want to study archaeology and human rights. Also, one of my dreams is to create a program - it’s going to be called the Samira Jamú Scholarship program, and it will give scholarships to young people to take care of Mozambique Island’s future.
Tara: What have you learned from being a part of the Slave Wrecks Project?
Samira: I have learned [so] much! Because the history of the island is my history, too! My brothers and sisters are in that other place.
Gisela: We believe in the ancestors and the spirits here - at least in my family and in most Mozambican families. Once per month you put food down and you speak to the spirits. But because of globalization, how can you explain this to those outside of Mozambique? They look at you like you’re crazy! But this is our reality. And I believe in that world. Not only do I believe, but I do things with my girls to make sure they speak with their ancestors. They always ask, why must we speak with people who are not here?! (She smiles.) I say, because you are Mozambican!
Tara: You love this country.
Gisela: Yes, and I want Mozambique to become a better country. I hope our leaders really start to see this country, really love the people of the country. And even though we don’t have experience doing certain things yet, I hope they will have the courage to really step into our freedom and our future.
Sooo....I spent the majority of last week in preparation for a talk that I gave at National Geographic’s 1st Annual Storytelling Summit. I flew back to DC last week just to give the talk, and now, I am headed back to Africa. (I’m actually sitting at a cafe in Istanbul right now, nursing a pot of tea, a runny nose and a sore throat as I wait on the plane to Dakar to arrive. :( ) But I had a great time at the Summit and met fantastic photographers and storytellers from all over the world, many of whom know how to get down on the dance floor. :) Plus, I got to hang out a bit with DWP divers - Jay, Justin and Kamau, and that truly warmed my heart. It turned into a great week.
I thought you might like to hear the talk. So I’m embedding it below. Hopefully, it works. I start speaking at the 2 hour and 35 minute mark and my talk runs about 13-14 minutes, plus there is a panel discussion afterwards. If you’d like to listen to my talk, just fast forward to 2:35:00, or if you prefer to read the speech in its entirety, see below.
“My National Geographic Talk”
(given on January 15th, 2019 at their 1st Annual Storytelling Summit @ Nat Geo’s Grosvenor Auditorium)
So what do I do?
I follow, dive with and tell stories about black scuba divers, historians and archaeologists searching for slave shipwrecks.
Last year, I dove in crystal clear waters off the coast of Key West with a clipboard, a pencil and a measuring tape, and I helped map the remains of my first shipwreck. The water was cool against my skin, the silence was absolute, and as I hovered over the remains of the wreck, I felt amazed, peaceful, thankful, a sense of coming home. I was a part of a story I longed to tell..
The Beginnings I invite you to travel back in time with me to Atlanta, GA circa the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.
I was a kid living in an apartment complex with my mother. It was just the two of us.
My mom was a teacher, a reading teacher.
How does the universe match parents and children? I don’t know. But I do know that my mom was the perfect mom for me.
I loved to read. I could spend all day in a corner with a book in my hand. I loved books. And my mom had access to books. She used to bring boxes and boxes of books from her reading conferences and conventions home for me to read.
I remember reading books late at night in bed under the covers with my flashlight, disappearing into other worlds. I loved fantasy books the most. Magic. Dragons. Unicorns. Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of my favorite series back then. I yearned for Ms. Who, Ms. Whatsit and Mrs. Which to tap outside my window and charge me with helping to save the universe.
My imagination was big, broad, deep, full. No limits.
But as I grew up, I began to notice a few things. First, I noticed that girls were rarely the actual heroes in these books, and second, that there were no black people in these books. Ever. They were completely missing.
The books that did have black people in them were often focused on tragedy and pain, based in the grimmest of realities. I used to come away after reading them feeling sad or angry. Even as I kid, I came to understand that there was a prevailing narrative about black people, a narrative created through a distorted lens that emphasizes - to the exclusion of much else - our struggle, our pain, our trauma.
But two years ago, I walked into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) here in DC, and I got a taste of what that narrative could be, of our history being told like a song - with a refrain and crescendo, with an ending that acknowledges the pain but moves beyond it and resounds with love and celebration.
The museum tells the story of the approximately 12.5 million Africans who were brought to the Americas on about 35,000 slave ships between 1500 and 1900. It estimates that somewhere between 500 and 1,000 of those ships sank with perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives lost. But over the centuries only a handful of those ships have been found and only one has been properly documented.
A huge part of history - just missing.
But the museum also tells the story of a group of predominantly black divers called Diving With a Purpose who have taken up the mantle and are searching for those missing slave shipwrecks around the globe. When I saw the exhibit on them, I was transported to a place of hope and possibility. I saw a way of interpreting one of the most painful parts of African American history through a new lens, with new perspectives, with loving perspectives, and with the possibility of healing deep wounds, of closure.
Now, Diving With a Purpose is a part of a larger collective of global partners called the Slave Wrecks Project that is hosted by NMAAHC and George Washington University. And the divers, along with historians and archaeologists, are presently searching for wrecks in Africa, the Caribbean and the US.
These are the people I am following.
I’d like to introduce you to a few.
This is Kamau. He is American and a lead diver. He is also a pilot, a retired engineer, and a power yoga teacher at age 64.
This is Gisela. She’s Mozambican and speaks five languages, including Swedish and Italian. And she runs one of the swankiest hotels ever on Mozambique Island.
This is Jay. Jay is a lead diver anddive training coordinator, and he’s American. He’s about 6’5” and weighs about 250 pounds and he has a laugh like Popeye the sailor man. It starts in the throat and I swear you can hear it from what feels like miles away.
Here are César and Celso. They have known each other since high school and are best friends. They are both 26 now and are two of only three maritime archaeologists in all of Mozambique.
And this is Samira, sweet Samira, also a diver from Mozambique. Samira turned 18 in December. She’s super smart and plans to study at either Harvard or Yale next year.
These new actors are taking control of the narrative and framing it in a way that brings nuance and complexity to the story of black folks worldwide - just by showing up, being who they are and stepping boldly into this work.
… Today, I am living the adventure of a character in my own fantasy story …
… diving off the coasts of countries with white sand beaches
… wrestling with a dark history and helping to set it right
… freeing the minds and hearts and souls of people who have been ground down by a painful past and debilitating stereotypes
… resurrecting memories from the depths, bringing valuable treasure in the form of stories to the surface …
I think about a little girl sometime in the distant future reading late at night in the bedroom under the covers with the glowing light from her smartphone or the reflection off the visor of her Google glasses …
… able to imagine - and maybe even actually experience - the sound of the waves, the cool of the waters, the schools of fish swimming around her …
… and to behold this enormous history buried in the sand
… but this time she knows the names of the ships and of the people - not slaves but people - whose lives were lost … and she falls in love with the characters, especially the many, many black characters of the story, and she is inspired by them so much that she aches for them to tap on her bedroom window one night and charge her with helping to save the universe..
Or even better … this girl swaps her pajamas for a wetsuit and slips under the sea, and she becomes a part of the story …
… innately understanding the transformative power of stories that are grounded in “me” and “we” vs. those many that focus on “he/she” and “they/them.”
When we think about the slave trade, we mostly think about the Transatlantic slave trade, which involved European slavers first capturing and enslaving Africans, then heading to the Americas to unload their cargo (the Middle Passage) and finally traveling back to Europe with spices, goods and profits from the sale of those human beings. We know that approximately 12.5 million Africans are estimated to have been sold between 1500 and 1900, according to sources like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. And we are learning from the documentation of wrecks like the São José Paquete d’Africa that Africans were not just taken from West and Central Africa across the Atlantic, but also from East African countries like Mozambique and forced to sail around the coast of South Africa on to Brazil and the Caribbean.
I am going to hazard a guess, though, that most of us don’t know as much about the slave trade on the Indian Ocean. I must say, I was astonished to learn how pervasive and common the slave trade in Africa was before the 16th century. This trade, which started as early as the 9th century and continued until the 20th century, mainly benefited the Arab Islamic world with trade between Western Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Some historians estimate that as many as 17 million Bantu peoples from East Africa (Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya) were sold across the Sahara Desert and the Indian Ocean to Egypt, the Middle East, European colonies in the East, Indian Ocean islands, Ethiopia and Somalia. And the trade was multidirectional - with slaves also flowing into Africa from places like India and what is now Indonesia and Malaysia to work the farms and mines in Southern Africa.
See the maps below for reference.
1 - Transatlantic trade (Source: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database)
2 - Indian Ocean trade between 1500-1900 (Source: Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade)
You have to love Yolanda and Ricardo Duarte.
I know we Americans bandy this word ‘love’ about recklessly, easily “loving” anything from commodities as banal as minty dental floss (the waxed version, please) or Ciara’s Level Up video (I would “love” to pop my bootie like that!) to our soul mates within 50-year marriages.
But I think the word really does apply in this case.
You have to love Yolanda and Ricardo’s combined spirit, their determination, their absolute commitment - in the face of inertia, bureaucracy and African “salaries” - to unearthing and unleashing the terrestrial and maritime archaeological slave-trading history of Mozambique Island.
Ricardo is a gentle wind on a summer day, quietly present, a soothing soul with a slow and easy smile, while his wife Yolanda is a dust storm, a gale force, a category-five tornado who tears through and upends everything in her wake.
And yet their disparate energies complement and elevate when mixed, particularly when combined on a common mission like sharing the heritage of Ilha de Moçambique. Yolanda tells me that the day she met Ricardo, he sent her a bouquet of yellow roses. “I sent the roses back because I think he gives roses to a lot of women!” she says with a laugh. She didn’t speak to him again for three years. But when they reconnected, it got serious fast, and within five months they were living together and have been inseparable since.
Today, Yolanda is the researcher, the diver, the on-ground coordinator/organizer who makes the Slave Wrecks Project happen on Ilha. She’s the “first to wake up and the last to go to sleep” during a field season, doing a bit of everything, and with the ferocity of a pit bull. And Ricardo is the archaeologist, probably the most well-known and respected in all of Mozambique, and the first maritime archaeologist in the country. He is also a professor at Eduardo Mondlane University. Together, Yolanda and Ricardo run the Centre for Archaeology, Research, and Resources at the São Sebastião Fort on Ilha, which is supported by the government of Mozambique, Eduardo Mondlane University and the Slave Wrecks Project.
So why are Yolanda and Ricardo so invested in this work? Why does the history of Mozambique and the slave trade matter so much to them?
For both, it is a personal matter. The blood of black Mozambicans - however distant - runs through Yolanda’s veins and Ricardo’s claim of Mozambique is absolute.
I can’t easily repeat Yolanda’s ancestry - it’s complicated with enough twists and turns to fill a book. But I can say that her lineage sprouts from wealthy and illustrious slave traders from Portugal who governed the country as well as spirited Africans who spoke up and fought back, including a Makua princess who lived on Ilha and fearlessly traveled to Portugal to fight for the life of her warring Portuguese husband.
Ricardo’s ancestry traces back mainly through Portugal where he was born, and Brazil, where he has native Indigenous ancestors. His great, great grandfather married a Brazilian princess, the daughter of the great chief Arco Verde from Recife. But Ricardo says firmly, “I am Mozambican. I moved here when I was three years old. I have spent my whole life here. This is a fantastic country with a rich cultural heritage, and it is my home.”
Both Yolanda and Ricardo have spent a lot of time researching their ancestry. And you can see how the resulting knowledge shapes them and gives them strength. Perhaps it even gives them permission to be more themselves in the world. It certainly makes the fight in Yolanda’s blood something she can embrace and be proud to also pass on. For Ricardo, perhaps it helps bestow upon him the innate sense of dignity we all sense.
Is it any wonder that Africans in the Americas hunger for such connections and stories as well? That they, too, want stories of courage, of complexity, of nuance, with names and dates - and context? They want more than just stories of horror and pain. They want to be seen as more than the sum total of countless tragedies throughout the centuries.
Yes, yes...but what about those slave wrecks, you might be asking. When do we get to them? Well, searching for these wrecks isn’t easy. They are in pieces across the sea floor, located in difficult areas under multiple jurisdictions, and still not a priority for most governments and institutions.
And so the Slave Wrecks Project has had to weave an intricate web of partners and collaborators to make this project possible … partners like the Duartes who carry the legacy forward and spread it to others across Mozambique. As Ilha residents and proud locals, they help ensure that interlopers don’t swoop in and steal remnants of that history, they support the training of their neighbors to carry forth this work into the next generation and they help share knowledge so that the Makua on Ilha can use this information to uplift themselves and build a new tomorrow.
Thank you, Yolanda and Ricardo!
December 27, 2018: Today, I just discovered, is the “224th anniversary of the wrecking of the São José Paquete d’Africa as recorded by the ship captain in his testimony to court and in contemporary shipping news.”
How timely then, my meeting with Albie.
Perhaps, we can all take a moment to nod our heads or pour a libation to the 212 Makua lives lost and to the close to 300 Makua who were pressed on into slavery in South Africa and the Americas.
(Note: The above quote is from Paul Gardullo, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.)
(Correction: Please note the correct spelling of the ship’s name as São José Paquete d’Africa in the story below.)
Albie Sachs, former South African Constitutional Court Justice and revered anti-apartheid activist...(read more below).
I spent an evening last week with Albie Sachs, a former South African Constitutional Court Justice and revered anti-apartheid activist ... and a most gracious and generous host.
Albie and his wife and enthusiastic chef-in-crime Vanessa, not only host regular gatherings for eclectic groups of family and friends who just happen to be in town, but they also host homecoming ceremonies for enslaved Africans who died in shipwrecks. Well, at least, they hosted one such ceremony for the Slave Wrecks Project, in honor of the men, women and children who perished on the São José de Paquette, the slave ship that set sail from Ilha de Moçambique in 1794 and wrecked a few months later off the coast of Cape Town.
You see, Albie’s house overlooks the wreck site of the São José. From his balcony, down the rocky slopes, directly beyond a palm tree, maybe 200 meters away, you can see two boulders poking out of the water, underneath which lie the scattered remains and accoutrements of the São José.
All agreed when the weather turned foul on the day of the ceremony that Albie’s house would be the perfect place to assemble the team and to carry out the charge laid on them by the descendants of those whose lives had been lost. They were asked to scatter soil from Mozambique across the wreck site so that the ancestors would finally have an opportunity to touch home after 200 years adrift.
You smell the sea from the balcony. You hear the buzz of conversations of neighbors across other bungalows nearby and the screams of children as they play below in the cold waters. You watch the sun as it begins its slow trajectory home after a bright day’s work. You chat with a motley crew of kids and adults who are activists, reporters, social innovators, enthusiastic swimmers, and you nosh on freshly-made pumpkin cakes and cashews and drink tonic water. You’re in Clifton Bay, one of the most exclusive and expensive areas of Cape Town. And you marvel at the ordinariness of all of this against the backdrop of a most heart-wrenching tragedy.
Albie understands the irony. He grew up here. But as a member of the African National Congress, he also spent years defending mostly black South Africans accused of crimes under the apartheid regime. He lost most of an arm and was blinded in one eye from a car bomb placed in his car while in exile in Mozambique as a result of his stance. And after he was appointed by Nelson Mandela to post-apartheid South Africa’s highest court, he wrote a landmark decision that struck down legal discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was revolutionary legislation, particularly in 2005, at a time when same-sex marriages were not allowed in most countries around the world. Albie seems to need to push beyond the accepted - and the normal - and toward that which he believes is greater and higher.
Albie steps aside in a quiet room and speaks poetically about the day of the ceremony and about his vision for the future of the wreck site. He and Vanessa have an idea for a memorial here; they imagine something unobtrusive and educational but that reminds their wealthy and privileged neighbors of what lies beneath, of the enormous legacy that surrounds them and that is now calling from the depths.
Thoughtful and measured … musical, eloquent and humble in his speech. You tell Albie that he reminds you of Maya Angelou, your auntie in spirit. And of course, he tells you that he received the 2010 Lincoln Medal at the annual Ford’s Theatre Gala (a gala chaired by then US President Barack Obama and an award given to those whose body of work demonstrates outstanding courage and character), and that Maya Angelou was a part of the ceremony. He says he got to know her a bit and read all her books and that he is delighted at your comparison. You imagine his beautiful energy and hers, for one brief moment connecting, intermingling, expanding, pushing outward like a (nontoxic) mushroom cloud, enveloping and inspiring all that it touches. You feel honored to be in his presence and touched by his graciousness and his kindness.
The waves still crash against the surf along Cape Town’s many bays and outlets with velocity and vigor. The finding of shipwrecks is a serious matter. There is much to say about the São José, which to my mind sits at the center of this work. Many more tales to come, my friends.
In the meanwhile, Albie, who usually smiles easily and with abandon, leans over as you prepare to take his picture and says quietly in your ear, “I can’t smile in front of this.”
And you agree. You straighten up a bit, too, the clamor fading around you both, his unsmiling face shining like a spotlight in the night, and you inhale softly, and honor the ancestors one more time - together.
11 Facts You Might Be Interested to Know About Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island) …
The island is only 3 kilometers (a little less than 2 miles) long and 500 meters (about ⅓ mile) deep at its widest.
It was inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, mainly because of its unique architecture - a blend of Portuguese, Arab, Indian and African styles and/or efforts.
From the 16th century to the 19th century, Ilha shone brightly as the capital of Mozambique before the capital was eventually moved to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in 1898.
The island was a central East African port in the transportation of enslaved Africans during both the Indian Ocean slave trade and the Atlantic Ocean slave trade.*
In the 1940s, movie stars used to fly into the tiny mainland airstrip at nearby Lumbo (about 20 minutes away) to vacation on the island. (Thanks, Lena Runer, for the picture of Rita Hayworth arriving to Lumbo on her honeymoon with Prince Aly Khan!)
About 11,000 people currently live on the island permanently, although some guesstimate this number to be as high as 18,000.
The islanders speak a mixture of Portuguese and Makua with a spattering of English.
Ilha’s folks are mainly Muslim, but some identify as Christian, Hindu and/or with a mix of local African traditions, too; and they all seem to get along just fine.
The island is home to the oldest surviving European building in the Southern Hemisphere - the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluartea, a Catholic church built in 1522 by the Portuguese.
During colonial times, Ilha was deeply divided into two sections - Stone Town and Macuti Town. Stone Town, in the northern part of the island, is where the Portuguese, Arabs and Asians made their homes and is characterized by colorful, colonial-style stone houses. Macuti Town, in the southern part of the island, is where most of the island’s black Africans lived and is identifiable by numerous homes with thatched roofs made of plant-based materials such as coconut palm leaf. Today, Africans, who make up the majority population, live on both ends of the island, but Macuti Town is most definitely the beating heart of the place.
Only a one-lane gated bridge, about a mile and a half long, provides access for cars to the island. Cars must pull over to the side and wait if they meet bigger cars or a long line of vehicles going in the opposite direction. On our way in, it took us almost an hour to cross. And we almost had to pay a bribe to the gate guard to get off the island! But we had a secret weapon on our side - I’ll introduce you to her later. :)
*Much has been written and researched about the Atlantic Ocean (transatlantic) slave trade, but the Indian Ocean slave trade - in which ships navigated between Western Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the East Coast of Africa and on which there is far less literature - reportedly captured, sold and enslaved as many as 25 million Africans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. [More on this later.]
I arrived on Ilha de Moçambique (the island of Mozambique) twelve days ago.
Today, as I sit in the Nampula airport on the way to the next port on my journey, I travel backwards in time … remembering a whirlwind of passionate and thoughtful conversations—on roofs with the sunset and gentle sea in the background, with roommates under twin mosquito nets late at night, on strolls through the cobblestone streets of Stone Town and the dirt paths of Macuti Town … remembering enchanting sights, smells, tastes—of good food like matapa de siri siri, a stewlike version of sautéed green beans that reminds you of home, of fishermen hawking their catches on the beach to an eager crowd, of bright smiles on friendly faces that wish you “tudo bem” as you pass.
If you bear with me, over the next few posts I will take you back over those days and introduce you in more detail to the island, the people and the work of the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP; see the background post below for more context). I’ll start with a quick snippet about Jay Haigler. . .......................................................
Jay reminds me of a bit of Popeye the Sailor Man, the 1930s US cartoon hero with the burly arms and a hankering for spinach. “I’m strong to the finish ’cause I eats me spinach.”
It’s the laugh, mainly, that does it for me—they both have a distinctive caw that somehow lives in the throat but can travel across rooms in a single bound. (In the Jo’Burg airport, for example, I could hear Jay’s laugh while I was upstairs at the food court, an entire floor away, and he was holding court at the gate.)
But it’s also the rakish charm, the good humor and the enthusiasm and commitment to helping those he cares about that connects Jay to Popeye in my mind.
Jay is a lead instructor and the safety dive officer for Diving With a Purpose (DWP), and he’s the dive training coordinator for the Slave Wrecks Project. Jay trains all the new scuba divers with SWP here on Mozambique Island. Under his tutelage, for eight days, eight hours a day, enterprising Mozambicans listen to videos, review lessons, take exams and practice their water skills in a lovely infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean. The students graduate from this training as PADI-certified open water scuba divers, which means they can dive anywhere in the world. But most importantly, they are eligible to become official Community Monitors for the island, charged with the awesome responsibility of helping to preserve the maritime archaeological history of this place and sharing this heritage knowledge with their neighbors and with visitors to the island.
You see, Ilha de Moçambique was once the capital of Mozambique. It has a great—and terrible—history as the rich and bustling central hub of international trade, including the trade of enslaved Africans, on the African East Coast. This place was the glistening home of the Portuguese who colonized the island and made it their most favored jewel. It attracted influential and prosperous Europeans, Arabs and Asians, who also settled here and inadvertently left traces of their lives.
SWP looks to the waters to learn about the island’s past, which makes sense because ships reportedly rest in scattered pieces across the harbor, hiding clues to those lives, and to the lives of the enslaved Africans on the ships who had no voice and whose existence has been casually and disdainfully overlooked in the historical records.
These voiceless people are of particular interest to SWP. The project sees Community Monitors as key participants in helping to raise voices from the depths and restore them back into the world’s collective memory.
And Jay sits at the nexus of knowledge, experience and practical application for SWP. He provides the monitors with the tools they need to actively explore their heritage and to protect it from treasure hunters, developers and outsiders who would otherwise steal or destroy it.
Eight monitors graduated on Sunday during a lovely ceremony with music and food and dancing, bringing the total number of Community Monitors trained by Jay to 11. His goal is to get that number to 20 in the next few years.
You hear Jay’s voice—a booming, rich, deep tenor—and the trademark cackle, and you see the twinkle in his eye and the joy emanating from the center of his being … and you believe him when he says quietly, remembering how all the divers completed their tests successfully: “This is what I live for.”
And so it all begins...Nicole, Kamau, Jay and I squeeze together for a quick selfie before we board the plane from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Jay and Kamau are two of the lead divers for Diving With a Purpose and Nicole is the project coordinator for the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP). We will meet more members of SWP in Jo’Burg and then head on to Mozambique Island in the a.m.
More on these smiling faces to come....
On a hot summer day in the murky waters of the man-made Millbrook Quarry in Northern Virginia, a group of about 25 people outfitted in scuba gear take turns going down to a depth of 30 feet, testing their compass reading skills, flooding their masks and practicing emergency ascents without air. The sight is not so unusual since Millbrook is the main training and certification site for scuba divers in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area and often hosts such groups. What might give folks pause, however, is that upon closer look they may notice that all 25 of the divers are African American. And if they chat with this unexpected bunch, they might also find that a majority are certified and qualified to search for, document and help excavate slave trade shipwrecks.
Many of these divers are members of Diving with a Purpose (DWP), a non-profit organization dedicated to researching, conserving and protecting submerged heritage sites, and in part, the protection, documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks. DWP is part of a global network known as the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) whose mission is to use slave shipwrecks as a unique point of entry into understanding the history and impact of the slave trade and sharing that understanding with the widest global public. Hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), SWP also works to create exhibitions, train divers and archaeologists and promote greater diversity in scholarship.
The passionate divers of DWP are not necessarily archeologists or historians by training, by the way, although some are. Mainly, they are retired military officers, engineers, entrepreneurs and civil servants who just love to dive and want to make a difference in the world.
Take Jay Haigler, who sits on the board of DWP, for instance. He’s tall and big – I'm guessing about 6'4 and 240 pounds - with a booming voice and an easy, infectious laugh. He is a retired engineer, a PADI-certified master diver training instructor and a NOAA scientific diver. Or tall and wiry Kamau Sadiki with his thin, wire-framed glasses, and quietly serious manner. He is a retired engineer and pilot, a DWP board member and President of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. Or Dr. Albert José Jones, the founder of the first diving club for African Americans, a Korean War combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient and an inductee into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame with over 6,000 dives from 50 countries under his belt. He's in his 80s and walks with a cane, but he slides into the water with ease.
Or finally, Ken Stewart, the founder and visionary of DWP who got all of this off the ground at the very start. He is 74 years young, but still steps with the quickness and the slickness of an uptown New Yorker. Ken is also an Army veteran, a former corporate executive and the program manager for Youth Diving With a Purpose. This year, he was named by Scuba Diving magazine and Seiko as the 2018 Sea Hero of the Year.
Over the next year, I will tell many stories about these and other DWP divers - and Black historians and archaeologists committed to this work with the SWP - who by their very presence are turning the maritime archaeological world on its head and providing a new and deeply personal lens through which to understand the global slave trade.
Here is one example of how their work easily becomes a dive of the soul.
DWP members participated in key aspects of work researching, diving on, and memorializing the São José Paquete d’Africa, the only working slave ship - sunk with its captive human cargo still aboard - to be fully documented by maritime archaeologists. It was found off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa under the leadership of SWP founding partners Iziko Museums of South Africa and the George Washington University.
Kamau, one of the lead divers on the São José, shared what it meant to him to travel to South Africa, dive in those turbulent waters and touch an artifact from the ship. “Holding that wooden member in my hand, it was like I was hearing the souls of the lost. It helped me imagine the slave trade in a personal way.” Afterward, Kamau traveled to Mozambique with NMAAHC’s Founding Director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is African American, and other members of the Slave Wrecks Project to participate in a ceremony with the Makua, the descendants of those who perished on board, and Mozambican officials.
The Makua chief gave Lonnie soil from the country in a special cowrie shell vessel with the instructions to scatter the soil at the site of the wreck in Cape Town and to be sure to deliver the message that their descendants have never forgotten them. Lonnie writes in From No Return, a book published by NMAAHC about the Sao José, “I felt a chill run through me as I held the vessel. It was as if I were holding the spirits of our ancestors. I could feel a spiritual weight upon me, and for a few moments, I was simply taken away.”
A few days later Kamau, along with a South African marine archaeologist and a Mozambican college student - each with three distinct and personal connections to the diasporic journey of Africans - waded in the waters in Cape Town as close to the wreck as possible and scattered the soil, giving those long-lost spirits of the Makua a chance to finally sleep in their homeland.
According to the Trans-Atlanta Slave Trade Database, approximately 12.5 millions Africans were forcibly transported via ships during the Middle Passage (the Atlantic ocean crossing, or middle leg, of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas). SWP reports that hundreds of these ships sank during the crossing, but only a handful of those vessels have been found. Outside of the Slave Wrecks Project, few divers, maritime archaeologists, historians or treasure hunters are searching for these ships. Most likely this is because the treasures of these ships perished on board, but it is also because this part of history has been glossed over in our history books. A 2018 study released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "Teaching Hard History: American Slavery," reports that fewer than half of the high school seniors that responded to its survey had even heard of the Middle Passage and that most knew little about slavery’s origins.
For DWP though, it doesn’t just matter that these shipwrecks are found and that this missing story of the global slave trade is told. For them, it also matters who tells those stories. People of Black African descent, they believe, must begin to find their own history and tell their own stories.
Over the next year, through funding from the National Geographic Society, I will follow, dive with and tell as many stories as I can - of these divers, historians, maritime and terrestrial archaeologists; of the wrecks found; of the ancestors who perished and the descendants who survived them; and of the relevance of this history today. And I will do so in as many creative and experimental ways as possible.
I will also talk about the work of the Slave Wrecks Project, which has made an enormous investment in serving as witness and protector to this moment in history, in educating the public about the realities of the global slave trade and in engaging and supporting the local communities where the wrecks are found.
Finally, I will hold the space for other creative Black storytellers to re-engage with the Middle Passage and to help bring humanity, nuance, complexity and light to the origin story of Africans in the Americas.
You can follow the journey here, and get weekly updates.
My Itinerary: Mozambique - December 1st - 12th South Africa - December 12th - January 31st Senegal - February 1st - February 22nd US and the Caribbean - March 1 - July 30th
I look forward to unraveling and sharing this oft forgotten part of history with you. And I hope you will join me and share your comments and observations along the way.
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