Black Scuba Divers Document Slave Shipwrecks Forgotten For GenerationsHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Florida, archaeology, maritime history, Atlantic Slave Trade
It was in the middle of December 1827 when the Guerrero, a ship crewed by Cuban pirates, sped through the waters south of Florida to Havana, where they aimed to trade their precious cargo: 561 people who had been kidnapped from their homes in West Africa.
As a bad storm approached, the Cuban brig and its crew were trying to avoid British ships that were enforcing a ban on the slave trade, which had been implemented 20 years prior by Great Britain.
Near Orange Cay in the Bahamas, a British warship called the HMS Nimble spotted the Guerrero sitting suspiciously low in the water with the weight of the captives on board. The Nimble's crew fired two warning shots at the Guerrero and the chase was on. After five hours, the Nimble had gotten close enough to engage the Guerrero, and the two ships battled with cannon and musket fire.
The hundreds of people held captive, crammed into the Cuban boat no more than 120 feet long, could not have known what was happening above.
As the sun set, the storm descended. The Guerrero tried to take off again but crashed into the Florida reef, ripping open its hull. Its masts fell. Those on the British ship 2 miles behind could hear the screams of the hundreds aboard.
Forty-one African souls died there in bondage. Nearly 200 years later, the brig still hasn't been found.
This story may have been forgotten if not for Gail Swanson, a Florida Keys historian who first uncovered a log from the Nimble in 1992, which described these events. Later, divers Ken Stewart and the late Brenda Lanzendorf took on the search for the ship.
The two founded Diving with a Purpose (DWP) together in 2004 with the intention of finding and documenting what is left of the Guerrero. Today, divers of all ages take part in the program, learning to identify and map shipwrecks in the Florida Keys and beyond, as far away as South Africa. Most of its members are Black.
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