Diving Into Black History

The Los Angeles Black Underwater Explorers will head to Florida to take part in uncovering the a slave ship that crashed enroute to Cuba nearly 183 years ago.
IN TRAINING — A participant trains in preparation to help search for shipwrecked ships. Black scuba divers are helping the National Park Service search out more than 90 shipwrecks in Key Biscayne Park. One of the ships they've been doing research on is the slave ship Guerrero, which sank in December of 1827.
IN TRAINING — A participant trains in preparation to help search for shipwrecked ships. Black scuba divers are helping the National Park Service search out more than 90 shipwrecks in Key Biscayne Park. One of the ships they've been doing research on is the slave ship Guerrero, which sank in December of 1827.

On Dec. 19, 1827, the Spanish slave ship Guerrero was headed to Cuba to sell off its human cargo when it encountered the British warship Nimble. A firefight ensued and the Guerrero ran aground and sank off the coast of Florida in an area known as Carysfort Reef in Key Biscayne.

Several Africans went to a watery grave, many others were rescued, and still others were taken to Liberia.

"The story of the Guerrero is more fascinating than the story of the Amistad," said Richard Rice, president of the Los Angeles Black Underwater Explorers (LABUE), a local African American Scuba Diving Club.

The story is about to take another turn, because more than 180 years after the ship sank archeologists now believe they have located the site where the Guerrero went down.

The find is partly due to the research of Gail Swanson and the determination of Ken Stewart, a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) and founder of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), an underwater archeological program launched by Stewart six years ago to assist the National Park Service in searching out more than 90 shipwrecks in Key Biscayne Park.

In 1992, Swanson began studying the history of the Florida Keys. For the past 18 years, at her own time and expense, she has researched and documented the events surrounding the Guerrero and the Nimble.

Swanson's research led to a documentary released in 2005 and entitled "The Guerrero Project." Swanson's extensive investigation has even unearthed the American-given names of those Guerrero survivors who stayed in Florida and were eventually sent to Liberia.

In 1998, she published a 21-page booklet entitled "The Africans of the Slave Ship Guerrero." In 2005, the self-taught historian self-published a more in-depth accounting in the 232-page book entitled "Slave Ship Guerrero."

Members of Diving With a Purpose, the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, and the National Park Service sanctuary have been diving, charting, mapping and doing other archeological work in the Florida Keys in search of the slave ship for years. Stewart learned of the Guerrero after viewing the documentary. When he found out that the National Park Service lacked the resources and personnel to seek and map the Guerrero and other shipwrecks, he went to work contacting members of the NABS. And thus, Diving With a Purpose was born.

Each year Stewart carries a group of black divers and NABS members to Key Biscayne, where they take an intense one-week training course in underwater archeology and are taught how to identify underwater artifacts and map them.

"We lay on the sandy bottom in around 10 feet of water for over an hour per dive doing a lot of detailed measuring and sketching of wrecked artifacts," said Stephen Scruggs, a member of LABUE who took the training earlier this year.

A former Hughes Aircraft/Raytheon employee, Scruggs moved back to his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., three years ago. It was there he learned about the Guerrero and Stewart's DWP Program. Scruggs made a presentation on his experience at the June LABUE general membership meeting.

"The irony is that nobody on the West Coast knew about it," Scruggs said. "For some reason we didn't get the word."

Just a few weeks ago, Stewart, along with Jose Jones, co-founder of NABS, and others, went on a special expedition to a site believed to be the spot where the Guerrero went down.

"We know that the Nimble had 14-pound cannon balls and that the Guerrero had 12-pound cannon balls," Stewart said. "We found cannon balls, ballasts stones, glass, artifacts that we can't identify yet, and we mapped the site."

The search for slave ships has been ignored by many. The Henrietta Marie is the oldest slave ship ever excavated and one of only a handful from American waters. It was discovered in 1972 but not excavated until the 1980s and '90s.

"Slave ships don't have treasure on them, so the people who have been uncovering sunken ships have not been interested in slave ships because there is no money in them," Rice said. "The significance of the Guerrero is that it actually had slaves aboard when it went down. The Henrietta Marie didn't have slaves on it when it went down. It had just unloaded the human cargo and was on its way back to England. When they excavated the Henrietta Marie, it just had shackles on it. But with the Guerrero they may find bones and shackles because of the 40 slaves that died."

As a result of Scruggs presentation, Rice said, at least a dozen members of LABUE will head to Key Biscayne for training next year. Training is only offered once a year and diving is restricted to two weeks.

"One of the reasons access to divers is restricted is because a certain part of the diving community will dive those wrecks and strip any artifacts bare," Rice said.

Swanson said she believes she has uncovered another slave ship, The Fly, lost among the Florida Keys wreckage. She recently wrote a paper examining the history of The Fly, a British ship that was in route from Jamaica directly to Sierra Leone when it was lost in 1789. You can read the entire paper about The Fly by visiting www.diaspora.uiuc.edu/news0610/news0610-4.pdf.

Chico C. Norwood is a writer for the L.A. Watts Times.

Photo courtesy of Ken Stewart.

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