Slave Wreck Heritage

Slave Wrecks Project Rationale


  • The Historical and Cultural Significance of Slave Wreck Heritage

Despite the rapid proliferation of historical, anthropological, and archaeological studies of various aspects of the global African slave trade, it is remarkable how few archaeological studies of the remains of the ships engaged in that trade have been conducted to date. Over 590 vessels engaged in the slave trade have been documented to have been shipwrecked during the four centuries (16th – 19th) during which the African slave trade ran its course. Many others whose fate remains unknown undoubtedly became part of the archaeological record as a result of being lost at sea. Yet material evidence of the global slave trade from shipwrecks has only been collected in any fashion from four sites. On two of these sites — the Henrietta Marie in the Florida Keys and the Wydah –- all or most of the work was conducted by treasure-hunting teams who collected artifacts in an ad-hoc and largely unsystematic manner without any appropriate reference or concern with context or association. As intriguing as the findings from these sites have been, the removal of artifacts from these three wrecks (and the wanton destruction of context that occurred in the process of searching for commercially valuable items) in no way conformed to acceptable archaeological standards and greatly curtailed the usefulness of these material remains for informing our understanding of the slave-trade. The only other completed study of known slavers are that of the Danish wreck Fredensbourg and the James Matthews (in Australia) carried out using accepted methods of archeological and historical documentation, contextualization, and preservation. However, not one of the wrecks examined to date involved a vessel in the actual “slaving” leg of the trade. The Henrietta Marie and the Fredensbourg wrecked after having sold their slaves in the Caribbean and while carrying other cargo back to their respective ports of origin in Europe. Meanwhile, the Wydah, James Matthews, and the Queen Anne’s Revenge wrecked after having been converted to other ends. In contrast, at least five of the most promising of the wreck sites of initial interest to this project involve ships that foundered while carrying slaves. The rigorous study of any one of these wrecks would thus represent a significant contribution to the study of the global slave trade. The scientific documentation of wrecks such as these may offer unique opportunities to study specific aspects of the global slave trade about which little is known.

  • Mitigating the Risks to this Unique Heritage

Increasingly slave wrecks, like other submerged sites, are subject to several types of pressing threats. These include highly sophisticated treasure-hunting firms, less systematic yet no less destructive salvage activities by sport divers, and coastal development. Over the last several decades in areas with similarly important historical-cultural resources (such as in the Mediterranean and Florida coasts) thousands of shipwrecks have been destroyed resulting in the tragic loss of archaeological information, of human history, and of economic potential based on tourism tied to these cultural resources. The pillage of submerged cultural resources for private profit brings little if any economic benefit to local populations—a far different picture than the one that develops as a result of tourism premised on sustainable resource use and preservation. What is needed, more than anything, is a sustainable alternative to the impacts of unregulated commercial tourism or commercial salvage.

Rather than allowing the unique cultural remains of the global slave trade to be plundered for the private gain of a few individuals this project assists in the development of programs and institutional capacity that will protect the project’s submerged cultural sites and their natural environments from human destruction and for public benefit. Moreover, by diversifying the local economy through cultural resource management-based tourism, the project aims to relieve some of the intense pressures on maritime environmental resources in densely populated coastal areas. In places where over fishing and overpopulation present serious challenges to the maritime ecosystem, the creation of alternative forms of employment related to maritime activities can diversify the ways in which resources are used by local populations. Such approaches can be particularly successful in areas where the local people retain a strong identity with maritime activities and can increase the interest of stakeholders in conservationist approaches by multiplying the reasons for preserving and protecting particular maritime sites.