In shipwrecks, new clues to a buried past

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In 1766, somewhere between Madagascar and South Africa, a drama unfolded on the Dutch ship Meermin that is getting renewed attention today.

Dutch sailors handed their guns to a group of slaves for cleaning. Instead, the Madagascans used the weapons to attack. After killing half the crew, the story goes, the slaves realized that they couldn't sail back to Madagascar themselves, so they kept the remaining sailors alive to navigate.

At night, though, the crew surreptitiously reset their course for Cape Town, South Africa. When the Meermin finally dropped anchor in a shallow, sandy bay, some Madagascans ventured ashore - believing themselves to be home free - and were attacked by local farmers. Those on board realized they had been duped and fought the sailors. But the captain cut the anchor, and the Meermin drifted toward the beach and lodged itself in the sand. The Madagascans surrendered, and were hauled off to the slave markets in Cape Town.

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Now, more than 200 years later, maritime archaeologist Jaco Boshoff has begun searching a windswept stretch of South Africa's coastline for the wreck of the Meermin and what he hopes will be physical evidence of the global slave trade. It represents a new kind of research.

Despite its indelible legacy, slavery has left behind a surprisingly scanty archaeological record and, in South Africa particularly, little written history. By finding artifacts aboard the Meermin and the wrecks of slave ships off the coasts of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, researchers hope to set the record straight. They are already beginning to fill in the gaps and gain new insights into a history that has long been suppressed.

"It's a trend, and also a new field," says Mr. Boshoff, who works for Iziko Museums in Cape Town. "We want to look at how visible slaves would be on a wreck."

The Meermin is the first of several slave wrecks off the South African coast that researchers plan to locate. Others include La Cybele, a French ship carrying slaves from Senegal that sank near Cape Town in 1756, and the Portuguese vessel St. José, which sank in 1794 with a cargo of slaves from Mozambique. Boshoff believes that the French ship was bound for Mauritius, and the Portuguese ship for the Americas.

International comparisons

The wrecks all occurred within the same 50-year period, and within relatively close proximity to one another. If all the ships are found, researchers will have a rare opportunity to draw comparisons between the conditions aboard the vessels of three different slave-trading nations carrying captives from three different regions of Africa.

South Africa's colonial history has deep roots in the slave trade. In the days of the Dutch- controlled Cape Colony, slaves brought over from Sumatra, Madagascar, and other far-flung places once outnumbered free citizens, but their histories have long been neglected. Their enormous economic contributions were finally acknowledged by a new democratic government in the 1990s.

But now there is surging interest among South Africans in rediscovering their multicultural roots. The city of Cape Town is littered with sites linked to slavery, says Dr. Gabeba Abrahams-Braybrook, projects manager of Iziko: Slave Lodge, a museum housed in what used to be the slave quarters of the Dutch East India Company. Until now, however, there has been little public involvement in reconstructing the experiences of slaves.

Researchers are hoping to change this through projects like the Meermin. Once a cultural museum focusing mainly on the experience of white settlers, the slave lodge is being converted into a monument to its original inhabitants.

"Obviously a huge number of people are descendants of slaves," Dr. Abrahams-Braybrook says. "The story we want to tell is of human rights, despite the fact that the site itself is enmeshed in a history of human wrongs."

In 2000, Iziko researchers began excavating small areas of the slave lodge, and has so far found more than 3,500 artifacts.

Likewise, the Meermin could contain a veritable treasure trove of artifacts. Boshoff and his team hope to find Madagascan spears, jewelry, and other personal items in the wreckage.

The underwater search for slave artifacts is not limited to South Africa. Researchers at the Turks and Caicos National Museum have also announced plans to excavate the wreckage of the Trouvadore, a Spanish slave ship that was wrecked off those islands on its way to Cuba. But in this case the story had a happy ending. The captives landed on the island of East Caicos, a British colony that had abolished slavery in 1834, and were freed.

It was the discovery of an English merchant vessel off Key West in Florida that first opened up the slave trade as a field of study to maritime archeologists. Commercial treasure-seeking wreck divers found the ship in 1972, at first mistaking her for a sunken Spanish galleon. Digging through the sands in search of gold coins, they unearthed an ivory tusk instead - a sign that the ship had carried African cargo. For more than a decade, she was known simply as "the English wreck."

Shackles of history

But when diver and archeologist David Moore returned to the site to investigate in 1983, he found a large cache of iron shackles among the debris. Today, the collection of shackles, cannons, Venetian glass beads, ivory, and other goods that were salvaged from the ship represent one of the largest finds of early artifacts of the slave trade.

The most significant discovery about this famous wreck was the name "Henrietta Marie," engraved on the ship's cast iron bell, which allowed researchers to trace a detailed history of the slave-trading vessel. In 1995, the museum exhibition "A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie" was unveiled in the US.

Telltale cups

Studying records, historians were able to link these tangible objects - the shackles of an African slave and the dented pewter drinking cups of the sailors - to the notorious transatlantic triangle trade between England, West Africa, and the Americas that the Henrietta Marie had plied.

It is that link that makes the discovery of the Henrietta Marie so valuable and compelling, says Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, president of the African American Caribbean Cultural Arts Commission.

"(W)e are ... led into the complete story of a vessel that, while unique, was also typical and revealing in so many respects of the times and historical forces that dictated her - and the world's fate," she wrote in an article on the Historical Museum of Southern Florida's website.

While the prospect of locating multiple wrecks is an exciting one for researchers, too many of them in one spot may cause some confusion. South Africa's treacherous 2,000-mile coastline is littered with shipwrecks. Researchers know of at least 2,500. Confirming that whatever ship they find is indeed the Meermin presents a challenge that researchers predict will be difficult to overcome.

"We will probably find other wrecks, and hopefully they're not on top of this one," Boshoff says. "That's our biggest nightmare."

Fortunately, a strong clue lies among the piles of books and nautical charts in his office: plans of the Meermin's design, found in a 1940s catalogue from the Scheepvaart Museum, the Netherlands' maritime museum in Amsterdam.

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