Florida Keys News
Monday, July 12, 2010
Reef may be slave ship cemetery
Archaeologists working to confirm theory about the site

Buried in the thickets of turtle grass and staghorn and elkhorn coral on the Carysfort Reef is what a group of underwater archaeologists suspect is an African cemetery.

There never has been an official dedication or a plaque installed to mark its existence, but that could change soon thanks to the work of a joint archaeological project.

Countless people unknowingly have boated over what is believed to be the Guerrero and the watery grave of 41 slaves who were chained in her hold when she went down. Diving the area with an untrained eye still reveals very little of the relic.

A closer look reveals a smattering of ballast stones, the most notable remains of a shipwreck. An even closer look reveals much more. Archaeologists recently uncovered a bronze pin, a chard of a ceramic plate, what they think is an inkwell for a pen, and what could be the last remaining piece of the ship itself -- a 12-inch piece of wood.

A federation of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and some Upper Keys volunteers have spent the past week diving, mapping and doing other archaeological work to confirm their suspicions about the site.

The Spanish piratical slave ship wrecked on the reef off north Key Largo on Dec. 19, 1827, according to Mel Fisher archaeology director Corey Malcom. The British schooner Nimble was chasing the Guerrero, which was carrying its human cargo to Cuba. A gun battle ensued, with dire consequences for the slaves. They either drowned or were crushed by the mast that broke off in the grounding.

The Nimble followed the Guerrero onto the reef, and could only watch as Good Samaritans rescued many of the pirates -- and nearly 400 of the Africans. Faring better than the Guerrero, the Nimble was towed to Key West for repairs, with 121 of the rescued slaves aboard.

After a long period of living as virtual slaves, those who survived were taken to Liberia to begin life anew, Malcom said.

The tragic and dramatic loss was newsworthy in its day, and was relatively well documented in newspaper accounts. Because the Guerrero was a pirate vessel operating outside of official systems, however, its origins and mode of operations were not well documented.

Malcom has been able to trace the birth of the ship, which was then called the James Monroe, to the War of 1812. The ship, used by a crew of privateers, captured 12 British ships in that war, Malcom said.

"She had a violent start and a violent end," he said.

Malcom and others have reviewed old maritime records and newspapers to decipher the history of the ship and uncover its watery grave. The federation has taken that work to the next level by mapping and reviewing artifacts on a section of the Carysfort Reef where archaeologists believe the Guerrero came aground.

Malcom declined to release the location for publication or install mooring balls on the site for divers, saying he was concerned about unscrupulous people stealing artifacts.

"This is a cemetery and should be treated with respect," Malcom said. "We are working under the assumption that this was their final resting place." And more.

The wreck also speaks to the heritage of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, said founder Albert "Jose" Jones, director of science and education for the federation.

"It's like you are actually touching the face of history," he said.

"The wreck is critically important to our experience," fellow association member Jay Haigler added. "It's like our ancestors are asking us to find them."

Jones and Haigler said they would like to install a plaque there honoring the slaves. Several years ago, the group installed a plaque on the remains of the slaveship Henrietta Marie, which sank 35 miles west of Key West. Shortly before the sinking, the ship's crew had sold a shipment of 190 captive Africans in Jamaica. The shipwreck was first found by Mel Fisher's divers in 1972.

Jones and Haigler also plan to give a presentation on their work with the Guerrero at the dive club's annual meeting in Costa Rica this year.

tohara@keysnews.com

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