August 23 has been designated by UNESCO as International Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the most massive violations of human rights in modern history. From the 16th through 19th centuries as many as 17 million Africans were stolen away from their homelands, families, dreams, and aspirations, to be transported in a deadly voyage across the ocean where they had few choices but to make a new life in the face of the horrific system of New World slavery and institutionalized racism. The hopes and dreams enslaved Africans kept alive came to fruition first with the legal abolition of the slave trade (by Britain and America in 1807) and finally with the abolition of slavery itself, at various dates by various nations (British colonies in 1833, French colonies in 1848, the United States in 1865, Cuba in 1886, and the last hold-out, Brazil, in 1888).
The ships that played a role in the Atlantic slave trade have increasingly piqued the interest of maritime archaeologists, though few have been located and identified. Two known slave ships have wrecked in St. Augustine waters. To date, neither has been discovered.
The first of these was the British slaver Dove. The Dove was on route from an unspecified West African port to St. Augustine when on October 18, 1773, while attempting to make the inlet, she instead came to grief on the St. Augustine bar. Her master, two of the crew, and eighty out of one hundred slaves chained below deck all perished at sea. At the time, on the eve of Revolution, St. Augustine was the capital of Britainâ€™s fourteenth North American colony, East Florida. Wealthy English planters required a steady supply of enslaved Africans in order to see profits on their indigo, citrus, and sugar plantations, and ships like the Dove that made the infamous Atlantic passage with captive human cargoes played an integral role in the global system of forced labor and institutionalized racism that would fuel Floridaâ€™s economy for almost another century under British, Spanish, American, and Confederate flags.
If it is well-preserved, the wreck of the Dove could prove to be one of the most historically significant shipwrecks in Florida waters. As one of the lost ships of St. Augustine we are actively searching for, a scientific investigation of this wreck could provide a wealth of historical and bioarchaeological data related to the Atlantic slave trade. While this research potential is exciting to LAMP archaeologists, and would promise to teach us unknown aspects of slavery in British-period St. Augustine, we also feel strongly that any study on this wreck, which could feature human remains, must be carried out with utmost respect for the dignity of the victims and the descendants of those who survived (some of whom very well may still reside in St. Augustine) . The discovery and investigation of this shipwreck would create an opportunity for scholars to engage the local African-American community in a cooperative effort to seek out and communicate this important yet underappreciated aspect of St. Augustine’s history.
The second slave ship known to have come to grief in our waters is the Jefferson Davis, which was an ex-slaver and Confederate privateer at the time of her loss in 1861. Sailing under the name Echo, this ship was an active slaver (1857-1858) at a time when the trade was illegal, and British and American naval forces patrolled the waters off Africa and the Americas to enforce the law against human trafficking. Indeed, the Echo was captured and confiscated by the USS Dolphin, and her human cargo was eventually transported back to Africa. The Jeff Davis has long been a target of interest to LAMP archaeologists, and we have written a lot about her in this blog. We have also recently published a new webpage titled The Search for the Jefferson Davis in the National Archives.
With our First Coast Maritime Archaeology Project grand funds we have purchased new remote sensing equipment, which are the tools–along with historical research–that give us the best shot of discovering these lost ships. Stay tuned for more news as we continue the search for these particularly exciting shipwrecks . . .