International Journal of Historical Archaeology

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 6–19

Slave Ships and Maritime Archaeology: An Overview


    • School of Historical StudiesNewcastle University

DOI: 10.1007/s10761-007-0040-8

Cite this article as:
Webster, J. Int J Histor Archaeol (2008) 12: 6. doi:10.1007/s10761-007-0040-8


This contribution collates information about wrecked slaving vessels discovered or sought by maritime archaeologists since 1972. To date, only a handful of firmly identified, active slave ships have been subject to excavation, but additional work has been carried out on wrecks of former slaver ships and possible slavers. The impending 200th anniversaries of the abolition of the British and US slave trades (2007 and 2008, respectively) appear to have stimulated a new wave of interest in slaver wrecks, and these new initiatives are also discussed.


Slave shipsExcavationWrecks


Few floating seventeenth- nineteenth-century wooden ships of any sort survive today, and none of these are former slave ships. Wreck data necessarily, therefore, play a key role in the archaeological study of slave shipping. Yet to date, only a handful of slaver wrecks have been located, and only two of these, Henrietta Marie (Moore and Malcom, this volume) and Fredensborg (Svalesen 2000) have been subject to sustained programs of fieldwork. The paucity of fieldwork may appear surprising, since in theory, the wrecks of slave ships should not be especially hard to find. A total of 825 documented losses at sea are recorded among the 27,000 entries in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (Eltis et al. 1999), with 183 of these losses occurring either whilst slaving or after embarkation (that is, with African captives almost certainly aboard). Further, undocumented, examples must be envisaged. Yet as noted already, very few slaver wrecks have been located to date. Before going further, it is important to ask why.

The Ephemeral Slave Ship

A vessel engaged on a slaving venture was not, for much of its voyage, a “slave ship” at all. In illustrating this point I will simplify matters by focusing on the British trade, but many of these points apply to vessels of other European countries.

On the outward journey to Africa, the hold of an intending slaver would be laden with trade goods that would later be exchanged for African captives. At this stage, therefore, the vessel was not easily distinguishable from other categories of merchant ship carrying trade goods to Africa, but not intent upon the purchase of slaves. A few tell-tale signs, such as open gratings (rather than the more usual closed hatches), and air holes at the point where slave decks would later be inserted, did distinguish some slavers (ventilation holes of this type can be seen just above the waterline in William Jackson’s painting “A Liverpool Slave Ship,” dating to ca. 1780: Quilley 2000, pp. 79–92; Tibbles 1994, p. 141). These ships would also be carrying significant quantities of water casks, shackles and handcuffs, along with lumber, whose eventual use is explained below. Unfortunately, as is clear from the excavations undertaken so far, few of these distinguishing features survive to be observed on the seabed.

A slave ship would transform into a merchantman once again in the final stages of its voyage, as it returned home laden with colonial products such as sugar and rum. Whilst it would take around a year to complete a full voyage (Britain–Africa–Caribbean/US–Britain), the average length of a Middle Passage crossing for British ships was 63 days (calculated from Eltis et al. 1999), and whilst trading negotiations detained many vessels on the coastline of West Africa for some months, the average slaver transported human captives on the open sea for no more than a sixth of its total voyage time.

In order to make the transportation of a human cargo possible, moreover, a number of modifications had to be made to any ship as it lay off the coast of Africa acquiring captives. The first of these was the construction of the “house,” a timber shelter erected on the main deck as a temporary living space for African captives. This structure, which ran the length of the vessel and was usually roofed with matting (as described by slave ship surgeon Alexander Falconbridge in 1788: Fyfe 2000, p. 198) or a canvas awning (as used on John Newton’s ship the Duke of Argyle in 1750: Martin and Spurrell 1962, p. 9), would be needed only until the ship was ready to sail from Africa. Next came the building of “slave decks,” partial decks and platforms inserted into the space below the main deck and above the second (‘tween) deck. African captives would spend much of their Middle Passage to the Americas lying on these crowded, unsanitary and almost airless platforms, with an average of around 5–6 ft2 (.46–.56 m2) of living space per person at the height of the British trade (Garland and Klein 1985, pp. 240–247).

In good weather conditions, captives would spend the daylight hours on deck, and from the perspective of the ships crew this presented a number of security risks. On the majority of British and other European vessels, captives brought up from the slave decks were therefore confined behind a timber partition commonly called a “barricado.” This was inserted across the full width of the vessel’s quarter- or half-deck, thereby securing the area to be used by captives when they were brought up from below. Like so many of the timber features of a slave ship, the barricado was erected as the ship lay off the African coast. Alexander Falconbridge, a Bristol man who served as a surgeon on four slaving voyages in the 1780s, provides a detailed description of a barricado inserted across a half-deck:

Near the main-mast, a partition is constructed of inch deal boards, which reaches athwart the ship. This division is called a barricado. It is about eight feet in height, and is made to project near two feet over the side of the ship. In this barricado there is a door, at which a sentinel is placed during the time the negroes are permitted to come upon deck. It serves to keep the different sexes apart, and as there are small holes in it, wherein blunderbuses are fixed, and sometimes a cannon, it is found very convenient for quelling the insurrections that now and then happen (Fyfe 2000, p. 197).

All of the alterations described above were of a temporary nature; the slave house was demolished before a ship left Africa, and the slave decks and barricado were dismantled upon arrival in the Americas. None of the wrecks yet discovered were carrying slaves when they foundered, so none provides us with a snapshot of a slave ship transporting a human cargo, and with these modifications actually in place. These factors, in turn, impact directly upon our ability to identify potential slave ships on the seabed. Only in cases where a wreck can be firmly identified, and its voyage history traced (as with the Henrietta Marie: Moore and Malcom, this volume) can slave ships be identified with certainty. This happens very rarely. As Sadler (this volume) points out, the British naval patrol vessels policing African and Caribbean waters after 1807 found it hard enough to identify possible slavers even then, precisely because many of the physical signs of slaving activity could so easily be dismantled or jettisoned (see also Bethell 1966, p. 86; Kern 2004, p. 49). And should archaeologists one day locate a ship that foundered with these features still in place, it is highly unlikely that they would survive today: timber structural remains above the turn of the bilge, or in the section of the hull where the bottom turns up into the ship’s sides, very rarely survive.

In this context, it should also be noted that the great majority of the vessels fitted out for the British slave trade were actually second-hand vessels from other trades (Behrendt 2001). Such ships were easily redeployed, and this was the fate of many British slavers immediately after abolition in 1807. In this way, slave ships were rapidly absorbed into the mainstream of merchant shipping, and disappeared from view.

What of foreign slavers, still engaged in the trade after 1807? Following the establishment of preventative squadrons in Africa and the Caribbean, numerous foreign slave ships were seized as “prizes” by British anti-slavery vessels, but these captured vessels were condemned (declared illegal, then auctioned), to prevent their re-entry into the trade. Local merchants purchased some vessels, the Admiralty converted others into anti-slaving patrol ships, and some were quietly bought up on behalf of slave traders, and re-entered into the slave trade.

During the 1830s, Britain made efforts to persuade other governments to permit condemned slave ships to be broken up before resale, but Portugal and Brazil both resisted this strongly (Bethell 1966, p. 88). In 1837, the Portuguese-owned Don Francisco was captured off Dominica by HMS Griffon as it made its way from Whydah to Havana. The ship was condemned, but was certainly not broken up: it was later re-registered in London for general trading purposes, as James Matthews (Henderson, this volume). The Royal Navy did not always succeed in condemning illegal vessels, therefore. Some of course eluded pursuit altogether, and others, like Trouvadore (Sadler, this volume) and Guerrero (below), were run aground in the course of pursuit. Some of these ships may yet be re-discovered by maritime archaeologists.

Salvors and Slave Shipping

The factors discussed above go some way to explaining why so few slaver wrecks have been identified. But there are additional reasons. First, few maritime archaeologists have actually attempted to locate slaver wrecks, or even to write about slave shipping (slave ships are absent, for example from such syntheses as Bass 1996 and Gould 2000). Indeed, for McGhee (1997, p. 3), the archaeological neglect of slave shipping is nothing short of a “moral disgrace.” One explanation here may be that the slave trade is still perceived as a “difficult” subject, and so nautical archaeologists shy away from it. But there is an additional, more pragmatic, explanation.

Despite the rapid growth of maritime archaeology as a discipline since the 1960s, underwater search and excavation is so costly that historic wrecks are often initially discovered not by archaeologists, but by professional salvage companies. Historic salvors target “treasure ships,” and are rarely directly interested in vessels carrying the kinds of cargo to be found on a slaver. It is no accident that two of the slaver wrecks found to date (Henrietta Marie, Moore and Malcom, this volume, and Adelaïde, discussed below) were discovered by private companies investigating Caribbean routes plied by Spanish treasure fleets, whilst two of the located ex-slavers (Whydah Galley and the Beaufort Inlet shipwreck) were found by salvors in search of pirate gold.

By contrast, although many slavers foundered off the West African coastline, very little underwater survey has been conducted in that region. Indeed, no archaeological shipwreck survey of any sort was undertaken in sub-Saharan West Africa until 2003, when Gregory D. Cook and Christopher DeCorse of Syracuse University initiated a survey project focused on the approaches to Elmina (Ghana), the earliest and largest European trading entrepot on the West African coast ( In that one year, 70 potential wreck sites were located, and three targets have since been investigated in more detail. One of these proved to be a Dutch (or possibly British) wreck of early nineteenth-century date, and produced European manufactured goods including sheet brass “battery ware” basins, rolls of lead sheathing, brass manillas, ceramics, and beads. Slavers were by no means the only vessels to carry such goods to Africa, so whilst it is possible that this was a slave ship operating in the declining years of the slave trade, this cannot be stated with certainty (Cook, pers. comm.).

The potentials of West African waters are enormous. But for commercial reasons, salvors are drawn not to Africa, but to the Americas. The discovery of Henrietta Marie off Florida is a case in point here, and highlights the issues that can arise when a private company locates—and obtains legal title to—a slaver wreck. David Moore and Corey Malcom have contributed an account of the excavation of the Henrietta Marie to the present volume, so I need only summarize some key details here. Henrietta Marie lies on New Ground Reef, 35 mi (56 km) west of Key West, and was located in 1972 by a subsidiary of Treasure Salvors Inc., a company owned by commercial salvor Mel Fisher. At this time, Fisher was actively seeking the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a wreck that has become a cause célèbre in the battleground between treasure hunting and Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeology (Elia 2000). The wreck of Henrietta Marie remained largely unexplored until 1983, when salvor Henry Taylor began work on the site, under an agreement with Mel Fisher. Archaeologist David Moore was employed to work on the wreck in the same year, and additional work took place under his leadership in 1984 and 1985. In 1988 the not-for-profit Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society (MFMHS) assumed responsibility for the wreck, and in 1991 a team led by MFMHS archaeologist Corey Malcom returned briefly to the site. Malcom undertook additional work in 2001.

In the 30 years since its discovery in 1972, work on the Henrietta Marie has thus been sporadic. In addition, the findings have been principally disseminated not through scholarly papers, but via the MFMHS website ( Information about Henrietta Marie has, as a result, taken some time to find its way into mainstream academic writing on the history and archaeology of slave shipping. That situation is now changing, not least with Moore and Malcom’s very welcome contribution to the present volume (see also Malcom 2003 and Burnside 2002), but elsewhere the relationship between commercial salvors and professional archaeological bodies remains a difficult one.

In 1992 the differences in approach between salvage and public CRM archaeology were eloquently expressed in Ricardo Elia’s discussion of the “ethics of collaboration” between archaeologists and commercial salvors exploring Whydah, a pirate ship (and, as discussed below, possible ex-slaver) wrecked off Cape Cod in 1717. The wreck was discovered by salvor Barry Clifford in 1982 (Clifford and Perry 1999; Elia 1992; Hamilton 2006). In Elia’s words (1992, p. 108) “Commercial salvage projects … violate one of the major principles that have gained acceptance in the past 20 years of CRM archaeology—namely, the conservation ethic, which treats archaeological sites as non-renewable resources that should be preserved wherever possible and only excavated if they are threatened. In most commercial shipwreck projects—the Whydah project included—there is no real threat to the site except from the salvage activities themselves.”

For Elia, writing more than a decade ago, the aims of commercial salvage and CRM were irreconcilable, but the issue as to how research archaeologists should use the information generated by historic salvors was then—and remains now—far less clear cut. Today, some scholars (for example those working on the archaeology of piracy, a field in which salvors are very active) are more willing to find compromises (Ewen 2006, pp. 6–7). With reference to slave ships, however, these problems are exacerbated by a fundamental lack of direct academic engagement in the study of slaver wrecks.

The fact remains that until recently, academic archaeologists have paid scant attention to slave shipping. Indeed, Fredensborg, located in 1974, remains the only slaver wreck to have been deliberately and successfully sought for non-commercial reasons. Yet Leif Svalesen, the diver who initiated that search, was not himself a professional archaeologist. Given this lamentable track record, it has recently been argued with some justification that the heritage profession should perhaps be wary of “tossing pot-shots” at the salvage companies who have located slaver wrecks (McGhee 1997, p. 3).

Returning to Henrietta Marie, it should be emphasised that in 1993 Mel Fisher donated his claim to the wreck site and the artifacts retrieved from it to the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. This not-for-profit organization funds ongoing research and conservation on Henrietta Marie material, with research reports being made available on the Society’s A Slave Ship Speaks website ( Via the Internet and a touring Henrietta Marie exhibition, the MFMHS can be credited with bringing the archaeology of slave shipping to a wide public audience. With one or two notable exceptions (see Henderson and Sadler, this volume) academic and CRM archaeologists have not promoted the subject in this way.

The Excavated Wrecks

The best known of the excavated wrecks is undoubtedly Henrietta Marie (Eltis et al. 1999, Voyage ID No. 21285). This is discussed in Moore and Malcom’s contribution to this volume and will not be described further here. Only two other firmly identified slaver wrecks can be set along aside the Henrietta Marie. The first is Fredensborg, a vessel belonging to the Danish West-India Guinea Company, which ran aground at Tromøy in southern Norway in 1768 (Svalesen 2000). Fredensborg had almost made it home to Copenhagen following a slaving voyage from the Gold Coast to St Croix in the Danish West Indies, where 265 Africans had been sold (Eltis et al. 1999, Voyage ID No. 35181). Diver Leif Svalesen discovered the wreck in 1974. The circumstances of this discovery differ from that of Henrietta Marie in that Svalesen was looking specifically for Fredensborg. Armed with archival data (including the records of the Court of Inquiry held after the shipwreck), he also had a good idea where to find it. The wreck was successfully located within a month of the first dive (Svalesen 2000, pp. 13–20). Archaeological work began in 1975, directed by the Norwegian Maritime Museum. Further exploration took place in 1977, in co-operation with the Aust-Agder Museum (Svalesen 2000, pp. 173–4). The Aust-Adger Museum directed additional work from 1995–7.

Fredensborg sank in shallow water, and every life on board was saved. Remarkably, three logbooks were rescued along with the crew, and Fredensborg has the unique distinction of being the only located slaver wreck for which sea logs or journals survive. These and other documents now in the Danish Guinea Company archives provide an unparalleled level of detail about the construction, cargo, crew and voyage of an eighteenth century slave ship.

Most of the hull was crushed when the ship sank, but some timbers survive, along with parts of the ship’s rigging, armaments and tools (see Svalesen 2000, pp. 173–186 for an account of the excavated finds). Fredensborg was carrying a varied homeward cargo. Amongst the goods being brought back from Africa were elephant and hippopotamus ivory from the Gold Coast. West Indian products included large quantities of mahogany and dyewood. Personal possessions recovered from the seabed included a wooden box containing writing equipment, sealing wax and seals, book bindings, and items of clothing including shoes, buckles, and buttons. These would have belonged either to members of the crew, or to the passengers who were also carried on the homeward voyage.

Traces relating to the ship’s human cargo were few, but clear imprints of shackles were found on the seabed. An African mortar (grindstone), used to prepare the slaves’ meals, was also recovered, as were large numbers of clay tobacco pipes, which were often distributed to captives making the Middle Passage.

The finds from the Fredensborg excavations are curated by the Norwegian Maritime Museum (Oslo) and the Aust-Agder Kulturhistoriske Senter (Arendal). Staff at the latter recently completed a digitized catalogue of Fredensborg material, which will shortly be accessible to researchers online (Tanja Røskar Reed, pers. comm.).

Only one other firmly identified, active slaver has been excavated to date. This is the French Adelaïde, examined during the summer of 2003 by maritime explorer Franck Goddio, who is better known for his work on the Egyptian port of Alexandria. The wreck was discovered during a survey mission off the southwest coast of Cuba, and as yet no publications have appeared on the work carried out there. The sole source of information currently available on Adelaïde is a press release issued by the Frank Goddio Society in 2003 (

The 400-ton Adelaïde was the property of Louis XIV of France, and had been chartered by the Compagnie de l’Assentio (a French company supplying slaves to Spain). The ship had sailed from Lorient in Brittany to Whydah in the Bight of Benin, purchasing 300 slaves who then made the Middle Passage to Léogane in Haiti. The vessel met a hurricane after departing from Haiti, and was thrown onto a reef (Eltis et al. 1999, Voyage ID No. 33343: the dataset records a crew of 130, but according to the Goddio Society press release, 106 men died when the ship went down, and a further 45 survived). Adelaïde was extensively damaged during and after the hurricane that sank her, and most of the surviving remains comprise heavy, structural elements of the vessel itself. But human remains were also located, along with parts of the rigging, navigational instruments, ceramics, shackles, and two anchors.

Henrietta Marie, Fredensborg and Adelaïde are the only working slave ships to have been excavated thus far, but three further vessels should be mentioned here. In 2000 and 2001 archaeologists from the Bohusläns County Museum, Sweden, carried out a limited programme of reconnaissance on the wreck of Havmanden, a Danish West India Company ship wrecked off Björkö island (Göthenborg, Sweden) in 1683, and discovered by sport divers in 1999 (von Arbin and Bergstrand 2003). Havmanden was travelling from Copenhagen to the Danish colony of St. Thomas (West Indies), carrying building materials, colonists and prisoners sentenced to plantation labor. It was intended that, having arrived in St. Thomas, Havmanden would undertake a slaving voyage to Africa (S. von Arbin, pers. comm.). A mutiny in the early stages of the voyage put paid to these plans. The colonists and prisoners were put ashore in the Azores and the ship turned home for Copenhagen. After suffering storm damage, Havmanden foundered of the west coast of Sweden on March 30, 1683. Only a handful of artifacts have been recovered from the wreck site, including the remains of the ship’s bell and two ceramic drug jars (von Arbin and Bergstrand 2003, pp. 17–19).

Two further vessels, engaged in the East rather than West African slave trade, can also be mentioned briefly here. L’Utile, a store ship of the French East India Company, was wrecked off Tromelin Island in the Indian Ocean in 1761. L’Utile was lost en route from Madagascar to Mauritius, and was carrying slaves at the time. In the autumn of 2006 a program of fieldwork was carried out on both the wreck, and (more informatively) on the settlement constructed by the marooned slaves. This work was undertaken by Group de Recherche en Archéologie Navale (GRAN) in collaboration with UNESCO, and is described at GRAN is a non-for profit organization set up by the French government in 1982 to supervise underwater excavations and undertake research into maritime history. In 1994, GRAN’s slave shipping project “The sunken memory of the slave trade” was incorporated into the broader UNESCO program “The Slave Route.” GRAN’s work on slave shipping can be accessed online at, and UNESCO’s Slave Route program at

Nothing remains of the wreck of the Portuguese slaving brig Paquet Real, which put in for provisions at Fort Knokke (Cape Town) in May 1818, whilst transporting 171 slaves from Mozambique to St. Salvador (Cox and Sealy 1997, pp. 218–219). The ship was blown off its moorings and wrecked. Twenty-five slaves were drowned, and later buried in a mass grave near the fort. Cox and Sealy (1997) recently undertook isotopic analysis of their remains, first excavated in the 1950s, and concluded that the dead came from the Makua, Yao and/or Marivi peoples of Mozambique. Many of the skeletons at Fort Knokke exhibited dental modification, their teeth having been chipped or filed into decorative shapes (Cox and Sealy 1997, pp. 208–209, 218). These individuals remind us that elements of African culture could literally be borne on the bodies of captives crossing the Atlantic.

The Ex-Slavers

This section examines excavated ships that, whilst not actively engaged in the slave trade at the time of their loss, had formerly been employed as slavers. Three vessels fall into this category, James Matthews, Whydah, and the Beaufort Inlet shipwreck. Henderson (this volume) discusses James Matthews in detail, but it is important to note here that a steady stream of academic papers on the fieldwork program, hull, fittings, and cordage of this vessel (Barker and Henderson 1979; Henderson 1975a, b, 1976, 1978, 1980; Henderson and Stanbury 1983) have ensured that more information has been published about James Matthews than about any of the other wrecks discussed here. These publications provide a wealth of information about the construction and components of a shallow draft slaver from the post-1807 “illegal” era. An online database of 861 artifacts from the vessel is available at

The second possible ex-slaver is Whydah, one of the first pirate ships ever to be excavated (Clifford and Perry 1999; Hamilton 2006). The wreck was located in 1982 by professional salvor Barry Clifford, who continues to work the site today (his Expedition Whydah website can be found at A number of professional maritime archaeologists have participated in this commercial salvage project over the years, to the consternation of some of their CRM colleagues (Elia 1992; Ewen 2006, pp. 6–7).

Whydah was a London-built slaver, but was captured in the Bahamas by the pirate Samuel Bellamy in February 1717, shortly after selling a slave cargo in Jamaica (Eltis et al. 1999, Voyage ID No. 78954; Snelgrave 1734, p. 258; Kinkor, n.d. collates the contemporary testimonies on Bellamy and Whydah). Bellamy was not master of Whydah for long: as he was returning to Cape Cod in April 1717, the ship was wrecked in a storm off Marconi Beach. Bellamy and most of his crew were drowned.

Thousands of artifacts have been recovered from the 300-ton (272,155 kg) Whydah, but published information on these remains limited (Hamilton 2006, is a welcome recent addition here; Clifford and Perry 1999passim illustrates numerous artifacts from the wreck). Among the most celebrated finds from the Whydah are a group of 79 fragmentary gold ornaments originating from the Gold Coast (Ghana). They comprise the oldest known group of reliably dated Akan gold artifacts in the world (Clifford and Perry 1999, pp. 206–270; Ehrlich 1989, p 52). Small gold ornaments (sold by weight, in the same way as gold grains and nuggets) were often acquired in the course of slaving voyages to the Gold Coast, and like many vessels Whydah had traded for both gold and slaves whilst in Africa. Many of the pieces from the Whydah are chopped, flattened, folded, or show other signs of wear, and it is possible that they were acquired as scrap metal as Whydah lay off Africa trading for slaves. Pirates menaced merchant shipping on the African coast, as well as the Caribbean, however, and a member of Bellamy’s crew may easily have acquired these items at another time.

Unlike many of the vessels discussed here, Whydah was built specifically for the slave trade. Contemporary accounts referred to the ship as a galley (a term denoting both the presence of oar ports and the shape of the hull, which was designed for speed as well as for carrying capacity). Despite the fact that the remains of Whydah are very widely scattered on the seabed, excavation has revealed some important fragments of the architecture and components of the ship (Hamilton 2006, pp. 149–150).

In 1996 the salvage company Intersal Inc. discovered the remains of a wreck off Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. The wreck was quickly identified as Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the notorious pirate Edward Teach (Blackbeard), one of two vessels he deliberately grounded on the shoals off Beaufort Inlet in June 1718 (Wilde-Ramsing 2006, pp. 160–164). A comprehensive program of excavation and research, coordinated by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, began in 1997. Work continues of the wreck today (Lusardi 2006; Wilde-Ramsing 2006; QAR project website at

Recently, however, the vessel’s identification as the Queen Anne’s Revenge has begun to be questioned (see Miller et al. 2005; Moore 2005; Rodgers et al. 2005). This debate matters here because the Queen Anne’s Revenge began its career as a French slave ship, Concorde of Nantes (France). Concorde made three documented slaving voyages in 1713, 1715, and 1717 (Moore 2001; Eltis et al. 1999, Voyage ID Nos. 30028, 30059, 30090), and when captured by Blackbeard about 100 mi (160.9 km) south of Martinique in November 1717, had not yet completed the last of these. Concorde had purchased 516 slaves at Whydah, and those who had survived the Middle Passage were still on board (Moore 1997, pp. 31–35).

Although slaves had thus been on board Queen Anne’s Revenge just a few months prior to its loss at sea, little that speaks directly of a slave trading past has been found among the 15,000 artefacts recovered from the Beaufort Inlet wreck (Lusardi 2006, pp. 217–218). Concorde, like many other slavers (including Whydah, above) purchased gold in Africa (Rodgers et al. 2005, pp. 33–34; Wilde-Ramsing 2006, p. 191) and although the recovery of gold grains from the Beaufort Inlet wreck has been cited as supporting the identification of the ship as a former slaver, there are other ways to account for the presence of gold on a vessel of this period (Rodgers et al. 2005, p. 34 suggested that these gold grains are of European or Mediterranean origin, but that claim has been wholly refuted by Miller et al. 2005, pp. 339–340). Whilst the pewterware recovered from the wreck may conceivably represent leftover trading items destined for the African market, it is far more likely that these items were used by the ship’s crew. Virtually all the recovered pewter bears the marks of London manufacturers (Lusardi 2006, pp. 210–213) and it is most unlikely that a French-based slaver would have purchased these items for the African trade (D. Moore, pers. comm.). Future finds may one day prove beyond doubt that the Beaufort Inlet wreck really is the ship that many hope it to be, but at present its identification as the former Concorde of Nantes remains in question.

Possible Slaver Wrecks

Into this group fall a number of wrecks that have produced artifacts commonly found on slave ships but by no means exclusive to them. Such goods include manillas (brass “bracelets” carried to West Africa as trade goods) and elephant and hippopotamus ivory (frequently carried as part of a return cargo).

The unidentified “Manilla Wreck” was discovered 6 mi (9.7 km) northeast of Bermuda in 1975 (Smith and Maxwell 2002), and by 1977 salvors had recovered a significant collection of items commonly used as slave trade “currency.” Amongst these were approximately 10,000 glass trade beads (Karklins 1991), and a large number of copper manillas. A bronze cannon embossed with the logo of the chartered Dutch West India Company was also found, along with ceramics and bottle glass with a date range centered on 1720–60. A two-phase program of archaeological fieldwork was carried out from 1998–99, under Clifford Smith of the Bermuda Maritime Museum (Smith and Maxwell 2002, pp. 58–63), but this raised as many questions as it answered. No traces of ships timbers were located, and although the recovered artifacts were concentrated in a small area (20 × 25 m) no less than 20 cannon were found.

On the basis of the survey work carried out from 1998–99 it is now suggested that the “Manilla Wreck” is not a wreck at all, but comprises a scatter of debris cast overboard from a ship damaged on the Bermuda reef system (Smith and Maxwell 2002, pp. 61–62). It has further been conjectured that these finds may have been jettisoned by Amazon, a damaged French ship arriving in Bermuda as a “distressed entry” in 1739. The Amazon had been making its way from St. Domingue to Nantes. It is not certain either that the ship was engaged in the slave trade, or that the excavated finds can be traced to it, but both are plausible conjectures. The ship was carrying many Dutch-made items, but this need not hamper the suggested identification; the Dutch supplied trade goods for French slavers operating from both Nantes and Bordeaux (Smith and Maxwell 2002, pp. 80–83).

A second possible slaver is the Saint-Quay-Portrieux wreck, located in 1987 by divers exploring the waters off the Saint-Quay islands in Brittany (Herry 2004). As in the case of Fredensborg, ivory tusks comprised the first finds to be brought up from this wreck (some being found as early as the 1930s), indicating that the ship had traded in Africa, and may have been a slaver. More than a hundred African elephant tusks have been recovered since the 1980s, along with 40 glass trade beads and a single brass manilla. One of the most interesting finds from this wreck is a portion of a cross-staff, used for astronomical navigation, and stamped with a date of either 1719 or (more likely) 1711 (Herry 2004, pp. 98–99). This artifact suggests a terminus post quem for the wreck event, but it is impossible to determine whether the ship was engaged in slave trading, or traded directly with Africa for ivory and other goods (such as hides). Many of the closest comparables for artifacts recovered from the wreck site are of Dutch manufacture, but as noted above with reference to the “Manilla Wreck,” French slaving vessels often purchased Dutch trade goods. It is by no means certain, therefore, that this is a Dutch ship.

Several other possible (but unidentified) slaver wrecks have been documented by GRAN, the French research group mentioned above in connection with L’Utile (for these wrecks see the GRAN website at These include a wreck at Pen Azen, France, explored by DRASSM (Direction des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines) in 1994 and 1995. The site is known to have produced manillas and other finds, but this undated wreck remains unpublished. In 1991, GRAN recovered an elephant tusk from a wreck at Loup Garou (Martinique), the find again pointing to a ship involved in trade with Africa, if not the slave trade. Finally, divers have also briefly examined the wreck of Saint-Geran, a ship belonging to the French Compagnie des Indies. Saint-Geran was wrecked off the island of Maurice (Martinique) in 1744, with thirty slaves on board.

Ongoing Wreck Location Projects

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade has fallen in 2007, and that of the US trade will occur in 2008. Two more former slaving nations will be reaching the same landmark in the next decade (the Netherlands in 1814 and France in 1815). These impending anniversaries appear to have stimulated a new, and much needed, interest in slaver wrecks. In the last few years, three projects have been initiated to hunt for known wrecks in various parts of the world.

Svalesen’s successful rediscovery of Fredensborg in 1974 showed that, where researchers have enough archival data to help them pinpoint wreck sites, known slavers can be found if we want to find them. The international lead here has been taken by GRAN, which in addition to coordinating the work on L’Utile, has begun collating information about known slaver wrecks in southern Africa, former French West Africa, and the French West Indies (

One of the ships listed by GRAN is Meermin, a Dutch East India Company slaver that ran aground off Cape Town following a shipboard insurrection in 1766. Meermin’s Madagascan slave cargo was later sold in Cape Town. The search for the wreck began in the summer of 2005 and is coordinated by maritime archaeologist Jaco Boshoff (Iziko Museums, Cape Town). Boshoff also plans to target two additional slaver wrecks, the French Cybele, wrecked in 1756, and the Portuguese St Jose, which sank in 1794 with a cargo of slaves from Mozambique (J. Boshoff, pers. comm.). This search will not be an easy one, since there are at least 2,500 known wrecks in South African waters.

In 2003 the RMP Nautical Foundation, working with the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, initiated an ongoing search for the wreck of the Spanish slaver Guerrero, which foundered off the Florida Keys in 1827 whilst under fire from a British anti-slavery patrol vessel ( This quest was in part stimulated by archival research carried out on the Guerrero tragedy by local writer Gail Swanson (Swanson 2005). Guerrero was in transit to Cuba, with more than 500 slaves on board (Eltis et al. 1999 Voyage ID No. 654). Most were taken off the stricken vessel and subsequently sold in Cuba, but 41 perished on board. As we already seen, none of the excavated West African Guinea trade ships discussed above was carrying slaves when wrecked. Should it be found and excavated, Guerrero will be first example of its kind—invaluable for future research, but no doubt stimulating ethical debate about the excavation of human cargoes.

In the Bahamas region, finally, a search is underway for Trouvadore, grounded on a reef at Breezy Point on the Caicos Bank (Turks and Caicos Islands) in 1841 (Eltis et al. 1999 Voyage ID No. 5503, wherein identified as Trovalore). That quest, and its cultural significance, is discussed by Sadler, this volume. Trouvadore was carrying a cargo of African captives when it foundered, and most of these people survived. As Sadler explains, one aim of the Trouvadore project is to explore possible linkages between the Africans liberated after the wreck and the contemporary population of Middle Caicos and South Caicos. The prospect of the eventual rediscovery of Trouvadore is a particularly exciting one. Indeed, it is possible to argue that, whether or not the ship is found, the quest for Trouvadore has already played a formative part in re-shaping the relationship between maritime archaeology and the slave trade. As already noted, slave shipping is not a subject that has traditionally appealed to maritime archaeologists. Many, perhaps, have been reluctant to engage with what they see as “negative” history, in comparison with the more obvious appeals of naval battles, pirate treasure, and sunken cities. But the Trouvadore story, involving not only the tragedy of forced migration but also the liberation of captive Africans, and the traditions and aspirations of contemporary descent communities, reminds underwater archaeologists that slaver wrecks amount to far more than “negative” history. They are part of the story of the African Diaspora, and of the birth and growth of African-Caribbean and African-American society and culture. To study slaver wrecks is to engage with the present, as well as the past, and the ongoing hunt for Trouvadore is a timely reminder of that fact.


Greg Cook and Jaco Boshoff kindly shared information about their ongoing field projects, and Ken Kinkor (Project Research, Whydah Museum) generously gave me access to the unpublished source material he has collated on the Whydah. I am greatly indebted to Tanja Røskar Reed (Conservator at the Aust-Agder Kulturhistoriske Senter, Arendal) for providing me with a copy of the Fredensborg inventory in advance of its publication online, and for sharing information about the Fredensborg finds. Enquiries about the Fredensborg inventory should be directed to Tanja at I am equally indebted to Staffan von Arbin (Archaeologist, Bohuslän County Museum, Sweden) for answering my queries about the Havmanden. David Moore commented extensively on an earlier draft of this paper, and suggested numerous improvements to the text.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007