A 17th-century English shipwreck, the world’s earliest vessel linked to the transatlantic slave trade, is facing complete destruction by 21st-century fishing trawlers.
The 1680s Royal African Company trader – seen as a burial ground of slaves who perished on its final voyage – lies on the seabed about 40 miles south of Land’s End. It is being “pounded into oblivion” by “bulldozers of the deep”, claimed a leading British marine archaeologist.
This was a trade that saw more than 12 million Africans taken across the Atlantic in 45,000 voyages over 400 years. Many did not survive the journey. Any submerged evidence offering insights into untold horrors that the slaves had endured on board such ships will be lost for ever, warned Dr Sean Kingsley. He has been alarmed by underwater footage filmed for a new documentary series about the transatlantic slave trade. It reveals extensive damage to a wreck that was once “a beast of a ship”, carrying 48 cannon, perhaps 600 tons in capacity and manned by a crew of 70.
He said: “Fifty years ago, this wreck must have been a thing of wonder. Today, what’s left is tragic. Trawlers dragging nets for fish and scallops have bulldozed everything. Cannon have been dragged 300 metres away. If trawlers can throw two-ton guns around like matchsticks, then the wooden hull and small finds have no chance. Archaeologists call deep-sea wrecks time-capsules. This wreck looks like a war zone.
“Wrecks should be used as museums for memory and education. In this case, the future’s chances of bearing witness to the horrors of the slave trade are fading fast. It’s a double tragedy.”
The footage was filmed for Enslaved, a documentary about the transatlantic trade, which begins tonight on BBC Two. Kingsley, who has explored more than 350 shipwrecks, is adviser to the documentary. As the founding editor of Wreckwatch, the world’s only magazine dedicated to the sunken past, he will publish the new evidence in the next issue.
The wreck lies 110 metres down, and the Enslaved team became the first to visit it. The team included Diving With a Purpose, a group dedicated to the maritime history of African Americans.
Kramer Wimberley, its lead instructor, said: “The story of the slave trade is world history. England was involved in it, Portugal, the French and Dutch were involved in it, the Africans were involved in it. It’s a world shame. If that wreck’s the final resting place of some of my ancestors, then it’s a burial ground. But it’s also a crime scene because they were taken. There was an injustice that took place, and no one has ever been brought to account. I want justice for those people. Archaeology can make sure we never forget.”
The ship was among more than 500 despatched by the Royal African Company to West Africa between 1672 and 1713. In conducting research for Enslaved, Kingsley studied 279 of the company’s sea voyages between 1672 and 1690. He found that, of 65,411 Africans trafficked to the Caribbean, 14,668 died at sea, having been chained in cramped hulls: “Most of the Africans were seized in Whydah in Benin, Calabar in Nigeria, Gambia and the Gold Coast in modern Ghana. The enslaved ended up sold to plantation owners in Barbados, Jamaica, Nevis, Virginia and Antigua.”
Set up by the royal Stuart family, the company’s governor was James, Duke of York and future king of England, and its deputy governor was Edward Colston, whose statue was recently toppled in Bristol.
Expressing sympathy for fishermen working under harsh conditions, Kingsley criticised the inability to protect rare wrecks that lie outside UK territorial waters as “a serious heritage failure”.
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