MIAMI (Reuters) - A pair of glass-eyed idols led marine archeologists to the wreck of a Spanish ship that once carried an illegal cargo of African slaves believed to be the ancestors of many of today’s inhabitants of the British colony of Turks and Caicos.
The U.S.-funded archeologists said Monday they are confident the oaken timbers submerged under 9 feet of water off East Caicos island are the remains of the Spanish slave ship Trouvadore, which sank in the Atlantic archipelago south of the Bahamas in 1841.
“We have compelling circumstantial evidence that this is the Trouvadore,” Donald Keith, president of the Ships of Discovery marine archeology institute, told journalists in a conference call sponsored by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Trouvadore carried 193 African captives and was headed to Cuba where they were to be enslaved in the sugar cane fields, historical documents indicated. It went down after hitting a reef and those aboard managed to wade ashore.
The crew shot and killed one African woman but the other 192 survived and were freed in the Turks and Caicos, where Britain had abolished slavery eight years earlier.
The incident was largely forgotten until 1993, when Grethe Seim, the late founder of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington with Keith.
They were surprised to find a letter written by an artifact salesman on Grand Turk Island in 1878, describing the sale of two African wooden idols with glass eyes. His letter said the dolls came from a Spanish slave ship that sank in 1841, and gave details about the shipwreck and the African passengers.
Researchers scoured historical archives in Britain, Cuba, the Bahamas and elsewhere to piece together the story.
“It really is a mystery. It’s a detective story,” said Toni Carral, vice president of Ships of Discovery.
When the Trouvadore sank, the importation of slaves had been internationally banned but still flourished via pirate ships and illegal slavers that eluded British and U.S. naval forces in the region. The ship’s 20 crewmen were arrested and sent in chains to Cuba for trial on what was a hanging offense, though their fate is not known.
About 20 of the African passengers were resettled in Nassau in the Bahamas. The rest were apprenticed to work in the salt ponds in the Turks and Caicos for a year in order to pay for their rescue, and then freed.
The artifact salesman noted in his letter nearly four decades after the shipwreck that “their descendants form ... the pith of our present laboring population.”
Like their neighbors in the Bahamas and many Caribbean islands, most of the 30,000 modern residents of the Turks and Caicos are thought to be descended from African slaves. But the research suggests many could be descended from the Trouvadore passengers, who were spared enslavement by the shipwreck.
“The people of the Turks and Caicos have a direct line to this dramatic, historic event. It’s how so many of them ended up being there,” said Keith, who worked in the Turks and Caicos for 30 years.
The archeologists found the remains of a wooden brigantine, including one side of the hull preserved from keel to deck, about 2 miles from the site the artifact salesman described in the Smithsonian letter.
The current had carried it and salvagers stripped it but the researchers examined the well-preserved timbers and joints and said they were confident it was the Trouvadore.
“It’s the only thing out there, the only wooden hulled shipwreck out there that is in the right place,” Keith said.
The archeologists also found a U.S. navy ship, the Chippewa, known to have sunk near another island in the area in 1816. Although slavery persisted in the United States at that time, U.S. forces helped patrol the region to interdict pirates and slave ships.
“We have the two halves of a cat-and-mouse game of illegal slave ship trade,” Keith said.
The researchers are still hunting for the document they consider the Trouvadore’s holy grail. Records show that regional authorities ordered local officials in the Turks and Caicos to send a list of the English names they had given the African survivors. If it still exists, it could show which residents are their descendants.
Other loose ends remain. The artifact seller’s glass-eyed dolls, which ended up in the Museum of Natural History in New York, turned out to be distinctive kava kava dolls produced only on Easter Island in the Pacific.
“Somehow or other, somebody on the Trouvadore had two kava kava figurines from Easter Island with them,” Keith said. “That’s another mystery.”
Editing by Bill Trott