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COLUMN ONE

A Wreck That Led to Liberty

A sunken ship in the Caribbean may hold clues to a lucky break for a group of Africans headed for slavery -- and stoke local pride.

September 30, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAMBARRA, Turks & Caicos Islands — Lobster fisherman Dolphus Arthur spotted the wooden hull 25 years ago, nearly buried in the fine silt between two massive hydras of coral just off the coast of uninhabited East Caicos.

Over the years, he'd occasionally see the shipwreck as he piloted his open boat around the craggy reef or dived for his spiny prey. But he didn't know until archeologists discovered the ruin this month that the ship probably carried his own ancestors from West Africa to the alabaster shores of these islands, then and now under British dominion.

In a disaster that proved a deliverance for the 193 slaves on board, the brigantine Trouvadore, which foundered in 1841, brought its captive cargo to freedom instead of plantation bondage. All of the Spanish ship's captives, who had been en route to Spanish-ruled Cuba, made it ashore to the abolitionist embrace of the British colonial rulers -- except for one woman, who was shot to death on the beach by the crew as she tried to escape.

That fateful turn has only recently come to Caribbean chroniclers' attention, stirring curiosity throughout the region about the little-studied history of the islands' black populations.

"There was always talk among the old people about a shipwreck," 53-year-old Arthur recalls. "My grandmother lived to be 106. She was always talking about how we came from Africa but we had always been free. Now I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention. I've been passing around that wreckage for years now, never knowing it had any connection to me."

Inspired by a flurry of clues uncovered in archives, an international cast of archeologists, divers, marine scientists and seekers of cultural touchstones spent two weeks searching the ship-snaring reef off Breezy Point. Despite disruptions from the spate of hurricanes tormenting the Caribbean this season, they found what they believe to be the wreck of the Trouvadore, exactly where the bits and pieces of the emerging story suggested it would be.

The story of the Trouvadore came to light by accident only a decade ago. The late Grethe Seim, a Norwegian immigrant to the islands, came across mention of the ship in records at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Seim was there looking for artifacts for the Turks & Caicos National Museum, which she founded.

Letters pointed to maritime records, census data and colonial correspondence, each fragment nudging archeologists to scour other archives in London, Jamaica, the Bahamas, the United States and Cuba in search of answers to questions that have long nagged them.

Why is this the only village in the archipelago with an African name? Were the slaves perhaps snatched from Mali or Chad, both of which have towns named Bambarra? How did the local people learn bush medicine, basket weaving and the goatskin drumbeat and rhythm of African music?

Because the islands' soil is poor, few slaves were brought to Turks & Caicos. Black islanders assumed that they were descended from slaves who made their way here from other islands before Britain's 1834 emancipation decree.

But migrations of Africans within the Caribbean were too few and scattered to account for the 7,000 native-born blacks, known as Belongers, who live in the archipelago today. The wreck of the Trouvadore appears to provide an explanation for their presence. Other clues may lie in stories passed down through the generations.

"It's important to get the oral history down now, while there are still people who have memories of storytelling," says David Bowen, culture director for Turks & Caicos, whose mother is from Bambarra. "Right now, the story of the Trouvadore is unknown to 99% of the population."

While the team of scientists searched for the remains of the slave ship, Bowen plied the sparsely populated settlements of Middle Caicos -- Bambarra, Lorimers and Conch Bar -- for old-timers who might remember hearing tales around their grandmothers' parlors.

"I'd heard that slaves named Bambarra after a place in Africa, but I don't know nothing more about it," says Alton Higgs, an 84-year-old natural healer. Told of the Trouvadore wreck, he wonders whether his way with potions and poultices came down through the generations from the ship's survivors.

He complains that young people show little respect for the signature crafts and culture of their African predecessors. Middle Caicos now shelters fewer than 200 people, most of them oldsters like Higgs. Children sent to the more populous islands to attend high school seldom return to the privations of their birthplace.

In a tiny wooden shack thick with mosquitoes, the widower brews his treatments: snake stick for congestion, soursop leaf to lower blood pressure, chainey winder to calm the nerves and ease tension.

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