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Wreck linked to slave trade

November 29, 2008|Thomas H. Maugh II | Maugh is a Times staff writer.

Texas researchers have discovered the wreck of the slave ship Trouvadore, which slammed into a reef off the coast of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1841, freeing the 193 Africans who were being brought to the U.S. South for a life of servitude.

It is the only known wreck of a ship involved in the illegal slave trade, said marine archaeologist Don Keith, president of the underwater archaeology institute Ships of Discovery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

One of the female Africans on board was shot by the crew, but the rest escaped and were rescued by local authorities. Their descendants may now make up a significant proportion of the 30,000 residents of the island country. The Spanish crew members were captured and sent to Cuba for trial. Their fate is unknown.

The team also found the wreck of the U.S. brig Chippewa, a War of 1812 naval vessel that had been pressed into service to patrol the Caribbean and stop the African slave trade. It was sunk in 1816 after striking the same reef and was identified by its unique carronades, a type of cannon.

"We have the two halves of a cat-and-mouse game of illegal slave ship trade," Keith said Tuesday at a news conference organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partly funded the search.

The Trouvadore had been largely forgotten by the country's natives, Keith added.

But in 1993, Keith and the late Grethe Seim, founder of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, stumbled on an 1878 letter -- now stored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington -- describing the sale of two glass-eyed, wooden African dolls. The dolls were said to have come from the wreck of a slaver, and the letter gave details about its location and the ship's passengers.

The letter said the ship sank near a local landmark called Black Rock on the coast of East Caicos. Eventually, the team found the remains of the ship in 9 feet of water about two miles west of Black Rock, where the vessel had apparently been pushed by wind and current.

The wreck had been stripped for salvage, but careful measurement of the hull remains provided the link. "We have compelling evidence that this is the Trouvadore," Keith said at the conference.

Many of the ship's survivors were forced to work in the country's salt ponds for a year to pay for their rescue, but they were then freed.

At the time of the wreck, authorities in Caicos asked for a list of the English names given to the slaves. The list, which could help identify their descendants today, has not been discovered.

The African idols that led to the discovery of the wreck are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They turned out to be kava kava dolls, which are produced only on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. Why they were on the ship is still a mystery.

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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