A Wreck That Led to Liberty
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.
“I want this to be known to the young people, but they’re not interested,” Higgs, whose children and grandchildren all live on Grand Turk, says of his knowledge of the healing powers of roots, herbs, bark and leaves. “I want to pass it on so when I die there’s still someone else to tell about it. I see why God has kept me alive until this time.”
Cassandra Johnson, who is 71 and makes her living weaving fenna grass into shades and baskets, recalls talk when she was a girl of ancestors who came from Africa. She never paid much attention.
“People done die and others gone away,” she says when asked about the keepers of the islanders’ folklore.
Marcus Forbes, a 69-year-old boat builder whose nine children have all moved away, laments that no one kept track of papers and belongings passed down by his great-great-grandfather, of whom he knows only that he was baptized John Kapell after coming from Africa.
“They had it, but they threw it away,” he says of his ancestors’ things.
Scientists guiding the search for the Trouvadore are reluctant to jump to conclusions about the wooden wreckage they located and marked with global positioning equipment. Excavation and intricate carbon-dating tests remain to be done, and so little is known about the slave vessel that confirmation may never be forthcoming.
Time, tides and treasure hunters have taken their toll on the site, says Donald Keith, a marine archeologist and president of Ships of Discovery, a museum-cum-expeditionary force based in Corpus Christi, Texas. He said salvagers probably took many of the artifacts that could identify the ship or the time of its construction.
The good news, he counters, is that the wreckage is the right length for an early 19th century brigantine and that much of the hull is submerged in sediment, which has probably preserved the wood enough to yield results in tests for age and origination.
Bankrolled by hotel and resort developers, Keith led the recent underwater phase of the expedition. He has been involved in marine exploration in these islands for more than 20 years but says the Trouvadore mission is exceptionally inspiring because of its relevance to people today and its testimony to the rare triumph of good over evil.
“The Turks & Caicos colony did the right thing,” Keith says of the treatment of the naked slaves brought from East Caicos to Grand Turk, where they were sheltered in the Cockburn Town prison, baptized, taught English and employed in the salt trade. “There were a lot of heroic initiatives to make this happen. Everyone did what he should, and did it for the right reasons.”
Records in Britain detail the care taken of the Trouvadore survivors during the year they remained on Grand Turk, but the paper trail mysteriously ends when the Africans completed their salt-raking apprenticeship in 1842. London archives note that 24 moved on to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and that the 20-man Spanish crew also went there to be tried for illegal slave trading.
About the same time that the remaining 168 Trouvadore survivors left Grand Turk, the salt-raking industry arrived in South Caicos, says Nigel Sadler, the director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. He speculates that the apprenticed Africans probably went there first, then moved on to the more agriculturally hospitable Middle Caicos, founding Bambarra and perhaps naming it for the place from which some or all had been taken.
“Over the last 4 1/2 years, we’ve uncovered bits and pieces and put it together,” Sadler says.
Although Arthur and other fishermen familiar with the reef could have steered the researchers to the wreckage if anyone had thought to ask them, a Canadian diver found the submerged hull after days of tedious traversing.
“Your imagination gets overactive and you start wanting to see things,” says Jennifer Cumming, the dive boat operator who found the wreck. She recalls being momentarily reluctant to be dragged on her tow board between the two coral heads, having already gouged her wetsuit on other close passes. “We were trying to go around it, but then I saw something that wasn’t natural. It looked like a pile of lumber.”
Three other tow boarders among the dozen divers involved raced to the site, one radioing back to Keith on the chartered expedition mother ship that a “contemporaneous wooden wreck” had been discovered.
“First there was stunned silence, then goose bumps,” recalls Jackie Mulligan, a publicist with the Turks & Caicos National Museum who was on board when the news came.
The team plans to apply to the Turks & Caicos government for permission to further explore and possibly excavate the wreckage, Keith says. The archeologists will also be examining ballast stones found along the keel -- rocks that are alien to the limestone foundation of the islands. The scientists hope that by identifying the ballast components, they can determine whether the ship was built in Santiago de Cuba, as suspected.
National museum manager Cheryll Paige notes that among the many mysteries surrounding the Trouvadore survivors is a so-far-elusive baptism roster alluded to in other documents. Neither a list of the African names nor church records of the Christian conversions known to have occurred in the first months can be found in local archives. Nor do historians know what happened to the 24 who set out for the Bahamas or the Spanish captain presumably tried for violating the British ban on slave trading.
Sadler and other museum trustees will spend the next few months delving into foreign archives, searching for further clues to the heritage puzzle. They are also appealing to Middle Caicos residents to poke through old chests and closets in search of any written records.
“We can go on looking, but this kind of research relies on a bit of chance,” Sadler says. A family Bible with a genealogy tree, church documents from the group baptism, salvaged chains or other artifacts from the ship -- anything to flesh out the picture.
“This is important because it’s a very positive slave story,” says Bowen, whose grandmother Ursula Baker died five years ago, taking Bowen’s own family history to the grave. “We are here because of this. Instead of being sold into a lifetime of bondage and being worked to death, our ancestors settled here as free people.”