The archaeologist rose in the bow of the speedboat, pointing to the choppy waters where the 18th-century slave ship had gone down.
“It’s somewhere over there,” Ibrahima Thiaw said.
Off the western tip of mainland Africa lie some of the most important vestiges of the transatlantic slave trade: the wreckage of ships that sank, carrying thousands of African men, women and children to the Americas. But despite historians’ immense interest in that period, no one has ever tried to excavate them. Until now.
For years, the wrecks were considered too hard to find. The work was too expensive. And few African researchers were willing to take on the project in countries where the slave trade is often considered a source of shame — not a subject worthy of study.
Thiaw, a tall 50-year-old archaeologist from rural Senegal, is one of the pioneers trying to find the wrecks. There has been only one known excavation of a ship that went down off the African coast while carrying slaves — the São José, found thousands of miles away, off South Africa. Artifacts from the vessel will be displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening next month. Thiaw hopes his discoveries will eventually be featured by the museum, too.
“The stories that will help us understand the slave trade, this crucial moment in human history, are down there,” Thiaw said, gazing from the boat into the Atlantic Ocean as he began the search on a bright day in May. But as he would discover over the following months, it wouldn’t be easy.
Senegal was a major exporter of slaves for about 400 years. When Thiaw was in school, though, that history was barely discussed. As a boy, he visited Goree Island, just off the coast of Dakar, where a tour guide told him about the slaves waiting, shackled, for boats headed for the Americas. “After listening to him,” he recalled, “I screamed.”
It was the beginning of an obsession. His parents were farmers, but Thiaw decided to be an archaeologist, studying at the University of Dakar and then earning a PhD at Rice University in Houston. Some of his friends and family joked that he was “searching for garbage.”
Senegal had became known worldwide for its landmarks of the slave trade, particularly on Gorée, a major entrepot, or trading center. But the scholarship turned out to be shaky. In the 1990s, American researchers claimed that those sites had been misidentified. The famed “Door of No Return” was not in fact a final departure point for slaves, they said, but probably just a door in a private residence. For Thiaw, the controversy reinforced his commitment to archaeological research.
“I decided I would find my own true stories,” he recalled.
In 2000, Thiaw did some research on Goree Island that helped explain how and where slaves lived, and supported the idea that the island was probably a major employer of domestic slaves, not just an exporter. He found a shackle that he keeps in a box in his office. But many of the island’s relics had been worn down by tourism or buried under construction. He came to realize that some of the most meaningful artifacts of the slave trade were elsewhere. More than 1,000 slave ships had sunk around the world, according to archival records. Archaeologists had barely scratched the surface of what they held.
Thiaw had one logistical problem, though: He didn’t know how to swim.
So two years ago, an instructor taught him to paddle. A few months later, he was enrolled in a scuba-diving course. A few months after that, he helped teach his graduate students at Cheikh Anta Diop University to dive, too.
His timing was perfect. The Smithsonian had just announced funding for research on the slave trade, as part of the international Slave Wrecks Project. Suddenly, Thiaw had a benefactor, at least for the first phase of the work, which cost about $35,000.
“We needed a committed archaeologist who wanted to bring his work underwater,” said Paul Gardullo, curator of the new African American History Museum. “That’s Ibrahima.”
In May, Thiaw and six of his graduate students boarded a boat off a Dakar beach and sped into the Atlantic chop for their first research voyage. The archaeologist handed out typewritten pages to his students with the names of boats.
There were two French vessels, the Nanette and the Bonne Amitie, that had disappeared in 1774 and 1790. There was a British sloop called Racehorse that had vanished in November 1780. All were thought to have sunk just miles off the coast. And there were hints of many others.
“There’s so much down there,” Thiaw said eagerly.
He and his team dragged a torpedo-shaped device along the ocean floor that held a magnetometer, which can detect buried metal. The data from the device would be sent for analysis to South Africa. Once enough evidence emerged that a wreck had been found, the team would start intensive diving.
No one on the team wanted to think about how long their quest might last, or whether their funding would be sufficient. It took researchers more than a decade to locate and document the remains of the São José off Cape Town, South Africa. That discovery was announced only last year.
But for Thiaw, the physical difficulty of finding the wrecks was only part of the challenge.
In Senegal, where President Obama traveled in 2013 to see the remains of the slave trade’s prisons and ports, slavery is rarely a subject of academic interest.
“We’ve turned to contemporary issues, to discussing about the future,” former Senegalese prime minister Aminata Touré said in an interview. “Why focus on such a bad part of our history?”
During the last presidential election, in 2012, then-President Abdoulaye Wade argued that his opponent, Macky Sall, couldn’t be elected because he was “the descendant of slaves.” Sall won the election, but only after rejecting that claim and citing his “non-slave” lineage.
That bias is even embedded in the local language, Wolof. If someone is acting badly, Senegalese will often call him a “jaam” — a slave.
“It’s like it’s something in your blood, in your genes, with all the dishonor and everything that goes with it,” Thiaw said in an interview in his office. “It’s not something people want to delve into, or learn more about.”
“I feel like we haven’t abolished it yet.”
The reluctance to research or teach about slavery exists across much of West Africa, where, in the 20th century, nations emerging from colonial rule encouraged historians to study themes that might build a sense of national identity.
Part of the sensitivity regarding slavery comes from the complicity of some Africans in the trade — merchants who profited from the sale of men and women, and sometimes owned slaves themselves.
Thiaw wanted to tell the story of the lives of slaves — what they brought with them on their journeys, what they scrawled on the walls of the boat. The more intimate the details, he thought, the harder it would be for his countrymen to brush off the past.
As he put it: “Finding a good wreck could help us disentangle this — to show that the slave is the victim.”
For many years, what was known about the slaves’ “middle passage” across the Atlantic came largely from the documents of slave traders, things like tax records, receipts and diaries. It was useful information, but difficult to verify and clinical in its description of the inhumanity shown to slaves.
Finding untouched artifacts, Gardullo said, meant “a chance to fill the silences in the written record.”
But, as Thiaw found, the quest could be frustrating. In the first few weeks of searching, he and his team made a few preliminary dives, but they discovered only sunken fishing boats. Thiaw sent one of his students to the country’s national archives to look for more leads. Three months after their first voyage, they are still waiting for analysis of the data they gathered underwater and sent to South Africa.
Now Thiaw is worrying about lining up additional funding, and keeping his graduate students involved, because some will graduate soon.
“If I can’t keep them focused on this program, maybe they will move on,” Thiaw said. “I’m getting nervous.”
It was hardly the first time he’d grown anxious over his research. But this time the stakes felt higher. He could almost see the Atlantic from his office window, with all the wreckage buried underneath.