SEAC and the Slave Wrecks Project: Documenting the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Archeologists from the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) recently returned from a project at Christiansted National Historic Site (CHRI) where they conducted underwater resource documentation and terrestrial excavations related to the history of the slave trade at St. Croix, U.S Virgin Islands. The fieldwork was conducted as part of the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), which seeks to learn more about the global slave trade through historical and archeological work. The SWP also strives to protect and preserve those resources by building local capacity for heritage resource management and educating the general public on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade through educational programs, displays, and outreach events.

SWP team picture 2017
Members of the Slave Wrecks Project team for fieldwork in April 2017 at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

The SWP began in 2010 with an initial focus on submerged resources in South Africa and Mozambique. Since then, the scope of the project has expanded to address the global impact of the slave trade by searching for submerged resources between Mozambique and South Africa and also Senegal in Africa, Brazil in South America, and Cuba and St. Croix in the Caribbean. Since its inception, the SWP has fostered international collaboration among several institutions creating an environment of discussion, shared training, and increased interest in documenting heritage resources related to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, providing exciting opportunities for new research into this subject on both sides of the Atlantic.

As one of the founding partners engaged in the SWP, the National Park Service has supported the project with assistance from two of its centers, the Southeast Archeological Center and the Submerged Resources Center (SRC). In addition to SEAC and the SRC, other partners involved in the SWP include the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the George Washington University (GWU) – Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI), Diving with a Purpose (DWP), the Iziko Museums of South Africa (IMSA), the South African Heritage Resources Agency, and the African Centre for Heritage Activities (ACHA).

To understand why the SWP is conducting research at St. Croix, one needs only look at the history of the island. St. Croix was purchased from France by Denmark in 1733, who then gave a charter to the Danish West Indies Company. The island quickly became integrated into the larger triangular trade network, importing slaves from Africa while exporting goods to America and Europe. The leg of the triangle between the Caribbean and West Africa was known as the Middle Passage, an arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean during which untold numbers of enslaved people perished due to the extremely poor conditions and cramped quarters on the ships. Some of these ships were lost at sea or sunk closer to land during storms and hurricanes. Those who survived the trip were sold at slave markets, like the Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse near Fort Christianvaern on St. Croix. Because of St. Croix’s history, and historical records suggesting slaver ships had wrecked in the vicinity of the island, plans were developed for the SWP to investigate the waters around St. Croix to try and locate these shipwrecks.

1854 Slave Ship diagram
1854 diagram of a slave ship showing the conditions enslaved Africans were forced to endure (Wikimedia commons)

Beginning in 2015, the SRC and SEAC initiated archeological work with the SWP to identify, inventory, and assess the condition of submerged resources around Buck Island Reef National Monument (BUIS) near St. Croix. Using a submersible magnetometer (which detects ferrous metal), archeologists scanned the seabed around BUIS to locate submerged resources that could be related to the slave trade. The survey was particularly interested in locating the wrecks of the Mary (sunk in 1797) and the General Abercrombie (sunk in 1803), which had operated as slaver ships at the time of their sinking and were known to have wrecked near the island. Through the use of the magnetometer, many ferrous anomalies were located, including a few shipwrecks and historic anchors. To date, definitive evidence for the Mary and the General Abercrombie has not yet been found, though one of the discovered anchors does date to the time of both of these wrecks.

taking measurements Buck Islands 2015
Underwater archeologist measuring an anchor during the 2015 fieldwork

At the end of 2015, SEAC returned to CHRI to complete terrestrial fieldwork at the park and used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to survey the location where historic documents indicated the West India and Guinea Company Warehouse once stood, near Fort Christianvaern. The warehouse operated as a slave market from shortly after the island became a Danish holding until about 1754, when the loosening of trade restrictions allowed the development and opening of several new private markets across the town of Christiansted. Although plenty of recent disturbances, like utility lines, showed up in the radar imaging, some anomalies lined up with historic maps, suggesting evidence of those structures related to the warehouse still remained below the surface.

GPR at Guinea Warehouse CHRI 2015
SEAC archeologist using GPR to search for the remains of the West India and Guinea Company Warehouse

While planning future work in search of the slaver wrecks, it became apparent that local students would not be able to participate in the mapping of shipwrecks, so CHRI and SEAC developed a community archeology program through the Slave Wrecks Project to conduct terrestrial excavations on CHRI park property at sites related to the island’s slave trade history.  The program was designed to build local capacity for cultural resource management in the Caribbean, while relating the work to the broader subject of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the mission of the SWP. The program would also benefit the NPS by helping to identify cultural and archeological resources at CHRI and assess their integrity. Local students who were interested in receiving training on heritage management practices were sought to assist with fieldwork as interns. The program would also provide students with training in artifact analysis and curation methods. The development of this terrestrial component to the SWP represented the first time non-maritime resources fell under the scope of the SWP. By expanding the SWP to include terrestrial heritage resources, it ensured that local students could participate in the project and also provided more opportunities to engage the public at large.

Led by Archeologist Dr. Meredith Hardy, SEAC returned to CHRI in 2016 to begin the first field season of the community program. Providing assistance with fieldwork were student interns from the Greening Youth Foundation and students from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and the University of Aarhus, Denmark. Additional assistance came from local high school students who were working at CHRI through a summer program with the Youth Conservation Corps. Fieldwork included testing anomalies detected by GPR at the site of the West India and Guinea Company Warehouse that may have once been residences of slaves who lived and worked at the warehouse. The slaves who resided at the location were “Royal Slaves,” meaning they were considered to be the property of the Danish government. Excavations confirmed some structural remains from those residences were still present, but few artifacts were recovered which could provide insight into the lives of the slaves who lived there.

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Student interns excavating for possible remains of slave residences from the West India and Guinea Company Warehouse

This year, SEAC continued work for a third season with the SWP, assisting the SRC with underwater fieldwork that included documenting a shipwreck near BUIS and continuing to scan the surrounding waters of BUIS for evidence of slaver shipwrecks. Over nine square miles were surveyed around BUIS, making BUIS one of the most thoroughly surveyed marine landscapes in the National Park Service! SEAC’s Dr. Meredith Hardy again led the terrestrial fieldwork and identified a previously unknown well or cistern, which had been located with the GPR survey in 2015. Archeologists from Mozambique and Senegal took part in the maritime and terrestrial fieldwork, gaining additional experience and learning about archeological practices in the United States.

eric tiara and akeem troweling well
SEAC Archeologist Eric Bezemek (top) working with student interns to expose the well or cistern

New for this year, through the sponsorship of the State Dept. grant, two workshops were developed by the NPS for the participants of the SWP on the topics of Community Stewardship and Site Protection and Site Protection through Law Enforcement. The first workshop addressed topics of building relationships between communities and heritage sites and examined ideas of “ownership” with regards to heritage sites. The second workshop provided participants with the opportunity to learn about U.S. and International laws related to heritage crime and how some of these laws could be adopted in African countries to help protect their cultural resources. They also participated in a mock crime scene, learning how to assess and document damage at an archeological site.

ibrahima-thiaw-and-eric-b-breaking-ground-at-2017-excavation.jpg
Archeologists Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw (University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar) on left and Eric Bezemek (SEAC) on right opening a new unit in April 2017

As part of the SWP’s outreach and education goals, SEAC has been helping students from UVI develop exhibits for the Virgin Islands Caribbean Cultural Center, provided radio interviews and public lectures, and is working with the Smithsonian to develop an exhibit on the legacy of slavery to be displayed at CHRI.

This summer, @NPSSEAC is returning for a second field season of excavations at CHRI, with a new group of student interns! Fieldwork will include testing additional anomalies at Fort Christianvaern in hopes of learning more about the slaves who once lived and worked there and providing insight into the history of enslavement.

Learn more about the Slave Wrecks Project from some of its partners by checking out these websites: NMAAHC website, GWU website, and IMSA website.

Check out this radio spot to hear about the recent fieldwork at CHRI and the Slave Wrecks Project from individuals involved in the project!

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