New light on maritime history from the Caribbean’s dark days of slavery may soon be on display at the Virgin Islands National Park’s (VINP) Fort Christiansvaern museum in St. Croix. The seeds for this enterprise were sown a decade ago with the launch of the originally-named Southern African Slave Wrecks and Diasporan Heritage Routes Project. The project’s goal was, and remains, to combine research, training and education to better understand the realities of the global slave trade, especially via slave shipwrecks. The project’s Phase I research efforts concentrated in Southern Africa. Phase II kicked-off in 2012, when the name was shortened to the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) and widened in geographic scope to reflect the far-reaching slave trade. Since one of the SWP’s core partners is the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), it was a natural to look at slave wrecks within park waters. Two such areas were identified: the Biscayne National Park in Florida and Virgin Islands National Park in St. Croix.
“The reason for our interest in St. Croix is that there are a lot of shipwrecks,” explains Meredith Hardy, Ph.D., an archeologist with the NPS Southeast Archeological Center, in Tallahassee, Florida, who, with project colleagues, presented a talk on the SWP work on St. Croix in July. “Research shows some 114 wrecks between the years of 1523 and 1917, when Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the US. Records show that the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1630, brought by the English, followed by the Dutch and French in 1650. The slave trade was ended in the Danish West Indies in 1792, but the importation of slaves didn’t stop until a decade after.”
Two of the shipwrecks identified are the Mary and the General Abercrombie. The English-flagged 150-ton Mary departed from Cameroon with 266 slaves aboard in 1797. All these people were rescued when the ship was wrecked on Buck Island. The Buck Island Reef National Monument is one of three national parks on St. Croix. The second was the English-flagged, 328-ton, General Abercrombie, which sailed from the Congo until she too wrecked on the coral heads off Buck Island in 1803. This grounding took place off the back side of the island and in the dark of night, a sneaky move owing to the fact it was 11 years after the ending of the slave trade.
“Part of the purpose of the SWP is to provide experience and training in heritage resource protection for future generations. To this end, we introduced student interns from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) to archeological science and cultural resource management first hand. This started on the heels of a two-year magnetometer survey of Buck Island’s waters by professionals at the NPS’s Submerged Resources Center. Survey results showed a total of 239 targets. These included anchors, chain and partial hulls filled with Danish brick. Each of these targets were visited by staff or students by snorkeling or scuba diving and documented. Of note, all cultural resources in federal waters are protected by the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) and several other laws – federal, state, and territorial.”
One partnership that has assisted in making dive training possible for the student interns is the SWP and NPS’s collaboration with the groups, Diving with a Purpose and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.
However, since the underwater aspect of the project is limited in the number of people who can participate, the SWP in St. Croix has also moved ashore. Over the past few years, UVI student interns and researchers have excavated the grounds of the Danish West Indies & Guinea Co.’s Warehouse complex along the Christiansted Wharf. This was the area where most enslaved Africans entered the island after arriving by ship.
“Ultimately, the interns will work with the NPS researchers to create exhibits for museum spaces, websites and social media,” says Hardy.