World

I’m searching for slave ship wrecks

A SCUBA diver is plunging to new depths to unearth the forgotten stories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by hunting for wrecked ships at the bottom of the ocean.

Tara Roberts is a member of Diving With A Purpose (DWP), a group of predominantly black scuba divers on a mission to recover the lost history of wrecked slave ships and the stories of the enslaved Africans who perished aboard.

Tara Roberts is a member of Diving With A Purpose, a group dedicated to finding lost slave ship wrecks on the ocean's floor

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Tara Roberts is a member of Diving With A Purpose, a group dedicated to finding lost slave ship wrecks on the ocean’s floorCredit: Wayne Lawrence/National Geographic
It's believed that as many as 1,000 slave ships wrecked during the Middle Passage - only a handful of which have ever been found

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It’s believed that as many as 1,000 slave ships wrecked during the Middle Passage – only a handful of which have ever been foundCredit: National Geographic

During the 400-year trans-Atlantic slave trade, experts believe that around 12,000 ships brought 12.5 million Africans to the Americas, however, not all of the vessels completed their voyages.

It’s believed that as many as 1,000 slave ships wrecked during the Middle Passage, claiming the lives of roughly 1.8 million Africans.

Of those ships, only a handful have ever been found.

Tara says she was stunned when she learned of the staggering number of African lives lost in transit during this “traumatic” period of human history.

By locating these seemingly forgotten wrecks, Tara and DWP are hoping to bring the stories and truths they hold up from the depths and back into collective memory.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here,” Tara told The Sun. “And it’s important that we do it so we have a full view of the past.

“We only know part of the story – and we only know that part of the story from a particular lens.

“In native culture, everything has a spirit and everything has a story: so the ocean has a story, those people who were in the cargo hold had stories – but those are stories we don’t hear and we don’t tell.

“So part of what we’re doing is saying that those voices matter, those voices are important, and those people mattered.”

A HIGHER CALLING

Tara happened upon Diving With A Purpose accidentally during a visit to Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2017.

The Atlanta native had been walking around an exhibit on the second floor when she looked up to see a picture of a group of primarily black women on a boat, wearing wetsuits in the middle of the ocean.

“I saw that picture and just everything changed for me,” Roberts, who was working for a non-profit at the the time, said. “I’d never really seen black divers on a boat and so that really stopped me and captured my imagination.

“I thought that while they looked like me, they were engaged in this activity that I hadn’t really seen someone like me do.

“There was just something about those women,” she continued. “They looked like superheroes to me.”

To the side of the image was a placard, explaining the women were members of DWP who were seeking to search for and help document slave shipwrecks around the world.

Tara, who was “blown away” by the work the group was undertaking, reached out to DWP later that same day, eager to learn more.

She eventually made contact with the group’s co-founder, Ken Stewart, who invited her to come and dive with the group.

The only issue for Tara was that she had almost no scuba diving experience, save for a touristy day-trip she’d embarked on while on vacation with an ex-boyfriend 10 years earlier.

But inspired to push herself out of her comfort zone, she began researching dive schools in the DC area and started training twice a week for the next three months with the Underwater Adventure Seekers.

Over the course of 2017, as she spent more time with DWP, Tara said she really got to know the divers and became increasingly compelled by their stories and the ships that they’d found.

“I started thinking that somebody really needed to tell their story, as it wasn’t something I’d ever head of and I didn’t think a lot of other people would have either,” Tara said.

“And then I was like, ‘Wait, I’m a journalist. I have a journalism background. I should tell this story!'”

Soon after, Tara quit her job at the non-profit she’d be working at to take a sabbatical in Southeast Asia and get the diving certifications she needed to join DWP full time.

“I felt really called to this work,” Tara said. “So after I got back [from Asia] I started training with DWP and that’s where I learned to map a shipwreck.

“And from then, I was like ‘This is amazing’. I didn’t have any funding and I didn’t have an assignment, but I just knew I wanted to tell these stories.”

‘MOVING’ DISCOVERIES

In the years since, Tara has become a PADI-certified Open Water Diver and is now a National Geographic Explorer, where she documents her work with DWP and also has a podcast series called Into The Depths.

Her travels with the group have taken her all over the world, from Mozambique and South Africa, to Costa Rica and Senegal.

Tara has not yet been directly involved with the discovery of a slave shipwreck, though she has dived at a number of sites of other doomed vessels previously found by DWP.

The process of finding and verifying a wreck is painstaking and can often take several years. In addition to the divers, archeologists and historians are brought in to assist with research and logistics.

The most recent discovery was made in Alabama in 2019, where the remnants of the Clotilda, the last-known slave ship to arrive in the US, were found buried in the Mobile River.

The process of finding and verifying a wreck is painstaking and can often take several years

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The process of finding and verifying a wreck is painstaking and can often take several yearsCredit: National Geographic
Many of the artifacts found at the wrecks are left untouched as they have become apart of marine life

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Many of the artifacts found at the wrecks are left untouched as they have become apart of marine lifeCredit: David Doubilet/National Geographic
Colleagues of Tara's have also previously discovered shackles and chains at wreck sites

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Colleagues of Tara’s have also previously discovered shackles and chains at wreck sitesCredit: David Doubilet/National Geographic
A reconstruction of the Clotilda is seen above. It was the last slave ship to sail to the US

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A reconstruction of the Clotilda is seen above. It was the last slave ship to sail to the USCredit: National Geographic

Tara was taken out visit the wreck site and said she was moved when she looked down to see the outline the ship’s hull, preserved in mud 160 years after its sinking.

She has also visited the wreckages of other believed slave ships that DWP is still working to completely verify the identities of. At those sites, Tara has seen the anchors of the ships, pottery, bricks and other artefacts lying on the ocean’s floor.

“It’s always moving and touching,” she said, adding that DWP rarely disturbs the artefacts because they’ve “become a part of the ocean and the marine life that lives down there.”

Colleagues of Tara’s have also previously discovered shackles and chains at wreck sites that were once used to tether enslaved Africans together, often in large groups

Those items, Tara says, are often hard to look at and almost impossible not to get emotional about. But there’s also a sense of “power”, she says, that comes with interacting with these items and recognizing their history, however dark it may be.

“It’s really emotional because you know the story, you know exactly what happened, you know how many people died, and you know what their experience was like.

“But to have that information, and then to see the actual evidence of that, in the location where it happened – it’s also amazing.

“Because I also think there’s also something really healing that happens,” Tara added.

“Throughout my journey over these past few years I’ve felt less sadness and anger than I thought I would. I’ve felt more pride and more empowered.

“I’ve felt agency and I’ve even felt joy at being able to say to our ancestors, ‘I see you, I understand what you went through, and I honor you.’

“And that’s beautiful. That’s powerful.”

RECONCILING WITH THE PAST

Tara said it’s her belief that, particularly in the US, there is a tendency to brush over the history of the slave trade era with broad strokes because of the feelings of pain, sorrow, anger, shame and guilt doing so can evoke.

“But as any psychologist will tell you, to get to the other side of something, you have to face it; you have to actually look at it and confront it,” she said.

“And I think that’s one of the most important parts about the work we’re doing. We’re saying: Look at this, and let’s not look at it from those lenses that we’re used to looking at it from.

“There’s definitely sadness there. They are some horrible things that happened during the slave trade. But we can face those things. And if we face them, we can move through them and to the other side.”

Tara continued: “I know that I am really interested in healing that wound, feeling that space and I think a lot of people are, but it’s like it’s just been festering and we keep pretending like nothing’s happening.”

Rediscovering and recognizing slave ship wrecks, Tara believes, is a powerful way to reconcile with the past.

Tara admitted to being apprehensive herself to delve into this part of her own history as an African American at the beginning of her journey with DWP, but claims doing so has given her courage she “didn’t know she needed.”

“I didn’t want to look back. I wasn’t planning on it, I wasn’t reading any books [about slavery], I wasn’t watching any TV shows about it.

“I wasn’t interested and I didn’t thing it was an issue at all.”

But now, having spent almost five years with DWP, Tara said she realized along the way how much she had “divorced” herself from her own family’s history, in her attempts to gloss over and ignore the slavery era and its impacts.

FAMILY SECRETS

For as long as she can remember, Tara says her mother has had a picture of her great, great grandfather Jack – the earliest ancestor they can trace back – displayed on a wall in her home.

Jack was born enslaved in 1837. But for years, Tara said she had no interest in learning more about Jack, and the only thing she knew about him was that he was a slave.

She would listen to the stories about him, but she’d feel no connection to him in any way, whatsoever.

But through her work with DWP, Tara says she eventually mustered the “courage to look at his life.”

She hired a genealogist and tasked them with tracing back her family tree as far as they could, but she couldn’t find anyone further back that great, great Grandpa Jack.

Initially disappointed, Tara said the genealogist soon started finding out all these details about Jack that her family didn’t previously know.

“It turned out that his life was so much bigger than just being born into slavery,” she said. “That was certainly a defining moment in his life but that wasn’t the only thing.”

Jack, Tara would discover, went on to become a real-estate mogul after being emancipated, managing to amass over 175 acres of land in North Carolina.

He also fought in the Civil War for the United States Colored Troops, and was delegated to the Freedmen’s Convention, where he and other members proclaimed the need for black inclusivity in the political and judicial processes.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tara said. “I couldn’t believe how much I blurred his life to be defined by just one thing, pain and trauma – but that just wasn’t the case.

“And that’s why it’s important to revisit and tell these stories and look back.

“Because black life existed,” she added. “Like we often tell stories that are more about black trauma, but there’s all this other stuff inside of that, that helps to define us, but we don’t know those stories.

“And we won’t find them until we force ourselves to look back.”

FULL CIRCLE

Tara’s work with DWP is being featured on the front page of National Geographic Magazine for its March 2022 edition, making her the first black female explorer to be featured on the cover.

To have Diving With A Purpose’s work recognized in such a way, Tara says, has left her feeling “over the moon.”

“This is awesome,” she beamed. “Because they are a group that deserves attention. They deserve support and I want to see them keep going for many, many, many years.”

When she thinks about her own picture on the cover, Tara becomes slightly more bashful, though recognizes how “amazing” the feat is.

Much like the photo of the DWP divers she saw on the wall inside the National Museum of African American History, she hopes her image on the cover of Nat Geo will inspire others to question what’s possible and to chase adventure.

“What I hope is that there are little girls, especially little black girls, who look at that cover and imagine themselves as explorers, as storytellers.

“I want them to imagine that is possible – because it is.”

Tara's search for slave ship's inspired her to investigate her own family's past

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Tara’s search for slave ship’s inspired her to investigate her own family’s pastCredit: National Geographic
Tara's story is being featured on the front page of National Geographic Magazine for its March 2022 edition

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Tara’s story is being featured on the front page of National Geographic Magazine for its March 2022 edition
Tara is the first black female explorer to be featured on the cover

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Tara is the first black female explorer to be featured on the coverCredit: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

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