What a Spanish Shipwreck Reveals About the Final Years of the Slave Trade
Forty-one of the 561 enslaved Africans on board the “Guerrero” died when the illegal slave ship sank off the Florida Keys in 1827
The Guerrero had made it all the way from Nigeria to the Bahamas. A Spanish slave ship bound for Cuba, it was veering south toward Havana when an English antislavery schooner, the Nimble, spotted its sail on December 17, 1827. The two ships were locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse. The Nimble was armed with 8 cannons, but the far more heavily powered Guerrero’s 14 guns could have blown the English patrol ship sky-high with a single broadside. The slaver’s captain preferred not to risk losing the payday his precious human cargo promised.
Trying to zigzag through the Florida Keys’ razor-sharp reefs was a deadly blunder for the Guerrero. Bad navigation aside, the ship had no business being there in the first place. The transatlantic slave trade was all but over. Britain and the United States had banned it for 20 years. That great profiteer, England, had turned from trafficking to policing, dispatching a Royal Navy squadron to patrol the high seas. Its mission was to seek and destroy slavers and free their captives.
The Nimble was cruising the Straits of Florida when it noticed a lone straggler. The Guerrero was sailing through Orange Cay in the Bahamas, down the Straits of Florida under the command of Captain José Gomez, in hopes of dodging the British patrolling Cuba’s north coast. It almost made it. Havana’s slave markets lay just 250 miles away.
Six miles off Key Largo, Florida, the Guerrero pretended to surrender. Then it sped off. Day turned to night. Cat and mouse fired relentlessly. All the while, the strong breeze propelled the combatants toward the Florida Keys, where all hell broke loose. On December 19, the Guerrero smashed onto a low-lying coral reef as sharp as a barbed wire fence. Its masts fell, and the hull ripped open. Forty-one of the 561 West African captives drowned, their cries “appalling beyond description,” according to a local newspaper report.
The screams echoed across two miles of ocean where the Nimble had also fallen foul of the Keys’ razor-sharp reefs. While the Guerrero turned over and started to slowly sink into the Atlantic, the Nimble’s well-drilled naval crew set about lightening the ship’s load to float away from imminent destruction.
Nearly two centuries later, in 2019, silver dive tanks gleamed in the early morning sun as divers checked that their mouthpieces were free of blockage. Orange hard cases secured high-tech metal detectors waiting to peer beneath the sands for the faintest trace of a 19th-century wreck.
Corey Malcom led the core team and shared his thoughts on the best way to track down the Guerrero. From years of diving these shallows, he knew that most ships ended up smashed to smithereens by sweeping hurricanes. With any luck, intact parts of wrecks may survive under pockets of deep sand, but most structures and cargoes are ground to dust. In 1827, a large chunk of the abandoned Guerrero was salvaged before it slipped beneath the waves a few days later. Around $10,000 of goods were auctioned off in Key West, including German platillas (cloth), French cambric cloth, thread laces, gold dust and ivory—the fruits of piracy in Africa. To crack this cold case, the team would need to find and follow a splinter of forensic debris.
Two miles north, in Biscayne National Park, maritime archaeologists unfurled blue and red hoses over the side of their dive boat and cranked up its generator. The team’s metal detectors had struck a big hit in what the archaeologists were calling Area A. There was only one way to figure out what the find was: sucking sand.
In the shadow of an imposing reef outcrop that looks like a giant’s gnarled knuckles, the archaeologists and Kramer Wimberley, an instructor for Diving With a Purpose, hand-fanned sand and dead coral through the head of a dredge (the equivalent of an industrial underwater vacuum cleaner). Using the power of the dive boat’s generator, they forced water through the hose at such a high velocity that it created powerful suction. Slowly, the upper layers of sand and crumbled coral peeled away. The sterile sediment was left to settle through an exhaust, dozens of feet away, so the sand stayed in its natural environment.
A foot and a half down, the edges of a large concretion started to appear. It was about three feet long and gently slumped, its mouth pointed down and one end hitched up toward the surface. No marine life grew off its back. Whatever this object was had been buried for years, not exposed and covered by coral and sea fans.
“When we first saw it, I didn’t know what it was,” Wimberley said. “But as we kept on working, it just kept on getting bigger and bigger. And I knew at that point it was going to be something good.”
Eventually the team fully uncovered the discovery. Its shape was obvious to everyone. Cannons like this had a very specific shape and were known as carronades. Even better, small carronades were a kind of ordnance especially favored by the Royal Navy. Wimberley was quick to appreciate the gun’s meaning, confirming that “this carronade is about 200 years old. And it fits the time of the Nimble. So, I think we’re on the right track to finding the slave ship the Guerrero.”
Only serious naval ships boasted iron carronades. These types of guns were the sawed-off shotguns of the sea. They were far shorter than regular cannons and were designed at the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk, Scotland—hence their name—to fire a heavy shot at short range like an antipersonnel weapon. In a new twist, the technology was mounted on wooden slides, rather than fixed carriages. Carronades could take a run up and hurl wooden shot cases filled with 250 lead balls to smash through the sides of a wooden ship. The blast sent a surge of wood splinters into the air, bloodily wiping out the crew on an enemy’s main deck in one shot. British sailors called these weapons of deadly intent “smashers,” or the “devil’s gun.”
Back in the water, explorer Kinga Philipps soon zoned in on a large iron anchor, around nine feet long. Vivid live coral sprouted off its arms and crown. It lay proud and silently unchanged since the day it was lost above a flat sandy sea bottom carpeted with turtle grass. Two flat black-and-yellow-striped angelfish nosily darted around the divers.
In the underwater forest, Malcom pointed out a couple of iron cannonballs concreted together. Marine ecologist Alannah Vellacott and Philipps quickly noticed similar missiles all around them, at least 12, just dropped on top of the reef. These 11-pound cannonballs could inflict serious damage on enemy decks. The sea resembled a battle zone. But this battle had been between ship and nature, not people.
“It’s amazing. There’s just stuff everywhere,” Malcom said. “This fits our scenario of the Nimble throwing over lots of iron cannonballs. When you combine all these iron cannonballs with the rest of the evidence, it just fits the historical record perfectly.”
The team surfaced to change their dive tanks. Philipps was lost in thought, scrutinizing the underwater photos she had taken of the finds. What she saw made her smile. There was now no doubt. The team had successfully confirmed the spot where the Nimble crashed onto a Floridian reef on December 19, 1827. The end game for the slave ship Guerrero was at hand.
When the Guerrero was chased to its watery grave off the Florida Keys, Cuba was still illegally pumping African labor into the island. To keep the money rolling, Spain flew in the face of the world’s antislavery spirit and laws. The Nimble’s deadly pursuit of the slaver in American waters, however, marked the beginning of the end of the line.
Spain twisted and turned to keep its interests alive. Madrid passed a new royal decree in March 1830 that empowered Cuba’s captain-general to issue heavy ﬁnes “upon so inhuman trafﬁc.” Yet Spain did not even bother publishing the law in Cuba. Slavers continued to come and go at will. Spanish treaties with Britain in 1835 and 1845 also made little headway.
By the mid-19th century, half a million Africans were enslaved in Cuba. The more sugar Cuba produced, the more foreign luxuries its high society wanted. The United States became the island’s strongest trading partner, shouldering 34 percent of imports and 44 percent of exports. Havana’s commerce rocketed to $92 million by 1862, fed by over 2,000 American ships. By the last quarter of the 19th century, 94 percent of Cuba’s sugar went into feeding the American dream.
Cuba’s illegal trade in Africans officially ended in 1886. By then, the island’s sugar crop was valued at over $60 million. Each newly trafficked African was said to generate a ton more sugar. The horrors of the transatlantic slave trade conveniently passed into the fog of history. The world quickly forgot that for a century, Havana was a “banqueting place of death,” as Robert Francis Jameson, the British commissioner of arbitration over slave ships and enslaved people in Cuba, described the city in 1820. The hunt for the wreck of the Guerrero gives a voice back to hundreds of thousands of enchained Africans sent to Cuba, ensuring their story is told and remembered.
Malcom dried himself off and, in the shadow of a giant red steel lighthouse—the oldest in the Florida Keys, built in 1852—summed up the wreck hunt. The sights the team shared in these silent seas spoke volumes. In his mind, Malcom was clear. Smiling, he said, “I feel absolutely confident that we have found the wreck of the Guerrero.”
The Guerrero was no longer an intact space. It was an echo of a ship. The trader was wrecked and then flattened by hundreds of hurricanes, its shackles and timbers scattered far and wide. All that was left next to the memory of the enslaved were a few bones of the slave ship: artillery from the top deck, ballast from the hold and fasteners like ribs that once pinned the ship together.
Wimberley summed up the crew’s sense of achievement. In his imagination, he peered far back into the early 19th century, when a Spanish ship that should never have been allowed to sail with African captives was chased onto the rocks in the Florida Keys. “It’s a sombering kind of experience,” he said. “It’s giving voice to people who don’t have a voice anymore, and that’s what this entire experience has been all about.”
The Guerrero, one of America’s worst atrocities and disasters in transatlantic slave trade history, was lost no more. A final link was put back in a chain of broken African American memory.
Excerpted from Enslaved: The Sunken History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by Simcha Jacobovici and Sean Kingsley. Published by Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2022 by Simcha Jacobovici and Sean Kingsley. All rights reserved.
A Note to our Readers
Smithsonian magazine participates in affiliate link advertising programs. If you purchase an item through these links, we receive a commission.