Uncovering The Lost Shipwrecks Of The Transatlantic Slave Trade

A report by Joe Sills for Forbes.

After centuries on the sea floor, the darkest pages of human history are being brought to light thanks to a determined dive crew and Samuel L. Jackson.

For 400 years, the Transatlantic slave trade tore families apart while transporting between 10 and 12 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas in chains. In the process, thousands of slave ships transited waters that harbor tranquil tourist destinations today. However, many ships never reached their final destinations. Some remain on the ocean floor where weather, cannon balls or navigational errors set them to rest hundreds of years ago.

For the past two years, Alannah Vellacott and Kramer Wimberley have been key cogs in a dive crew working on the Samuel L. Jackson-headlined project “Enslaved” to locate and tell the stories of lost slave ships and the souls trapped onboard.

This week, while Jackson makes a whirlwind tour of television appearances ahead of the series launch, Vellacott and Wimberley sat down with us to share stories of the life-changing discoveries they made waiting below the water’s surface from the Caribbean to the U.K.Recommended For You

Joe Sills: There’s a point early on in the first episode of “Enslaved” where you are holding iron shackles recovered off the coast of Florida. Can you tell describe what it is like to hold a piece of iron or a relic from one of these ships?

Alannah Vellacott: I don’t know if it made the cut, but I looked at the shackles and held them up against my wrist. I looked at my skin color, and I thought, “This is meant for me. I am supposed to be in this right now. They made these torture devices and chains for me. They were meant to keep me enslaved, to keep me in a place where I could never run from or never leave.”

When I held those shackles, I was sure that the people who built them could have never imagined that we would break free.

There I was in my privilege, a free black woman, holding the shackle that was around the bloody ankles of a possible family member. Maybe it was a cousin or a great aunt. Maybe they were on somebody chained alongside my family member on that ship. I had a moment where I had to take a break, and I couldn’t stop shaking. It was very emotional. I had to walk away.

Three people example an antique pair of shackles.

Kramer Wimberley: That’s always a difficult one for me. There is no simple way of explaining why that is. I grew up as an African American male in an urban environment. My childhood was all about divorcing yourself from feeling and emotion. The only way you could survive was to not have feelings and not have emotion. That’s part of the legacy of the system. They saw my people as inhuman and treated us as inhuman, and that takes some of your humanity away from you.

When I see something like that, more often than not, it doesn’t evoke a very strong emotion in me. One, it’s because that is how I survived growing up. Two, because it’s not the first time I have seen those things or understood that. I recognized growing up that the history that was taught wasn’t a history that made sense to me, so I began exploring to find out more about my history and my people.

Joe Sills: Why does the world need to hear the story of these ships right now?

Alannah Vellacott: The timing right now is absolutely important because the Black Lives Matter wave is now a tsunami. Everyone is waking up. Everyone is participating in it. France is. Italy is. Russia is. China is. Everyone is participating. African American and African Caribbean people need to know the things we go through were put in place to make sure we never succeeded or didn’t do too well.

Kramer Wimberley: With respect to Black Lives Matter, what it is that we are facing right now—in my opinion—is a direct result and consequence of not having come to terms and never addressing what happened with that horrible institution. We have said slavery is illegal, but we haven’t done anything with respect to the generations of people who came through that system.

The psychological impact that is almost in the DNA of African Americans, as a result of what took place, has to be addressed. Not only that, but even though slavery has been abolished, the vestiges of slavery still remain. Those people who engaged in and believed whole heartedly in enslaving people didn’t just disappear once it was abolished. They owned businesses, they worked in governments. You have police officers doing the things they are doing because it has been bred into the way they are taught, and they have been taught that way for generations. You have prosecutors who over prosecute and judges who look at people, not seeing them as human, and judging accordingly.

A diver climbs aboard a narrow wooden boat laden with divers and equipment.

Joe Sills: Your dive team, Diving With A Purpose, goes on a global search throughout the series. I know things get particularly heated in Suriname. Tell me about what happened in Suriname.

Alannah Vellacott: Suriname was very, very, very difficult. It was very intense, because of the amount of travel time that we had to endure through the jungle in canoes with water at the bottom of them. There were bugs, mosquitos, cacti, poisons, parasites, you name it.

Kramer Wimberley: Suriname was probably the most disturbing thing that we experienced, by virtue of the story. We stayed within view of where the wreck took place. To look at the site today, it is probably one of the most idyllic places you would ever want to see. The beauty of it, the wind blowing through the trees and the softness of the water and the sky. It looks like it could be a vacation spot. 

But, knowing 350 years ago on a particular night, you could hear the screams of people being slaughtered…

The captain made a wrong turn. The ship got stuck within a couple of hundred yards of land. Instead of letting people off the ship, the crew made the decision that they couldn’t make any money off of them because the ship was beached. The crew left, but when they saw the Africans were going to get off of the ship, they returned. 

The crew forced everyone below deck, nailed the hatches shut, and sat on the hatches until every last one of them drowned. 680 human beings were slaughtered because somebody made a mistake.

You could see land. And just standing on the shore with the wind blowing across the water, your mind starts to go and it’s almost as if you can hear the screams.

Joe Sills: Why is it important to find these shipwrecks? What additional meaning can finding a shipwreck deliver that the pages of a history book cannot?

Alannah Vellacott: The first time I joined the crew, we went to Cornwall, England—the exact place my dad is from. Now, My dad is British. My mom is Bahamian. I am biracial. We went to the town that my last name is from, and I had never been there. So, I actually met that side of my family for the first time. I was able to hug them and touch them, to look at their noses and eyes and ask, “Do I have those ears and that smile? Do you have the same crooked teeth as me?” 

That part of me became real because I was looking at it. In that same vein, diving those shipwrecks and seeing artifacts—whether they are brought to the surface or not—makes history real.

I think it’s sort of the difference between having your grandfather’s pocket watch in your pocket, as opposed to just stories. It makes your ancestors, your history real and tangible.

I can look on the sea floor and see coins that were worth 15 slaves. I can see that it really happened. It gives me power and hope and closure, to look back and see tangible evidence of the atrocities that were happening to our race and our family members.

The dark silhouette of a wooden shipwreck looms through green waters.

Kramer Wimberley: I am a former investigator. For me, those locations are crime scenes. A crime was committed there. Not just a kidnapping, but torture and crimes against humanity. There is no statute of limitations on murder; but internationally, we are still trying to figure out how to process crimes against humanity.

The other part is that it’s a grave site where people were slaughtered and killed. There was no humanity associated with their burial and still today, not only the six ships we study, but hundreds of ships have been lost. They have still not been located or looked for.

How do we call ourselves human beings and walk over someone’s grave and not acknowledge it? How do we call ourselves human beings if we don’t see people as human and deserving of some kind of dignity even after they have been slaughtered?

Joe Sills: To that note, it feels as if the dark history of the Transatlantic slave trade has been pushed under the rug. Do you feel like this series is going to be able to shed some light on it?

Alannah Vellacott: Absolutely. Slavery only ended three or four generations back, and racism is not over. If we stop talking about it, it won’t go away. It is engrained in our way of life and in our governmental systems. It prevents people that look like me from getting a proper appraisal on a house. It stops people who look like me from doing “too well” or being “too successful.” The naive might say that “shit happens,” but shit was planned.

Kramer Wimberley: That is my hope. It is dark and it is painful, but to me it is not an exaggeration to say that the entire world was complicit in what took place. Everyone played a part in it. Many of them benefitted from it, which is why the inhumanity of it went on for as long as it did.

We are still living with the consequences of that inhumanity. Until we bring it to light and address what it was that took place, and how it has affected the lives not only of the people that were directly affected by it, but those who actually lived it, until we rip open the wound and talk about it openly, honestly, clearly and fully, we are never going to get beyond it, in my estimation.

A coral-encrusted elephant tusk is held by a diver on a boat in the ocean.

Joe Sills: Your team does manage to bring a very real artifact to light when you recover an elephant tusk from the Atlantic Ocean. Is that a moment that shook you?

Alannah Vellacott: We brought that tusk onto the ship and we were all kind of kneeling over it and touching it. Kramer stood up, then I stood up. And I just fell. I tumbled like a Jenga tower into his chest and just sobbed uncontrollably. 

I touched the tusk and saw the corals growing on it. I thought about how many lives cost less than that tusk. You could probably buy 15 or 30 slaves with that one elephant tusk. I felt like this object was taken from a very intelligent and beautiful animal and it was worth way more than me.

Kramer Wimberley: No. In instances when I did feel something, what I feel more often than not is pain and rage, the raw emotion that comes out because I am thinking past my own personal feelings. I am trying to put myself in the place of those people who were actually tortured. As bad as the things that I have lived through and experienced in my 50-something years have been, they are nothing in comparison to being kidnapped and ripped away from your family, dehumanized and stripped and tortured and raped and tossed over the side of a ship.

When my emotions come as a result of attempting to place myself in the shackles, in the hull of the ship trying to relate to what that experience was, all I can feel is anger and rage. At the same time, I realize that my anger and rage is counterproductive. It could get someone else killed, and that in itself is a burden.

Samuel L. Jackson receives a traditional tribal blessing in Gabon.

Joe Sills: We can’t talk about this search without mentioning the other half of the show that helped bring your story to t.v. On screen, while you’re diving on sunken slave ships, Samuel L. Jackson is pursuing his ancestry in Africa. But Sam is actually a licensed diver as well. Did you interact with him during filming?

Alannah Vellacott: I did. Sam is quite a funny guy. He does not take shit. He is too old, too experienced and is paid too much. He came out on the boat with us and spoke to the divers about why what we were doing is important. He sat on the edge of the boat at the exit door where we were jumping in, and he shook our hands and gave us all a hug. He made it a point to say something nice to each and everyone that jumped in.

I am all about education and outreach, and at one point I got to have a private conversation with him and I got to tell him why coral reef are important and why we should be rehabilitating them. That was a life moment for me.

Kramer Wimberley: He’s Sam Jackson, so he’s very busy. The man does not stop making movies, but in the instances where I had an opportunity to interact with him, you couldn’t help but recognize his humanity and his willingness to be a part of the project. That, for me, was impressive.

Joe Sills: After two years of searching, diving and filming, what did this project teach you about humanity?

Alannah Vellacott: This whole journey has made my English heritage very real and tangible and I now feel connected to that, but I feel even more solidly connected to my Blackness—what it means to look like me, where I came from and where I want to take my color. I want to be that person that people can look at and say “I can do that. My dreams are attainable.” 

Representation for our color means everything. If you don’t see yourself anywhere, you can’t visualize yourself in those places. You have to be really, really, really strong to be able to do that.

A young woman embraces a middle-aged man on board a ship.

Kramer Wimberley: When we started Diving With A Purpose, we began as a group of mostly middle-aged and older people. Everyone in the organization wanted to tell the story of one particular slave ship so that other stories of similar situations could be told. During the process, I started working with younger people, whom I had almost given up on in regards to being conscious and aware of African history. 

They have renewed my hope.

By working with them, and seeing them explore and begin to ask questions about everything that is going on, like “why is this still going on hundreds of years later?” And seeing them rage with their own visions and passions against injustice moving forward, it feels like there is hope.

“Enslaved” debuts September 14 at 10 P.M. ET/PT on Epix. The six-part series is the most comprehensive non-scripted series ever made on the Transatlantic slave trade. Though filming wrapped earlier this year, Diving With A Purpose continues their research on lost slave ships to tell the stories of those who have never had the chance.

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