Slaveship Archaeology

Sorting Through the Clues

During surveys at East Caicos several shipwrecks were found in the search area; the massive debris field of an iron-hulled ship, several anchors and chain, ballast stones, an iron mast, a mid-sized wooden ship, and a modern wooden yacht. Trouvadore is the first slave ship ever investigated that was actually carrying slaves at the time it sank, and the smugglers themselves kept few records due to the potentially incriminating information. How could we possibly identify any of these as Trouvadore’s remains?  What specific artifacts might we expect to find?

Model of Trouvadore built by Dr. Donald H. Keith

In 1841, “wrecking” was a well-established practice in the islands, and records indicate that extensive salvage was undertaken by local salvers. Recovered items included sails, rigging, chain cables, and personal effects. What remained was of little value at the time, but might help identify the wreck as a slave ship.

A list from the “equipment clause” in the Anglo-Dutch anti-slavery treaty of 1822 provides useful information. The presence of the suspect items, even when slaves were not on board, was considered sufficient evidence of a vessel’s involvement in the slave trade. This equipment included extra bulkheads and spare lumber, iron manacles and chains, over-sized iron cooking cauldrons and mess tubs, large quantities of victuals, extra water casks, grated hatch covers, and an overabundance of firearms and other weapons. The presence of any of these today would do the same.

Slaveship Vigilante 1823 (Courtesy John Carter Brown Library)

Other clues to the identification of Trouvadore might be glass and pottery found in the wreckage. The ship sailed to and from Spanish and Portuguese ports with a Spanish and later Portuguese crew. The belongings of the crew and the containers that held the ship’s stores could reflect their origin and ports of call.

Little was written about the ship itself other than that it was a brigantine. However, brigantines and schooners were both used in the slave trade; the main difference between them was their rigging. Any remnants of rigging might help narrow the possibilities.

Unfortunately, the wooden wreck suspected of being Trouvadore had been swept clean over the years, exposed to the winds and waves sweeping in from the North Atlantic. The construction of the ship itself would provide the most important clues. We kew that Trouvadore set sail from the coast of Africa with nearly 300 slaves and 20 crew. In order to carry them all, the ship must have been at least 30 m long with an 8-10m beam, a typical mid-sized ship of the day. It’s timbers would have been very stout as well. The 19thcentury wooden ship certainly met that description.

Barely exposed remains of the Black Rock Wreck in 2006

In the end, positive identification was made through the process of elimination. After exhaustive research, the archeologists were able to conclude that the wooden wreck did not match any ship known to have wrecked at East Caicos, and none of the other wrecks there matched the description of Trouvadore. When combined with the historical record, the remains of the Black Rock Wreck can be none other than the slave ship Trouvadore.