Déthié Faye, one of the students who took part in the archaeological dives near Senegal's Gorée Island. (Guy Peterson for The Washington Post)

African scuba divers rewrite a ‘settlers’ narrative’ of the slave trade

Off the coast of Senegal, a Smithsonian-sponsored program is training divers to explore and document sunken slave ships

7 min

GORÉE ISLAND, Senegal — The scuba divers marched through the cobblestone streets of one of the world’s most infamous former slave ports, carrying tape measures, clipboards and fins.

There was a Senegalese police officer who’d learned to dive the month before. A more seasoned diver from Benin. The only doctoral student studying maritime archaeology in Ivory Coast. They were all headed to the ocean, on a mission.

The team, walking toward its final dive, had been exploring what researchers believe are the wrecks of slave ships, as part of an inaugural program supported by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. For the Smithsonian, the effort this fall followed moves in recent years to address its complicated history with racism and exploitation. For the divers, it marked an opportunity to pursue maritime archaeology focused not on treasure but understanding.

“What we have so far is the settlers’ narrative,” said Grace Grodje, the doctoral student studying maritime archaeology in Ivory Coast, another West African nation that was a major hub in the slave trade. “There is a lot of information underwater that is not yet known. If we don’t search, we will not know it.”

As their speedboat cut through the choppy waves of the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny October morning, Grodje, 26, shrugged into a slightly too large wetsuit and slipped her goggles over her head. She had learned to dive only the month before.

Sitting at the back of the boat, Grodje strapped her tank to her back, placed her respirator in her mouth and pushed off the boat’s edge, tumbling into the water below. Grasping the anchor line, she joined Gabrielle Miller, 30, the archaeologist for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Miller gave a thumbs down, the symbol to descend, and Grodje and the other students deflated their vests. Their bodies sunk into the water, toward the wreck below.

‘The search is the success’

Underwater, Grodje and Miller peered through their goggles at a rusted chain on the ocean floor, about 30 feet below the surface. Holding a clipboard, Grodje scrawled down measurements as Miller worked the tape measure. A deeply rusted ancho was nearby. Plastic bags and a clump of discarded fabric floated past.

When Grodje started to drift toward the surface, carried by a slight current, Miller offered a steadying hand.

Their goal on that morning was to gather measurements that students would then map in the classroom.

Miller and Marc-Andre Bernier, an underwater archaeologist from Canada who was leading the course, said the sunken ship was discovered in 1988 and probably wrecked in the early 1800s. They said researchers don’t know for sure that it carried enslaved people, although many of the ships coming from Gorée in that period did.

As people collect more information about the ship, they said, its origins could become clearer. A few weeks before, Miller, Bernier and Madicke Gueye, a doctoral candidate whose research focuses on wrecks around Senegal’s capital, Dakar, had located another ship likely tied to the slave trade — this one about 50 feet below water. The advanced diving students had documented it.

Paul Gardullo, director of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said the increasing study of slave ships — more than 1,000 are thought to have wrecked — will inevitably reveal important historical insights.

But the goal is “not about finding treasures and bringing them back to D.C.,” Gardullo said. Increasingly, the Smithsonian has revamped its policies to address historical wrongs. This year, for instance, it returned 29 bronze sculptures that British soldiers stole from the Kingdom of Benin. The priorities of the program in Dakar, Gardullo said, are things that museums have historically given short shrift: community engagement, international partnership, ethical excavation.

“Metaphorically and literally,” he said, “the search is the success.”

Through its Slave Wrecks Project, the Smithsonian, along with partners including George Washington University, has teamed up with Ibrahima Thiaw, a Senegalese archaeologist at Cheikh Anta Diop University, for its work in Senegal. The new program, dubbed the “Slave Wrecks Project Academy,” brought together Africans and people of African descent to study the basics of maritime archaeology, both at sea and in the classroom.

Miller said the goal was to begin to decolonize the historically White area of study. In the United States and Britain, surveys show that fewer than 1 percent of professional archaeologists are Black. Miller, a Black woman, said the number of Black maritime archaeologists is even smaller.

Her own doctoral work has focused on resistance by slaves and freed Black residents on the Caribbean island of St. Croix — where she traces some of her familial roots — and using archaeology to dispel common myths. When the work is done by people touched by the history, she said, it often becomes less about extraction than preservation and memory.

‘Trauma embedded in the water’

Waving a red, yellow and green Senegalese flag over his head, Pierre Antoine Sambou smiled and shuffled to the docked boat as his fellow divers cheered.

Sambou, a 31-year-old with a master’s degree in underwater archaeology, had brought the flag for a photo shoot, proudly waving it above his head. His excitement was infectious, and the other students began chanting: “Go Senegal, go! Go, go, go!”

Sambou said parts of Africa’s history — including the scope and impact of the transatlantic slave trade — have been overlooked or ignored within Africa for too long. Even stories about Gorée, a tiny island off Dakar long said to be a transit point for millions of enslaved people, have in recent decades been undermined with questions about whether its role was overstated. Sambou said that the work to correct and complete the historical record is just beginning, and that much of it could happen underwater.

But diving is still new to many here, and he said that when he started, he decided not to tell his family. He didn’t want to be discouraged.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Miller said, Black people often have a complicated relationship with water. During the slave trade, they were taken from the areas bordering rivers and coasts on which they’d relied for their living. Today, redlining and environmental racism have often left Black communities with insufficient or polluted water.

“For us, the water has trauma embedded in it,” she said.

The incredible quest to find the African slave ships that sank in the Atlantic

But the water can also offer healing, Miller said. Bringing together students — some of whom barely knew how to swim at first — to explore their history with the water felt so right, she said.

One evening, after a long day of diving, Miller saw Sambou on the dock with Déthié Faye, whose studies have focused on fisheries, and Angelo Ayedoun, a diver from Benin. Sambou slapped his fins against the ocean’s gentle waves as Faye clapped his hands, making a steady beat. Standing next to them, Ayedoun waved his hands and swiveled his hips, dancing as if to a hit song. All three were grinning.

The sight of Black men having so much fun in the water brought Miller such a jolt of joy that her eyes filled with tears.