Fishermen lead archaeologists to wreck after generations re-told the tragic story
Off the Yucatan coast, archaeologists identified the remains of a ship that carried Mayan people into virtual slavery in the 19th century, the first time such a ship has been found.
The ship was found about 2 miles / 3.7 kilometers off the port of Sisal in about 22 feet / 7 meters of water, after a local fisherman led archaeologists to the wreck.
INAH archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke said the inhabitants of Sisal had passed down through generations the account of the slave ship, and one of them led researchers to it.
The wreck of the Cuban-based paddle-wheel steamboat was found in 2017, but wasn’t identified until researchers from INAH checked contemporary documents and found evidence it was the ship “La Unión.”
The ship had been used to take Mayas captured during the Caste War from 1847 to 1901. Enslaved Mayas were taken to Cuba to work in sugarcane fields. Slavery was illegal in Mexico at the time.
The La Unión was on a trip to Havana in September 1861 when its boilers exploded and it sank off the once-important Yucatan port of Sisal.
Its story was kept alive by locals ever since.
“The grandparents and great-grandparents of the inhabitants of Sisal told them about a steamship that took away Mayas during the War of the Castes,” Barba said. “And one of the people in Sisal who saw how they led the Mayas away as slaves, told his son and then he told his grandson, and it was that person who led us to the general area of the shipwreck.”
The identification was based on the physical remains of the wooden-hulled side-wheeler, whose timbers bore signs of fire and whose boilers had exploded. The location of the wreck also coincides with contemporary accounts of the accident, which killed half of the 80 crew members and 60 passengers aboard.
The team also found silverware with the emblem of the company that operated the ship.
In October 1860, a ship had been caught in neighboring Campeche state taking aboard 29 Mayas, including children as young as 7. Authorities prevented the ship from leaving, but clearly that didn’t keep the trade from continuing. Mayas were often transported on ships which were taking sisal fiber and paying passengers to Cuba.
Sisal and henequen were fibers used in making rope, and were usually harvested by Mayas working in serf-like conditions on large plantations in the Yucatan.
It was unclear if there were any Maya aboard on the ship’s last voyage. The records are unclear because the Mayas would probably have been listed as cargo, not as passengers, or the ship may have tried to conceal their presence.
Barba noted that captured Mayan combatants were frequently sent to Cuba, from where many never returned. “Each slave was sold to a middleman for 25 pesos, and they resold them in Havana for as much as 160 pesos, for men, and 120 pesos for women,” she said.
The next stage of research involves trying to find their descendants. Researchers plan to travel to Havana, where there is a neighborhood called “Campeche,” perhaps a clue to a Yucatan link.
“These people, or some of them, could be descendants of the Mayas who were taken by force or deception,” she said. “Research has to be done so these (Mayan) people can know where their grandparents or great-grandparents are.”
The Maya launched one of North America’s last Indigenous revolts in the lower Yucatan Peninsula in 1847, fighting against domination by white and mixed-race Mexicans who exploited them. The Mexican government fought the bloody rebellion with brutal repression, but couldn’t wipe out the last resistance until 1901.
A few wrecks of African slave ships have been found in waters in the United States and elsewhere, but no Maya slaving ship had been identified.