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African divers rewriting the narrative of the slave trade

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youDivers march down the cobbled streets of one of the world’s most infamous former slave ports, carrying tape measures, clipboards and flippers.

There is a Senegalese police officer who had learned to dive the month before, a more experienced diver from Benin, the only PhD student studying maritime archeology in Côte d’Ivoire. They all head out to the ocean, on a mission.

The team, heading towards their final dive, have been exploring what researchers believe to be the remains of slave ships, as part of an inaugural program supported by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. For the Smithsonian, this fall’s effort follows moves in recent years to address its complicated history of racism and exploitation. For divers, it represents an opportunity to pursue maritime archeology with a focus not on treasure but on understanding.

“What we have so far is the settler narrative,” says Grace Grodje, a doctoral student studying maritime archeology in the Ivory Coast, another West African nation that was a major center of the slave trade. “There is a lot of information underwater that is not yet known. If we don’t look, we won’t know.”

As his speedboat plows through the choppy waves of the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny October morning, Grodje, 26, shrugs and changes into a slightly larger-fitting wetsuit and removes his goggles. She had learned to dive on her own the previous month.

Sitting in the back of the boat, Grodje straps the tank to his back, places the respirator in his mouth, and pushes off the edge of the boat, falling into the water below. Grasping the anchor line, he joins Gabrielle Miller, 30, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Miller gives a thumbs down, the symbol for descending, and Grodje and the other students deflate their vests. Their bodies sink into the water, toward the wreck below.

Déthié Faye, one of the students who participated in the archaeological immersions

(The Washington Post by Guy Peterson)

Underwater, Grodje and Miller peer through their goggles at a rusty chain at the bottom of the ocean, about 30 feet below the surface. Holding a clipboard, Grodje scribbles down the measurements while Miller works with the tape measure. Nearby was a deeply rusted anchor. Plastic bags and a pile of discarded fabric floated past.

As Grodje begins to float to the surface, carried by a slight current, Miller offers a steady hand.

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



Increasingly, the Smithsonian has revamped its policies to address historical errors. This year, for example, he returned 29 bronze sculptures that British soldiers stole from the Kingdom of Benin.

Miller and Marc-Andre Bernier, an underwater archaeologist from Canada who runs the course, say the sunken ship was discovered in 1988 and likely wrecked in the early 19th century. They say researchers don’t know for sure if she was transporting enslaved people, although many of the ships coming from Gorée in that period did.

As people gather more information about the ship, they say, its origins could become clearer. A few weeks earlier, Miller, Bernier, and Madicke Gueye, a PhD candidate whose research focuses on shipwrecks around Senegal’s capital Dakar, had located another ship likely linked to the slave trade, this one about 50 feet below the surface. Water. Advanced student divers 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, says the growing study of slave ships (more than 1,000 are believed to have been wrecked) will inevitably reveal important historical insights.

René Ndiana Faye stands at the bow of the dive boat as it enters the port.

(The Washington Post by Guy Peterson)

But the goal “isn’t to find treasure and bring it back to DC,” says Gardullo. Increasingly, the Smithsonian has revamped its policies to address historical errors. This year, for example, he returned 29 bronze sculptures that British soldiers stole from the Kingdom of Benin. The priorities of the program in Dakar, Gardullo says, are things that museums have historically given little attention to: community involvement, international partnership, ethical digging.

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

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

Miller says the goal was to begin decolonizing the historically white study area. In the United States and Great Britain, surveys show that less than 1 percent of professional archaeologists are black. Miller, a black woman, says the number of black maritime archaeologists is even fewer.

Gabrielle Miller takes Grace Grodje’s hand to lead her to the dive site

(The Washington Post by Guy Peterson)

His own doctoral work has focused on the resistance of slaves and freed black residents on the Caribbean island of St Croix, where he traces some of his family roots, and on the use of archeology to dispel common myths. When the work is done by people touched by history, he says, it is often less about extraction than about preservation and memory.

Waving a red, yellow and green Senegalese flag above his head, Pierre Antoine Sambou smiles and shuffles toward the docked boat as his fellow divers cheer.

Sambou, a 31-year-old man with a master’s degree in underwater archaeology, brought the flag for a photo shoot and waved it proudly above his head. His enthusiasm is contagious and the other students start chanting, “Go Senegal, go! Go! Go! Go!”

Aminata Mbaye is on the dive boat as the group prepares for the final descent of the October programme.

(The Washington Post by Guy Peterson)

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

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

On days that they were not diving, the students worked in a classroom to plot the collected data on maps.

(The Washington Post by Guy Peterson)

On both sides of the Atlantic, Miller says, blacks often have a complicated relationship with water. During the slave trade, they were taken from the areas bordering the rivers and coasts that they depended on for a living. Today, redlining and environmental racism have often left black communities with insufficient or contaminated water.

“For us, the water has embedded trauma,” she says.

But water can also heal, says Miller. Bringing the students together, some of whom could barely swim at first, to explore her history with water felt great, she says.

One afternoon, after a long day of diving, Miller saw Sambou on the dock with Déthié Faye, whose studies have focused on fishing, and Angelo Ayedoun, a diver from Benin. Sambou smacked his fins against the gentle waves of the ocean as Faye clapped her hands, making a steady beat. Standing over them, Ayedoun waved her hands and gyrated her hips, dancing like she was to a hit song. All three were smiling.

The sight of the black men having so much fun in the water gave Miller such a jolt of joy that his eyes filled with tears.

© The Washington Post

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