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Ocean as a Lab: Trouvadore Shipwreck



My name is Dr. Donald Keith. I’m a marine archeologist.  I work in the Turks and Caicos Islands, British West Indies.

I started off in land archeology, but it didn’t take long before I realized that there’s a whole lot of stuff underwater that has been inaccessible for the last many millennia. But now we have the technology to go underwater and to relocate things that have been lost for hundreds of thousands of years. We found out about the Trouvadore about 16 years ago. We went to the Smithsonian, looking for artifacts that had been sold to museums in the U.S. more than 100 years ago. But while we were there, we ran across old letters written by the guy who sold these artifacts to the Smithsonian. And he listed all the items he was selling. And way toward the end, there was a entry that said, “Two African idols from the last slave ship that wrecked in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1841” and it gave the location, Breezy Point, East Caicos. And that was the beginning of our understanding of this whole event that had been completely lost to history, and we said, this is important. It’s about how the people who live there today got there. The place where the Trouvadore wrecked is kind of a difficult place for us to work. And we actually found the Trouvadore, by towing divers behind small boats that could weave in and out of the shallow reef and the coral heads. And they spotted the shipwreck first, but we couldn’t be sure that it was the right wreck until we had gone back two more seasons and done more excavation. Among the artifacts that we brought up are, ballast stones. Ballast stones can tell you about where the ship has been. We found fragments of casks and barrels that would have contained provisions, broken pieces of pottery. Now when you come and excavate that shipwreck or bring those artifacts up to the surface, you’re bringing them into a new environment, so that they can be studied, and we can figure out what they are and how they went together and let those mute objects tell their story. The Trouvadore was trying to get Cuba. We know that it was trying to run a pass, a narrow 20-mile pass between the Turks Islands and the Caicos Islands. We think Trouvadore probably wrecked at night, as an error in navigation, hit the reef, and carried right over into the lagoon, and sank. When it went down, it was carrying almost 200 African slaves. All of them not only survived, but they stayed in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I’ve always thought that the real product of archeology is not artifacts, or the raw data, it’s the story, the human story. And in this case, it’s an uplifting story. It’s the story of deliverance. Slavery had been banned in the Turks and Caicos Islands long before 1841, and all those people were freed. So people who were destined to spread their lives in the cane fields of Cuba ended up free. They and their descendants live there to this day.