The Hunt for an Elusive Florida Shipwreck That Killed 41 Enslaved People


Searching for the slave ship Guerrero, the nonprofit Diving With a Purpose has also trained scores of young Black men and women to find and tell stories once lost to the waves.

CARYSFORT REEF WAS DARK UNDER the new moon. Coral tentacles undulated with the changing tide, while black-tipped sharks patrolled for lobster, twisting their snouts into cracks and crevices.

Then, a crash! The hull of the Guerrero ripped through the corals. On impact, its mast snapped, plowing through a hold packed with men, women, and children. As water rushed into the breached hull, screams could be heard across two miles of ocean. Ultimately, 41 of the 561 captive Africans aboard would die on that stormy night in 1827.

Nearly 200 years later, those same blue-green waters are now sparkling and calm under the hot sun. A group of mostly African American scuba divers, led by Ken Stewart, chat in excited anticipation as they check their gear. They’ve plunged into the northern Florida Keys’ Biscayne National Park dozens of times before in their search for the remains of the pirate slave ship Guerrero. Finding it would make history: It would be the first wreck of a slave ship in U.S. waters that went down with enslaved people aboard. The clock is ticking, however. This will be one of the group’s final attempts.

I never went to college, you know,” says Stewart, cofounder of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), an African American maritime archaeology and conservation nonprofit. “I barely got out of high school. I was not involved with history. But this one story just really stuck with me. It set me on this journey.”

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