Industrial fishing trawlers are bulldozing important artefacts of Black history on the ocean floor

Greenpeace UK has been taking action against industrial fishing ships trawling in so-called Marine Protected Areas. New evidence has emerged that trawlers have been bulldozing the wreck of the world's oldest slave ship.


Industrial trawlers are not only threatening important marine habitats and iconic species in ‘protected’ waters around UK shores. They are also laying waste to marine archaeology – including a 17th-century English shipwreck, which is the earliest known vessel linked to the transatlantic slave trade.

The disturbed remains of the ship was dived by humans for the first time during the making of Enslaved, a groundbreaking new documentary series on BBC2 with actor Samuel L Jackson and journalist Afua Hirsch.

During filming, divers found fresh evidence for the damage of the ship, compared to evidence of the wreck recorded by remote-vehicle in 2009.

The documentary series includes footage from dives all over the world by Diving with a Purpose – a group dedicated to the maritime history of African Americans.

Kramer Wimberely, lead instructor of Diving with a Purpose said, ‘The story of the slave trade is world history. England was involved in it, Portugal, the French and Dutch were involved in it, the Africans were involved in it. It’s a world shame.

‘If that wreck’s the final resting place of some of my ancestors, then it’s a burial ground. But it’s also a crime scene because they were taken. There was an injustice that took place, and no one has ever been brought to account. I want justice for those people. Archaeology can make sure we never forget.’

Kramer Wimberley with the tusk saved from the Royal African Company shipwreck. Photo: © 2020, Associated Producers Ltd./Cornelia Street Productions/Joshua Williams.

More than 12 million Africans were taken across the Atlantic in 45,000 voyages over 400 years, and many did not survive the journey.

‘A serious heritage failure’

The wreck of the Royal African Company trader ship from the 1680s was found around 70 kilometres south of Land’s End in Cornwall. Thought to have sunk sometime between 1672 and 1690, it was one of the first of more than 500 ships sent by the Royal African Company to West Africa from the UK.

“So much of the African Diaspora’s history lies beneath the waves because of the transatlantic slave trade”
Alannah Vellacott, marine archaeological advocate with Diving With a Purpose Tweet this

Leading British marine archaeologist Dr Sean Kingsley criticised the inability to protect rare wrecks like the Royal African Company ship as ‘a serious heritage failure’. Because the wreck lies outside UK territorial waters, England has no legal powers to protect wrecks like this.

Further details of the threats to the Royal African Company trader wreck will be published in the next issue of Wreckwatch magazine, of which Dr Kingsley is the Editor.

Kingsley’s research has found that in total, fishing trawlers sweep an area equivalent in size to half the world’s continental shelves each year.

Grey sonar of sea floor with visible comb-like lines. In the bottom centre-right a few impressions of the shipwreck are visible, with some debris scattered nearby

A side-scan sonar bird’s-eye view of the Royal African Company ship. Furrows cut by scallop dredge trawler nets and bottom gear run through the heart of the wreck. Photo: Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc.

As well as an ‘underwater museum’ and ‘time capsule’, according to Kingsley, it’s also viewed by Enslaved as a potential burial ground of the slaves and crew who perished on its final voyage.

Images from a remotely-operated vehicle from 2009 were compared to images taken during the Enslaved filming dives in 2018, in which 48 iron cannon were found scrambled all over the seabed.

Three iron cannon with another at an angle behind, with a diver pointing a torch at them.

Iron cannon on the shipwreck have been dragged by and lost to fishing trawler action. In 2018 the first humans dived the wreck for Enslaved. Photo: © 2020, Associated Producers Ltd./Cornelia Street Productions.

‘A symbol of the pillaging of Africa’

The earlier Odyssey Marine Exploration discoveries also included tobacco pipes, the captain’s glass wine bottles, cannonballs, rigging and the world’s oldest ‘pocket calculator’, a wooden ruler used to measure timber volume.

They also found nine elephant tusks, each weighing up to 24 kilograms. At its height, the trade in elephant tusks was bringing 61 tons of tusks into London every year.

One of these tusks is brought up in the opening episode of Enslaved – a delicate operation for rebreather divers, as the wreck is 110 metres down.

A diver underwater with special equipment placing a tusk into a basket on the sea floor

A rebreather diver prepares to recover an elephant tusk from the Royal African Company shipwreck. Photo: © 2020, Associated Producers Ltd./Cornelia Street Productions.

Alannah Vellacott, a marine archaeological advocate with Diving With a Purpose, said that ‘As Enslaved shows, so much of the African Diaspora’s history lies beneath the waves because of the transatlantic slave trade.

‘Bringing up the tusk saves it from the deep and raises the voices of people who didn’t have a voice. That tusk was worth maybe hundreds of lives of slaves. It’s a symbol of the pillaging of Africa. I never would have imagined this opportunity to give a voice to the silence, breathing new life into people of colour who are still living with questions unanswered.

‘It is paramount that we preserve what we can from wrecks like this, the only connections left to the ancestry and history of so many.’

Shipwreck ‘in dire shape courtesy of fishing trawlers having torn at it for decades’

The journalist and diver Kinga Philipps, also on the filming team, said that ‘issues concerning the blue depths of our planet are often very much out of sight, out of mind. This applies to everything from biomass and environmental issues to history.

‘Discovering the tusk wreck for Enslaved was bittersweet. The wreck, potentially the oldest of a slave ship discovered in human history, was in dire shape courtesy of fishing trawlers having torn at it for decades. Practices like this, when not controlled, will inevitably turn invaluable maritime history into mangled piles of debris, wiping away the stories they could tell.’

Enslaved’s director, Simcha Jacobovici, said that ‘On land people are pulling down statues of slave traders, forcing us to take a hard look at the past. Yet underwater, precious finds that actually witnessed the horrors are being destroyed under our very noses. It’s shocking.’

Trawlers are bulldozing Black history

In Bristol – a city at the very centre of the transatlantic slave trade – during the Black Lives Matter uprising, protesters tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and rolled it into the nearby harbour. 

These events are connected by a long thread stretching back to the wreck of the Royal Africa Company ship. The company’s governor was James, Duke of York and future king of England – and its deputy governor was Edward Colston.

The Colston statue was pulled out of the harbour, and will be displayed in a Bristol museum alongside Black Lives Matter placards. 

The secrets of the Royal African Company shipwreck will not be so easily recovered, thanks to what Kingsley calls ‘bulldozers of the deep’.

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