When Ibrahima Thiaw was a boy growing up in Senegal, he once visited the infamous Goree Island, which is one of the many ports along the West and Central African coast where slaves were sold and transported to the Western hemisphere. As he listened to the tour guide explain how those fateful captives waited for the slave ships, Thiaw was deeply touched. “I screamed,” he told the Washington Post. His passion for the subject had just begun, and grew right along with him.
Many years later, Thiaw, 50, is an archaeologist and professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal, where he has undertaken an ambitious, underappreciated, and much-needed research project: locating actual slave ships that wrecked off the coast of Senegal.
In recent years, it has become increasingly popular in online communities for some people to argue that the transatlantic slave trade either never happened at all or was nowhere near the magnitude that history books claim. Supporters of this theory tend to state that Black people in the Western hemisphere are indigenous to the Americas (or whatever the continents were called before European explorers sailed across the ocean and started renaming things), in numbers far greater than scholars like Ivan Van Sertima suggested in their research.
One key question slave trade deniers tend to ask is where are any of the ships that supposedly transported millions of Africans? This is one of many questions Thiaw’s research can answer.
According to the Washington Post, more than 1,000 slave ships have sunk in the world’s oceans. Yet only one has been found to date: the Saõ José, which sank off the coast of South Africa (proving almost by accident, the wide extent of the slave trade beyond the Senegal-to-Angola path that is normally discussed).
However, the archaeology field lacked motivation to excavate them for a variety of reasons: “The wrecks were considered too hard to find. The work was too expensive. And few African researchers were willing to take on the project in countries where the slave trade is often considered a source of shame — not a subject worthy of study.”
Thiaw was very determined, however. He even learned how to swim, and then how to scuba dive, in order to satisfy his curiosity. He also had to overcome a reluctance to discuss, let alone study, slavery in Senegalese society, even though the stigma of being a slave continues to haunt their descendants centuries later. “The stories that will help us understand the slave trade, this crucial moment in human history, are down there,” he told the Post.
Not long after Thiaw trained his graduate students in underwater excavation, an opportunity came in the form of the Smithsonian Institute’s Slave Wrecks Project. Thiaw won a grant for $35,000 that allowed his team to do some preliminary dives in May this year, and afterwards, to send their findings off for the long, slow process of testing and authentication.
If they strike gold, so to speak, their uncovered artifacts will be displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open next month in Washington, DC.
“There’s so much down there,” Thiaw explained. “Finding a good wreck could help us … to show that the slave is the victim.”