The Search for Sunken Slave Ships: National Geographic Explores What We Can Learn from These Discoveries in New Podcast

Photo Source: National Geographic

Photo Source: National Geographic

This week’s episode of Overheard at National Geographic explores a fascinating topic that could help millions of Black Americans solve missing links in their family tree. Titled “The Search for History's Lost Slave Ships,” host Amy Briggs talks to three guests who have dedicated their lives to searching for the shipwrecks of slave ships and partnering with archaeologists to recover items that could help answer a lot of questions about our the history of the United States of America.

Throughout the episode, some interesting facts are shared. Between the 16th and 19th century, there were around 35,000 voyages on ships used to bring 12.5 million Africans to the Americas and of them, at least 1,000 ships sank. Of those, less than a handful have been discovered and less than that have been documented properly. For many African Americans who follow their family trees back in time, the line often ends with a pair of great grandparents on a plantation. Such was the case for Tara Roberts, who’s family tree ended on the ledger of a plantation in North Carolina. Anything before that is lost to recorded history, but maybe not forever.

Tara Roberts is a National Geographic Explorer who was inspired when she visited the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. While there, she saw a photo of Black scuba divers finding the wreck of a ship that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas and she was inspired to be just like the women in the photo. That’s how she got involved with Divers With Purpose.

The program was founded by Ken Stewart, who trains divers on what to look for to help uncover lost stories of African dispersion. Divers With Purpose aren’t archeologists and on the podcast, he shared that archeologists don’t want them disturbing items on the seafloor. Their job is to locate items that look man made that could be part of a shipwreck to then notify a team who  can safely examine and recover them if needed.

Diverse With Purpose is doing important work that most ocean archeologists aren’t focused on since they’re more concerned with bigger stories like the Titanic. These lost slave ships are also difficult to locate because they were wooden ships, which have long been destroyed. What divers usually find is debris, like what was discovered in the 1970’s with the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, which included cannons, anchors, glass beads, and child-sized shackles.

With knowledge of the routes that slave traders took, luckily Divers With Purpose know where to search and their important work continues. Lately, many episodes of Overheard at National Geographic have been largely focused on the past, but this one really looks to the future. During Tara’s interview, she reveals that she’s on her way to Mobile, Alabama to meet with a team who discovered a slave ship called the Clotilda, which was discovered in 2019. This ship has a unique history as its voyage was the last, arriving in port on the eve of the Civil War. Tara is conducting interviews for her own podcast that will spend an entire season documenting this important discovery.

You can listen to this full episode and others at the official Overheard at National Geographic website.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).