BBC Caribbean
22 July, 2004

Expedition to find missing slave ship

The entire local population of the Turks and Caicos islands is linked by blood or marriage to 193 African survivors of a slave ship which was wrecked there in 1841, according to the country's museum.

Nigel Sadler, director of the Turks and Caicos National Museum told BBC Caribbean Online that the story of the belongers - a term referring to the local population - was linked with fate of the Trouvadore slave ship which the museum is now about to embark on an expedition to find.

"It was a ship carrying Africans from Africa to the Cuban slave markets, wrecked in March 1841 off the coast of East Caicos.

"The 193 Africans on board survived the wrecking and most of those then went into the population of the Turks and Caicos islands. This raised the population by 7% and from our own research work we now believe that the majority of the population and all the belongers who live here are blood tied and family tied to this one incident," Mr Sadler said.

'Plymouth Rock'

At the time of the shipwreck the Turks and Caicos had an estimated population of 2,500. These days its around 20,000 - with half of those born on the islands.

"For this country we put it akin to the Plymouth Rock in America, everyone here can tie back their heritage and their roots to this one story," Mr Sadler said.

According to documentary evidence gathered from records in London, the Americas, Bahamas, Cuba and Jamaica, the Trouvadore was a Spanish owned vessel which sailed from Cuba with a Spanish crew.

By the time it got to San Tome to pick up the African slaves most of the crew had died and replaced by a Portuguese crew.


The ship's final voyage came at a time when the British Navy were patrolling the waters, trying to stop the illegal slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean.

Mr Sadler says because of its subversive nature of the journey the Trouvadore almost certainly became wrecked after trying to hide in the reefs from the British ships.

Records show all of those on board survived the incident. As slavery had been abolished in the British territory at the time of the wreck, the Africans were found and freed on the islands.

Meanwhile, the crew were sent off and prosecuted in Cuba for illegal slave trading and shooting one of the women survivors on the beach as she tried to escape.

"The story of Trouvadore was hidden for generations in records filed in 8 countries and across 3 continents. We have followed the trail to uncover a fascinating and hugely significant episode in slave history.

"There was also locals, oral history that actually people referred to their great, great grandparents coming from a shipwreck. Until our research work started, there was no hard evidence to support this story."


In an attempt to provide further proof the museum has teamed up with US archaeologists, developers and documentary makers to embark on an expedition to find the vessel at the end of August.

Sponsorship for the project has come from both public and private sectors.

"It the first time in this country that we've actually had developers working with us, with archaeologists because they value the story. It is not because they want to develop the land... it's because they want to develop the story because it's a very important one for the local community," Mr Sadler said.

The expedition to find the ship is the result of 4-5 years of research on the slave heritage of the islands.

It comes on the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence during which the United Nations has called on all countries to celebrate their slave heritage and emancipation.

"We are very positive we are going to find shipwrecks in that area, it's a well-known area for shipwrecks. Whether we are going to be able to find a ship that was timber hulled, with some artefacts salvaged in 1841 is another story," Mr Sadler said.