As It Happens

Divers locate world's oldest known slave ship — only to find it run over by trawlers

Kramer Wimberley leads the maritime archaeology program Diving With a Purpose. They preserving the ruins of slave ships along international coastlines. 

Footage of the ruins airs in new documentary Enslaved about the transatlantic slave trade

Kramer Wimberley, far right, on a boat off the coast of Florida with the Diving With a Purpose team. (Submitted by Kramer Wimberley)

Kramer Wimberley says he had mixed feelings when he and his dive team found the wreckage of the oldest known slave ship at the bottom of the English Channel.

On the one hand, they'd found exactly what they were looking for. On the other, the historic grave site was completely run over by modern-day fishing trawlers.

"You could see the strafing lines … they had just raked across the entirety of the ocean bottom, breaking up and moving cannons out of place," Wimberley told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"The knowledge that trawlers are in the process of destroying that vessel is really disturbing."

Wimberley with a tusk saved from the Royal African Company shipwreck. (Joshua Williams/Cornelia Street Productions )

The 1680s Royal African Company trade ship was enormous, carrying 48 cannons, 600 tonnes of weight, a crew of 70 and countless enslaved people, according to the Guardian. The shipwreck is seen as their burial ground.

Wimberley is one of the first people to visit the wreckage, located some 64 kilometres south of Land's End and 110 metres below the Atlantic Ocean.

He is lead instructor of the maritime archeology program Diving With a Purpose, a scuba diving team dedicated to preserving the ruins of slave ships along international coastlines. 

For the last two years, the divers were joined by journalists working on the documentary series Enslaved, which includes footage from this shipwreck along with other stories about the transatlantic slave trade. The six-part series is airing in Canada on CBC and the CBC Gem app this month.

Searching for the Nimble

CBC Television

2 months agoVideo
1:30
Off the coast of coast of Florida, the Diving with a Purpose team and marine archeologists from the National Parks Service go searching for two ships: the outlaw slave ship the Guerrero and the British Navy vessel the Nimble, both of which ran aground in a chase in 1827. 1:30

According to Wimberley, there hasn't been a concerted effort up until now to identify and locate slave shipwrecks on a grand scale. 

"It's extremely important because the work of maritime archeology is to identify traces or remnants of our past and to interpret those traces, to inform us about who we were then in relationship to who we are now," he said. 

The sight of new damage to the oldest slave shipwreck on record undermines that idea of historical preservation, he said.

Large, motorized fishing boats are not going after the wreckage, but are trawling for fish and scallops, destroying whatever lays below in the process. Wimberley says he saw heavy cannons dragged almost 300 metres away.

While the wreckage of the slave ship lies outside British waters, the diving instructor considers it a heritage failure.

"This taking place [makes it] that much more indifferent and inhumane, knowing that it's there, knowing that it's a horrible vestige of our past," he said.

"To have people on a conscious level know that they're destroying the remains, it's unspeakable."

Even the pain that I experience in attempting to empathize and the pain that I experience growing up as a descendent — because we still carry that transgenerational transmission of trauma in us, because it hasn't been addressed fully as of yet —that is nothing compared to the actual person who experienced it.- Kramer Wimberley, lead instructor for Diving With a Purpose

Between 1672 and 1713, this ship was one out of 500 dispatched by the Royal African Company to West Africa. 

The British royal Stuart family set up the company with James, Duke of York and future king of England, as governor.

A statue in Bristol of then-deputy governor Edward Colston was replaced with one of a Black protester this year.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates that in the entire history of the slave trade, 12.5 million Africans were forced onto these vessels to the Americas. 

Two million of those people never made it through their journeys, says Wimberley, because of some wrecking event that took place.

"It's sometimes overwhelming to try to put yourself in that position. But I'm putting myself, or attempting to place myself in that position 400-plus years later with the freedom and the privilege that I enjoy, that they never did," he said.

"Even the pain that I experience in attempting to empathize and the pain that I experience growing up as a descendent — because we still carry that transgenerational transmission of trauma in us because it hasn't been addressed fully as of yet — that is nothing compared to the actual person who experienced it."


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Sarah Peterson. 

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