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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 October, 2004, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Looking for lost ancestors
By Tim Ecott
BBC, Turks and Caicos Islands

In 1841, the slave ship Trouvadore was lost on a coral reef in the Turks and Caicos Islands, 500 miles south-east of Miami. The slaves, who were bound for Cuba, survived and settled in the British colony, founding a village with an African name. Tim Ecott joined in an expedition which may allow modern-day islanders to trace their heritage back to West Africa.

East Caicos Island
The Trouvadore ran aground off uninhabited East Caicos
Face down in the clear waters off East Caicos Island, I am being towed behind a speedboat holding on to a plastic board tied to the boat with a long rope.

Wearing a face-mask, snorkel and flippers, my task is to spot anything unusual on the seabed below me.

If I do notice something that doesn't look natural, I am to let go of the rope and wait for the boat to circle and return to mark the spot.

Modern-day marine archaeologists use the latest GPS satellite technology to map and survey the seabed.

They have motorised underwater scooters and metal detectors and sonar to scour the sand. But when the time comes to actually look for a sunken ship underwater, the process becomes rather more low-tech.

When searching for a wooden ship more than 150 years old on a notoriously hazardous reef, there is a very real chance that you will find absolutely nothing at all.

After just three days of searching, we found the remains of a wooden vessel sandwiched between two large coral heads.

The wood poked up like bones in the sand, and no-one could quite believe what we had found. But it lay in shallow water close to the treacherous reef and near to a spot marked ominously on the charts as "Breezy Point".

Like most old shipwrecks, the remains bear little resemblance to the sunken galleons of Hollywood films or in children's comic books. Anything made of wood generally disintegrates, and all that is left are fragments of the original timbers.

Marine archaeologist, Dr Donald Keith
Expedition leader Dr Donald Keith surveys East Caicos
Remarkably, there were several large pieces of wood, some piles of ship's ballast and a mound of objects that were clearly made of metal.

It is tempting to think that the metal could be piles of leg irons or shackles that had been used to restrain the African slaves on board the Trouvadore.

According to Dr Donald Keith, one of the American marine archaeologists on the expedition, the timbers are of exactly the right age to have come from the Trouvadore.

"This is not just a shipwreck," he explained. "It represents a crucial defining moment in the history of these islands." But further archaeological excavations will be needed to verify if what we found was the actual ship.

While the academics remained cautiously optimistic, news of the findings was greeted with great enthusiasm in the islands.

In schools and offices, on the streets and in the local media, everyone was talking about the Trouvadore.

According to Nigel Sadler, the director of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, the Trouvadore is as significant for the islanders as the landings of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock are for people in the United States. It provides them with a tangible link to their origins.


In 1841, the population of Turks and Caicos was little more than 2000 people.

When the Trouvadore ran aground on uninhabited East Caicos, she was carrying 193 African men, women and children who had been loaded aboard in Sao Tome in West Africa many weeks earlier.

Map of Turks and Caicos Islands
The Turks and Caicos Islands are 500 miles south-east of Miami
Slavery was already illegal in British territory, and the Spanish crew knew they would be jailed if they were caught in possession of their human cargo.

And, before they could escape, a patrol of British soldiers from the capital on Grand Turk arrested them.

Eventually, the authorities deported the Spaniards to Cuba, but the destitute African slaves had little choice but to stay.

The arrival of almost 200 Africans represented a significant influx of new blood to the islands.

In return for food, clothing and learning English, they were allowed to work on the salt ponds of Grand Turk.

Here, in open reservoirs, sea water was evaporated to produce high-quality salt for the European market.

Although more labourers were welcome, the owners of the salt ponds may not have been pleased at the new arrivals, since local law said that all British subjects - which the Africans had become - on Grand Turk had an equal share in the salt sales.

It seems more than a coincidence that just a year after the shipwreck, a group of Africans were moved to neighbouring Middle Caicos.

Here they founded Bambarra, the only village in the islands with any kind of African name.

Bambarra resident, Turks and Caicos Islands
It's a strange thing not knowing where your ancestors came from
Bambarra resident
Bambarra is the name of a large ethnic group in modern-day Mali, and also a widely spoken language there.

Today's Turks and Caicos islanders call themselves simply "Belongers".

The islands are geographically part of the Bahamian archipelago, but with only 20,000 inhabitants they remain a self-governing British territory.

Like most people descended from slaves, the "Belongers" know little of their true history. "It's a strange thing not knowing where your ancestors came from," one old lady explained to me in Bambarra.

"If this ship is found, we will know that some of our people were first-generation Africans, and they were free when they landed here. That will make us all proud."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 October, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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