Ibrahima Thiaw, an archaeologist from a rural part of Senegal, is making it his mission to find slave ships that sank during the Atlantic slave trade. During one excursion, Dr. Thiaw was in search of an 18th-century slave ship that sunk off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. As he made his way out into the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Dr. Thiaw pointed to a location and exclaimed, “It’s somewhere over there.” In an area off the western tip of the African continent, is where a great deal of relics from the transatlantic slave trade is most likely to be found. It’s believed that this area contains sunken ships that were carrying thousands of African men, women and children to the Americas. Although a lot of material has been written about this horrific period of time, no one has ever made an attempt to locate lost slave ships until Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw embarked on this journey of discovery. The common belief has been that it’s too hard and too expensive to go looking for sunken slave ships. Many African researchers themselves weren’t willing to go looking for the lost pieces of history because in many African countries, the slave trade is viewed as a source of shame and something not worth studying.
Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw, is a tall 50-year-old who views finding the relics of sunken slave ships to be his life’s work. Born to parents that were farmers, Dr. Thiaw decided to become an archaeologist after a tour to Gorée Island, which is off the coast of Dakar. During the trip, the tour guide talked about how slaves would be waiting, shackled and forced onto boats headed for the Americas. Dr. Thiaw recalls, “After listening to him,” the tour guide, “I screamed.” With his mind set on becoming an archaeologist, Ibrahim Thiaw first started studying at the University of Dakar, then went on to earn his Ph.D. at Rice University in Houston. Many of Dr. Thiaw’s family and friends ridiculed him, that he was “searching for garbage.”
The coastal waters of Senegal is where Dr. Thiaw is focusing his search because the country was a major exporter of slaves for almost 400 years. Senegal is world renown for its landmarks of the slave trade. But American researchers have said some of the listed sites are misidentified because the infamous “Door of No Return” was not a final departure port for slaves but an actual door in someone’s home. While doing research about Gorée Island, Dr. Thiaw discovered that the island probably wasn’t just an exporter of slaves but a major domestic employer of slaves as well. His research gave insight to how and where the slaves lived on the island. It is believed that more than 1,000 slave ships had sunk around the world and archaeologists have barely scratched the surface of the relics that are at the bottom of the ocean. So far, the only known slave ship that has been excavated is the São José, which was discovered thousands of miles off South Africa. Artifacts found on that ship will be on display at the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. In order to further the work of archaeologists searching for slave artifacts, the National Museum of African American History has offered grants to researchers and Dr. Thiaw was able get the $35,000 needed for the first part of his underwater exploration.
In his daunting work of finding sunken slave ships, Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw is joined by six of his graduate students from the University of Dakar. On one of their exploration voyages, the team had set out to find three ships thought to have sunk just a few miles off the coast of Dakar. They were looking for two French ships that sank around 1774 and 1790, and a British ship that sank around 1780. Dr. Thiaw is hoping to get the backing of some of the governments of West African nations because nations emerging from colonial rule in the 20th century felt a sense of shame about the slave trade. The reason being that some Africans were complicit in the slave trade and some even owned slaves themselves.