“If you think of it as just wreckage to dive on, you miss the whole story,” said Kamau Sadiki. “Each of these ships has a powerful and awesome story to tell, and the only way to tell it is to interrogate it, investigate it, smell it, and feel it. Collect the data and try to make sense of it. .
The lead instructor and board member of Diving with a Purpose (DWP) spoke about his experiences diving wrecks around the world, including several directly involved in the transatlantic slave trade.
DWP is a non-profit organization providing training, education and archaeological field support for submerged heritage preservation and conservation projects. DWP particularly focuses on the African Diaspora.
For example, the sanctuary estimates that there are 700-800 archaeological sites in our island chain, most of which have not been properly documented or explored. DWP and NOAA have partnered over the past decade to search and map other wrecks in the Keys, including the town of Washington and the infamous slave ship Guerrero.
In June, Sadiki and his DWP dive team traveled to the Florida Keys to help NOAA document and map another shipwreck in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Their work will help NOAA’s Matthew Lawrence and his maritime heritage team understand the story – and the mystery – behind the ship’s premature sinking.
The brick barge, as the wreck is currently known, sits in 20 feet of water at the Hen and Chicken Sanctuary Preservation Area off Plantation Key. The ship is believed to have sunk in 1949 en route to Key West.
“It’s a neat sinking because every aspect is local,” Lawrence told The Weekly. “It sank here in the Upper Keys, and the bricks it was carrying ended up in houses at a certain intersection in Key West – we don’t know exactly where yet.”
Some details don’t match perfectly, Lawrence added. First of all, the shape of the wreck is not a traditional rectangular “barge shape”. There is a pointed end which, for Lawrence, indicates that it could have been a steamer or a sailing ship before being a barge.
Second, most vessels with pointed ends have two. The Brick Barge only has one, which tells the Sanctuary team that divers are only looking at half the ship on the seabed. The original ship was probably twice as long as is still visible. The barge likely ran aground and sank near where the wreckage lies today. Then, Lawrence suspects, the owners lifted half the ship – half containing the precious cargo of bricks – leaving a pointed end and half a ship at the bottom of the sea.
Finally, using old newspaper articles, the shrine team pieced together an uneven history. We learn that a barge broke away from a tugboat and drifted towards the coast before sinking. It aligns. There are also stories of a father-son duo who were on the houseboat and clung to a mast overnight to survive. The son eventually swam to shore to find lifeguards to return for his father.
Chronologically, here is where the discrepancies begin. As the bricks arrived in Key West, another newspaper report claims they did so on said barge. Because at least half of it still rests on the seabed, we know “it just doesn’t match what we’re seeing here, so there’s some hidden history we’re trying to uncover,” a Lawrence said.
“What happened next is a mystery. It’s just an unusual situation,” the archaeologist added. “But, once we map it, we can get a better idea of when it was built, what it could have been and, ultimately, what happened to it.”
Sadiki, responsible for drawing the bow of the ship as it rests on the seabed, took particular care to document everything in exquisite and exact detail. You never know what little detail might lead an archaeologist like Lawrence to learn something new about the ship, he said. The data will be compiled and converted into a map of the wreck, which will be made available to the public and will help shed light on the origins of the wreck.
Ultimately, it’s really the stories behind the shipwrecks that matter, and discovering them allows us to appreciate who they were and how they connect to us now, Sadiki said. Lawrence agreed, noting how a rewarding part of his job is “revealing people’s stories that haven’t entered the history books” and “connecting people here in the Keys to their history.”
As for the Brick Barge, we’ll have to wait for the map, story, and stories to reveal how those bricks finally got to Key West.