The United States’ history is marred by hundreds of years of slavery. Although it was deemed illegal in 1808, it still didn’t end. Scumbag investors from New York, New Orleans and other large port cities purchased ships to travel to Africa, and fill with teenagers from tribes by the Congo River. According to Mel Fisher Director of Archeology Corey Malcom, many of the slaves were taken to Cuba to work in the sugar fields or for auction.
President James Buchanan got fed up with U.S. citizens illegally trading slaves and ordered U.S. Navy steamships stationed in Key West to form a blockade.
The first ship the Navy seized was called the Wildfire. The US Steamer Mohawk, under the order of Lt. Commander Tunis Augustus Macdonough Craven, seized it. Aboard were 500 children with the average age of 14 years old. After the Wildfire, the U.S. Navy also seized the Williams and the Bogotá.
“The negroes are packed below in as dense a mass as possible for a human being to be crowded; the space allotted them being in general four feet high between decks. There of course, can be but little ventilation. These unfortunate creatures are obliged to tend to the calls of nature in this place. They pass their days and nights amidst the most horridly offensive odors of which the mind cannot conceive. Under the scorching heat of the tropical sun without room enough to sleep,” read a journal entry from Craven.
Almost 1,500 refugees were brought to Key West and stayed in a camp built at Fort Zachary Taylor directed by the order of US Marshall Fernando Mirara. It’s reported that many of the rescued slaves didn’t speak the same language, and were further alienated by the locals that would come and stare at them through the fence.
“During that time period, not everybody was perceived as equal. Slaves were almost considered like wild animals,” said Malcolm.
Sadly, 295 passed away due to conditions endured aboard the slave ships and were buried. In the ensuing years, the City of Key West has grown up around the unmarked grave sites.
“Through GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) we discovered there are bodies are in the dog park and under South Roosevelt Blvd,” Malcolm said, adding that the bones are exposed and not in coffins.
Malcolm said he is part of the planning committee to move the road bed to make way for a new park — and a more meaningful memorial for the dead slaves.
“It’s one of the most important parts of Key West history and something everyone should know about,” he said.
Unfortunately, the story for the remaining Africans did not have a happy ending. The Africans were deported to Liberia, Africa, a region none called home. Also, the men that owned and captained the slave ships were not charged with any crimes. See the full exhibit at the Mel Fisher’s Museum and the gravesite at Higgs Beach.
Information in the article is attributed to Archeologist Corey Malcolm and the exhibit at the Mel Fisher Museum.