Diving into the past: The Black divers searching for slave shipwrecks

As he slipped through the kelp forest to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Kamau Sadiki's eyes hooked

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As he slipped through the kelp forest to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Kamau Sadiki's eyes hooked onto something resembling the item he and fellow divers had been searching for.

However, the water temperature was low at the site just off the coast of Cape Town, and visibility was poor.

Veteran diver Sadiki recalls the surge pulling him back and forth as he attempted to get closer to his "first visual of some tangible artifact" of the ship he'd heard so much about.

"It was a piece of wood material that was lodged into the rocks," he tells CNN Travel. "I hesitated before approaching it, and then the surge just carried me straight into it."

Sadiki became overcome with emotion when he grabbed hold of part of the wreckage of the Sao Jose-Paquete de Africa wreck, which sank off Cape Town while transporting over 500 enslaved Africans from Mozambique to Brazil in 1794.

It's thought that 212 of the captives, along with the crew, drowned in the incident.

"It was like I could hear the voices," says Sadiki, who was part of the dive team who located the wreck in 2015. "The screaming, the suffering, the terror, the pain and agony of all those individuals being shackled arm and leg, and then perishing in a wrecking event.

"I knew then that I wanted to help tell their story and get those silent voices into the history books."

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, around 35,000 ships were used to bring over 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Some wouldn't survive the journey, and an estimated 500 to 1,000 of the ships, including the Sao Jos-Paquete de Africa, wrecked before reaching their destination.

However, only five have been found in the many years since then, and just two have been adequately documented.

This ultimately means that the remains, along with the stories, of many of the captives who perished lie buried at the bottom of the sea.

Sadiki, lead diving instructor for Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a non-profit organization focused on the protection, documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks, is among those attempting to bring this painful history to the surface.

DWP was founded in 2003 by Ken Stewart, a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), and Brenda Lanzendorf, a maritime archeologist for Biscayne National Park, after both participated in the 2004 documentary, "The Guerrero Project."

The film told the story of the Spanish pirate ship believed to have crashed while carrying 561 kidnapped Africans in the Biscayne National Park off the coast of Florida.

After wrapping up the project, Stewart says he contacted all the divers who appeared on screen and said, "Tired of the same old dives, let's dive with a purpose."

He then teamed up with Lanzendorf, a park archaeologist at Biscayne, where a vast number of slave ships, along with the Guerrero, had wrecked.

Stewart pledged to help her locate some of the wrecks along the area and teach other Black divers maritime archaeology techniques, while Lanzendorf promised to provide him with a vital piece of information in return.

"She said if we learned properly she'd show us where the Guerrero was," explains Stewart.

However, Lanzendorf died in 2008, five years after DWP was launched, and the team are still in the dark about the exact location of the wreck.

"If she knew where (the Guerrero) was, she took it to the grave with her," he adds. "So we're still looking. "We're doing a search this summer and hopefully we can finalize that (location)."

Over the years, DWP has taken part in around 18 missions to find submerged artifacts related to Africans in the Americas, partnering with the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), a collaboration of organizations hosted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Underwater archaeologist and storyteller Tara Roberts has spent the past two years following DWP, taking on a storyteller role.

Like Stewart and Sadiki, she believes that bringing to the forefront the forgotten voices of the enslaved Africans who died en route is critically important.

"At least 1.8 million Africans died in the crossing. Who talks about that? Who's mourning the lives of those people?" says Roberts.

"We'll never know their names, we'll never know anything about them. They're lost people, and nobody is grieving them. Nobody is mourning them. They're just lost. I don't think that that's okay."

Roberts first learned of DWP when she saw a picture of a group of some of the organization's Black female divers on display in 2019 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and says she was absolutely transfixed.

"These divers are turning stereotypes on their heads just in the very nature of being who they are and doing what they're doing," she explains.

"They are disrupting these ideas of who Black people are and what Black people do. I think it's so important for people to be able to see them, to see me, to know that this work is possible that we are in this space too."

Roberts is one of 300 or so divers who've taken part in the DWP's maritime archaeology program, which is open to anyone who's a certified diver with strong underwater abilities.

"It requires some diving skills," stresses Stewart. "You can't just come. You need some dives (at least 30) under your belt."

Those who sign up must undertake a week-long training session in which they spend at least three days in the water learning how to document shipwrecks and artifacts, as well as learn underwater investigative and research techniques.

"You have to have good what we call peak buoyancy, which means you can be very still in the water," explains Sadiki, who originally met Stewart through NABS.

"That's critically important, as we have to get very close to some of these artifacts to survey them and we don't want to disturb them."

However, Stewart admits that the process can be quite grueling and isn't suited to all divers.