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Acclaimed novelist Eisa Nefertari Ulen travels with her son to the wreckage of two ships on Costa Rica’s Atlantic side that just may be sunken slave ships. Exploring this possibility has a powerful impact on the author, which she describes in this travel story.

I am in the In Between. This liminal space between south and north, between Black and white, between thick jungle and a wide open sea. That jungle is just there, home to howler monkeys who rouse me at 4 am, commanding one another and compelling me to listen. I imagine their conversations as I gaze into a dusky space between midnight and the rising sun. And the sea? The sea is the Caribbean, roiling in powerful waves from the Atlantic, my people’s Middle Passage, and the liminal space that has everything to do with why I am here, silent and unmoving, listening in a morning that is still night as the dark jungle roars.

My 11-year-old son sleeps nearby. He and I came to Costa Rica for my dear friend Tara Roberts’ milestone birthday. She is 50, another kind of in between, a more customary and widely understood middle. To celebrate, she has invited her guests to explore the African presence in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica. In my heart I thank her for this experience, this meaningful celebration of her life. I gaze at my child. He is also the reason I am here.

Our journey to Costa Rica is meant to give him testimony to the past, so he can remember and tell what happened to our people, so he can learn in a way he will never forget. We are on a mission. I am giving him the gift of ancestral memory to edify him now and strengthen his resolve to summon a divergent future. I want him to grow up strong and join The Beautiful Struggle, to be a warrior for justice, to help create something new for The People; but, to do that, he has to understand the past.

To be Black and beautiful in The Struggle is to grasp the hand of kinship with folk who are not our biological family. We are all sisters and brothers in this freedom march. Together, our bodies form a rebellion. Together, we sing praisesongs to honor the old souls who are not necessarily the progenitors of our DNA, but whom we nevertheless claim as ancestors in this far-flung Diaspora. We must remember their struggles, and tell their stories, so our children can pass them down. Ancestral memory redeems the power of all those Africans, those hundreds of millions who endured the horrors of captivity throughout the Western Hemisphere.

We live in Brooklyn. We have nothing to do with Costa Rica. Our ancestors lived in Africa. We have everything to do with Costa Rica.

People of African descent have been living in this Central American country for hundreds of years, where slavery ended in 1823. My son and I traveled from New York, six hours by plane and then an additional five along dark and rain-slick mountain roads, so that we could hear one story of freedom on the Caribbean side of this beautiful country. The tale we came to hear spans the generations and stretches across the sea.

“The Water has Memories”

          ~Gloriana Brenes

12.5 million Africans were stolen across this sea. Of the 35,000 ships that transported enslaved Africans along the Middle Passage, an estimated 500-1,000 never landed. Lost at sea, wrecked, these sunken ships are a haunting reminder not only of the horrors of the Triangular Trade, but also of the benign neglect of the history of the African experience in the Americas. Of those wrecked ships, only five have been found, and only two have been properly documented. Chained and drowned, the enslaved Africans trapped on board these wrecked slave ships have been erased from mainstream history and largely forgotten. Locating and authenticating slave ship wrecks is an act of recovery and of redemption.

An organization founded by Black scuba divers called Diving With a Purpose (DWP) commits to this act of recovery and redemption everywhere, from South Africa to The Bahamas. In Cahuita, a town located not far from Panama, the community diving center trains local young people in the techniques of underwater archaeology utilized by DWP. Founded in 2014 by Maria Suarez, Ph.D., a self-described “feminist, social activist, journalist, fisherwoman, scuba diver, school teacher, and university professor,” Centro de Buceo Embajadoros del Mar also partners with the University of Costa Rica and researchers at East Carolina University.

This institutional support edifies the work done by Costa Rican youth at Centro, but it does not drive it. The young people do. This troop of young Ticos, ranging in age from pre-teens to early 20s, connect the science of underwater archaeology to community memory and a proud local heritage of joined African and indigenous Bri Bri identity.

“The Keepers of our History”

          ~Salvador Van Dyke

About 30 in our group walk together through Cahuita National Park to hear one tale the community has retained. All of us gathered, African Americans and allies, are here to listen.

While locals in this area know there have been two sunken vessels near Cahuita Point, boats that have been deteriorating over time for as long as anyone could remember, neither has ever been officially documented as a slave ship. Memory is the only marker. This ocean is rough, and our shared past is as obscured as a shoreline pummeled during a high-tide storm.

Swirls of sand cloud the waters as we listen to a park guide talk about the sunken ships. There are canons and perfectly stacked bricks beneath the surface that, to locals, prove that there was a mutiny, or an uprising, and at the very least, a fire.

So many stories, told and retold and passed down and so changed over time. Seventeen-year-old Salvador Van Dyke is one of the young people diving with Centro, growing his knowledge of maritime archaeology and documenting the wreck site for future generations. Because they are local youth, they form a link to the past and the cultural memories of their own families. The work of Centro, Salvador tells me, is “giving a sense to elders to be keepers of the knowledge. I remember my grandma told me about this.” His work is informed by the testimonies of the elders in Cahuita, those whose lullabies taught him, as he says, “how history lies under the water.”

Despite discrete variations, one story of the two sunken ships has persisted in Cahuita. A tale of what happened when those boats sank has been preserved in oral narrative and passed down through the generations. Gloriana Brenes is a local resident active in the Centro project. She assures us the story of the slave ships is not a story of captivity. Indeed, it is a story of liberation, of resistance, and a kind of flight to freedom.

Perhaps because the ships were so close to shore, and not lost somewhere out in the wild blue sea, something phenomenal happened all those centuries ago when they wrecked. Rather than drowning, chained together in the bowels of the ship, the enslaved Africans on these particular boats were able to leap from the sinking vessels, swim to shore, and run. They ran and ran and disappeared into the hills. They escaped slavery, intermarried with the indigenous Bri Bri, and produced lines of genetic descent that are visible and proud and live in the area to this day.

And the young people who work at Centro diving and documenting this past? They are their descendants, the children of the rebellion, living evidence of the event.

Because of the young people in Cahuita, oral tradition and modern technology have begun to cohere, like drops of salt water drawn together in the palm of a child’s hand. All the local excitement about the ship wrecks originates with the youth. They are the reason Centro exists. Their work drives international interest in the archaeological site.

“Not an Easy Sea” 

          ~ Gloriana Brenes

Upon my return to Brooklyn, just as Covid stalls international travel, I communicate via email with Andreas Kallmeyer Bloch, MA, a maritime archaeologist at the Museum of Copenhagen, who has analyzed the bricks that have so fascinated the young Centro divers. These bricks can build a path to the past, back to 1710 when, because of a navigational error, two Danish slave ships, Christianus Quintus V and Fredericus Quartus IV, did in fact wreck off the coast of Costa Rica, releasing about 800 mostly Yoruba people – only some of whom were recaptured.

“The bricks are important,” Bloch explains, “because the individual European countries made very specific bricks for their buildings, including the buildings on the forts and colonies. Unlike other finds like porcelain, glass, pipes and ceramic that were traded and present in ships of all nationalities, bricks were not traded between different nations.” If the bricks are Danish, and not Dutch, then they mark the spot where the ancestors of the young Centro divers swam to be free.

Bloch says that his team took samples of three bricks in 2018, and, after receiving the proper permits in 2019, sent the bricks to the University of Southern Denmark via the National Museum of Denmark. “The preliminary tests give a strong indication that the bricks are Danish, but a larger quantity is required to be absolutely certain.”

When Bloch tells me these findings strongly suggest the sunken vessels in Cahuita are “very, very likely” Danish slave ships the historical record shows were wrecked in Costa Rica, not far from Panama, I am grateful for this external validation of a Costa Rican narrative; however, I am centered and sure because of the words that beat in my heart. The words that say the Africans ran into the jungle, met the Bri Bri, and lived. And loved. They survived, thrived even, because they were free.

As science confirms The People’s narratives, the work goes on to reconcile the liminality of the Middle Passage. This is the freedomland to which we commit as a family, a community, as a wide and vast Diaspora. I think we, all my African descended people, are at least halfway there.

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Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Author Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Eisa Nefertari Ulen (she/her) is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning (Atria). A Pulitzer Center grantee, she is also the recipient of awards from the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the National Association of Black Journalists. Her essays exploring African American culture have been widely anthologized, most recently in Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket), which won the Social Justice/Advocacy Award for 2017 from the School Library Journal's In the Margins Book Committee.

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