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Wreck of oldest slave trader ship threatened with destruction

A documentary made by the English television station BBC revealed that the fragile 17th century wreck of the oldest known slave trader ship is being systematically destroyed by trawlers. The remains of an English ship from the 17th century, it is the oldest wreck of its kind in the world, which is associated with the
Published: October 17, 2020 - 09:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 21:20
Wreck of oldest slave trader ship threatened with destruction

A documentary made by the English television station BBC revealed that the fragile 17th century wreck of the oldest known slave trader ship is being systematically destroyed by trawlers.


The remains of an English ship from the 17th century, it is the oldest wreck of its kind in the world, which is associated with the transatlantic slave trade. It is currently facing total destruction by fishing trawlers that systematically fish in its vicinity, researchers believe.

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Cannon from a 17th century wreck
Cannon destroyed by trawlers photo Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc.

Dating from the 1780s, the wreck of a Royal African Company merchant ship is seen as the death and final resting place of the slaves who died on board. The ship came to rest on the seabed about 40 Mm south of Land’s End.

It is estimated that over 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic in the slave trade on 45 000 voyages over 400 years. Many of them did not survive the voyage. Today, the traces of these events are an important historical testimony that may be destroyed.

Fifty years ago, this wreck must have been a true underwater wonder. Today, what remains of it presents a tragic picture. Trawlers dragging nets have destroyed almost everything. One of the cannons was hauled out 300 metres away. If trawlers can throw a two-metre cannon like a matchstick, the wooden hull and small artefacts have no chance of survival. Archaeologists call wrecks time capsules, but this one looks like a war zone, said Dr Sean Kingsley

The footage was shot as part of the production of Enslaved, a documentary about the transatlantic trade which is broadcast on BBC Two. The wreck lies at a depth of 110 metres and the film team visited it first.

The ship was one of over 500 sent by the Royal African Company to West Africa between 1672 and 1713. Conducting research for Enslaved, Kingsley examined material relating to 279 voyages between 1672 and 1690. He discovered that out of 65,411 Africans were smuggled into the Caribbean and 14,668 died at sea.

Main photo: Joshua Williams/Cornelia Street Productions

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About author

Marcin Pawełczyk
Marcin’s journey with diving has been an adventure. Starting as a recreational diver, he soon found himself drawn to the fascinating stories and mysteries of Baltic wrecks. After gaining experience, Marcin decided to go beyond just leisurely exploration and took his training up a notch by completing the TMX course, allowing him to explore even deeper and uncover the secrets of inaccessible places. His next challenge has been cave diving, where he is honing his skills to become a certified diver. Not content to simply take in the breathtaking beauty of underwater life, Marcin has also embraced underwater photography since 2018, capturing stunning shots that bring these worlds alive for those who are unable to experience them first-hand. Marcin’s passion for the underwater has taken him far and is sure to continue doing so as he dives into new depths and captures breathtaking images.
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