In silent gullies and on craggy rocks at Lynyard Cay in the Abacos lay fragments of an American-owned slave ship, the 129-ton, 88-foot schooner, the Peter Mowell, which ran ashore and ripped apart on July 25, 1860.
Luckily, 387 of the 400 of its human cargo were able to clamber safely ashore – many were quite young: 96 men, 37 women, and 256 children. And thanks to the ever-changing winds of fate, they were not to be sold as slaves. Rather, saved by early salvager Ridley Pinder and other wreckers from Cherokee Sound, they were some of the last of the 37,000 African-born immigrants rescued in The Bahamas, whose descendants most likely make their homes there today.
But what was left of the ship intrigued archaeologist Michael Pateman from the Nassau-based Antiquities, Monuments & Museum Corporation of The Bahamas, and archaeologist Corey Malcom from the Key West, Fl.-based Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. And, even more importantly, what happened to its human cargo, crew and wreckers? Where are their descendants now and what stories do they have to tell?
On the 152nd anniversary of its wreck, partnering with William Mathers, of Lake Worth-based Atlantic Sea Resources, they set out to see for themselves. Using coordinates recorded in a letter from the Bahamian governor of the time, Charles Bayley, they returned to the site and were able to spot piles of ballast stones that were scattered along the shoreline, as well as encrusted copper nails and spikes that over a century-and-a-half had become concretized together.
The rest of the Peter Mowell was gone. While reusable objects and materials had been salvaged by Pinder and the other wreckers, the slave ship itself had broken apart and washed away.
The Peter Mowell was built in 1857 in Dorchester, Maryland, and delivered various cargo along the U.S. eastern seaboard before Salvador Prats, a New Orleans businessman with connections in Cuba, purchased it in February 1860.
On the 36th day out of Africa, bound for Cuba, the Peter Mowell’s crew caught sight of the mail steamer Karnak. Mistaking the steamer for a British Navy man-of-war and trying to dodge it, the slave ship maneuvered too close to the coral rocks of Lynyard Cay and ran ashore.
The slave trade had been outlawed by England in 1807. According to New York Herald accounts of the day, “endeavoring to avoid Scylla (Peter Mowell) fell into Charybdis.”
The wreckage sat on the shoreline with the main boom extending onto the rocks, and the Africans and crew slid across the boom to the beach. Soon after, the salvagers brought them to Nassau. The crew was jailed, although they were never prosecuted, and the Africans were distributed as indentured servants.
Mathers, captaining his 62-foot motor Catamaran, Suhaili, sailed to Nassau where the American team was joined by the Bahamian team. They headed for the Abacos, anchoring on the protected (leeward) side of Lynyard Cay. First morning out, Malcom and Pateman, with Bahamian archaeologists Kelly Delancy and Maria Lee, Atlantic Sea Resources diver Bill Spurlock and I snorkeled to the location established by the coordinates and did indeed spot piles of ballast stones.
Meanwhile marine photographer Don Kincaid swam off in the other direction, locating bricks from Peter Mowell’s ovens. Mathers and diver Mika Brewer set off on foot for a beach near the coordinates.
“It’s interesting that the location of this wreck was so easy to find,” Mathers said. “Looking at the reef as a mariner, I could see that there was only one place where it could be. It’s a rugged reef, and there’s only one short stretch of sandy beach about 80 meters where the slaves and crew could get off the ship safely.
“At the end of the beach, we saw bronze spikes and sheathing encrusted in coral, as well as corroded iron, which might be what’s left of the shackles.”
The next day, Mathers brought the Suhaili to the ocean-side of the Cay to gather the artifacts already identified and to search further.
Brewer and Malcom went ahead in the tender to mark a course through elk coral outcroppings in the shallow water.
Back to that New York Herald report: “This is one of the most dangerous places in the Bahamas, and inevitable destruction threatens all who are dashed against the high and sharp coral rocks.”
“This should be interesting,” Mathers said at the helm, while those of us less experienced exchanged glances. After all, this is a dangerous reef….
Nevertheless, following the path marked by Spurlock and Malcom, he brought the boat in, anchoring it close to the shore. The teams dove again, bringing aboard ballast stones, bricks, nails and spikes located the previous day, with some of the material right in line with the coordinates and more ballast found in the adjacent area that Mathers pinpointed.
After finishing work in this area, a team went ashore at Cherokee Sound to inquire after the salvagers and found some of Pinder’s descendants.
The successful locating of the wreck of the slaver promises to open a new chapter in the archaeology and history of The Bahamas and the transatlantic slave trade; it could allow modern Bahamians to trace their roots to the site and remains of a particular slave ship.
Previously, Malcom had located descendants of a crew member, Henry Felner, in Tampa Bay, and upon his return, he unearthed more information. “It looks like these people formed a community known as Congo Town, in an area outside of Nassau proper called Fox Hill. I learned that St. Paul’s Baptist Church was formed in 1870 by the last group of Africans to arrive on a slave ship in July 1860. If that’s true, St. Paul’s may well be the place where descendents of the Peter Mowell can be found.”
Delancy has already interviewed the pastor, who gave her some names of families who have been with the church since its inception: Ramming, Roca and Ferguson. “We plan also to interview a Foxhill historian as well as a member of Parliament who knows the community well and may be able to direct us to others,” Pateman said.
The Bahamian museum is planning an exhibit, which is of special interest to Mathers, who was instrumental in the public display of treasure he found from the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, a Spanish galleon that sunk in 1638 off the coast of Saipan.
“I look forward to how the Bahamians will illustrate the Peter Mowell story and make it understandable to the general public,” he said.
“They might do a cutaway of the hull, to show layers of Africans, stacked on shelves and chained at the ankles.
“The crew would have wanted to keep them alive and in good shape, so the children would have been allowed to play on the deck with the women watching them.”
I was excited about the prospect of going along on this expedition and diving with the archaeologists, and then the reality set in. As cook, I’d have to prepare three meals a day for up to nine people for two-and-a-half weeks. The food would have to fit in one refrigerator box, two freezer boxes and a space under one of the seats in the salon. I also had to keep in mind that garbage would have to be stored on board until we returned to port, which meant I couldn’t overbuy canned goods, either. Also, I’d make only one major grocery run (on a boat, they call that provisioning).
So, I tracked down a friend who used to charter her sailboat. “Piece of cake,” she said, handing me three of her favorite cookbooks. “You have far more refrigeration than I did.”
But cake needs eggs, and in addition to dessert, I was asked to provide a variety of simple meals as well as a hearty breakfast for this crew, who would be hungry after swimming, snorkeling and diving all day.
I planned out menus, collected recipes and created a spreadsheet to add up all those cups of flour, tablespoons of sugar, pounds of butter, and, yes, eggs. (Count came to 224, which would take up more than the allotted space.)
I went back with that dilemma to my friend. Simple, she said. Rub them with Vaseline and hang them in a hammock.
Then I told the captain about the 224 eggs.
“Holy mackerel,” he said (I’m not kidding). We are not buying 224 eggs. Serve pancakes more often.”
Final count was 143 eggs (pancakes half the time, alternating with French toast), along with 10 pounds of bacon, 43 cups of flour (ten pounds), 29.25 cups of butter and 10 cups of syrup (for the pancakes).