Mexico: long-lost Spanish ship wreck found

INAH

Three years ago, archaeologists identified a wreck off the coast of Mexico in the Atlantic. It is believed to be a ship that was carrying passengers, cargo and, illegally, Mayan slaves.

A dark part of world history has recently resurfaced in Mexico. In a statement released on September 15, 2020, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) believes it has discovered La Unión, a ship illegally transporting Mayan slaves until its disappearance in 1861. It was in 2017 that local fisherman Juan Diego Esquivel discovered the wreck and guided authorities. It therefore took three years of research to identify this vessel temporarily baptized “Adalio” in homage to the fisherman’s grandfather. According to archaeologists, the boat rests in the depths, at a distance of 3.7 km off the port of Sisal (Yucatán, Mexico).

The researchers studied the structure of the ship as well as its equipment. According to them, the ship is a steamboat dating from the 19th century, more precisely between 1837 and 1860. It also shows various recognizable elements such as paddle wheels, compartments, boilers, fixing objects or even copper bolts. Archaeologists have also found everyday objects such as fragments of glass and ceramic bottles as well as sets of cutlery. These artifacts prove that the ship was carrying many passengers. The researchers then combed through the archives of Mexico, neighboring states, Cuba and Spain.

Three years after the boat’s discovery, archaeologists are now certain that the wreck is La Unión, which disappeared in 1861. It belonged to a company, Zangroniz Hermanos y Compañía, established in Havana, the Cuban capital. By 1855, La Unión was trading with Mexico and liaising with cities such as Campeche, Sisal, Tampico and Veracruz. One detail allowed archaeologists to be certain of their discovery. The wood showed signs of fire and the boilers had obviously exploded. These are the same conditions that caused the loss of La Unión. The location of the site also seems to match the references of the reports of the time.

According to the researchers, La Unión carried first, second and third class passengers to Cuba. The holds also carried goods such as tanned leather, wood, henequen fibers and hides. Nevertheless, archaeologists have also made mention of the transport of Mayans sold illegally as slaves.

It should be noted that slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829 thanks to the decree of President Vicente Guerrero. However, the trafficking continued for several decades. According to records, La Unión was stopped in 1860 with 29 Mayans on board, including children between the ages of seven and ten. Obviously, this was not an isolated case. Researchers estimate that between twenty-five and thirty Mayans made the trip to Cuba each month. These were then sold in Havana: 160 pesos for men and 120 pesos for women.

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