Experts in Mexico have confirmed the first ever discovery of a Mayan slave ship that transported them in the 1800s to work in sugarcane fields in Cuba. They were brought there during the 1847-1901 rebellion that was called “The War of the Castes”. The Mayans were either captured or tricked by being offered contracts to work in Cuba but ended up being treated like slaves.
Many of the Mayans who were brought to Cuba unfortunately never returned to their homes. “Each slave was sold to a middleman for 25 pesos, and they resold them in Havana for as much as 160 pesos, for men, and 120 pesos for women,” explained archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke.
The wreckage was found in about 22 feet of water back in 2017 by local fishermen approximately 2 miles from the Yucatan port of Sisal. At first, archaeologists who examined the wreckage named it “Adalio” after the grandfather of the fisherman who found it. Upon further examination of the fairly well-preserved wreckage as well as the items found on board the vessel (which included ceramic bottles, pieces of glass, and brass cutlery), they realized that the steamship was constructed in the middle part of the 1800s.
At that point, they started looking through old archives from Mexico, Cuba, and Spain for clues and they found old newspaper articles describing a specific vessel that had sunk in the same area where the wreckage was found. Based on their information, the National Institute of Anthropology and History was able to determine that the wreckage belonged to “La Unión” – a paddle-wheel steamship that was owned by a Spanish company and operated out of Havana. In fact, the ship was traveling to Havana in September of 1861 when the boilers exploded, causing it to sink and killing about half of the 80 crew members and 60 passengers who were on board.
Almost a year before the sinking of the ship, it was discovered that there were 29 Mayas on board – including children as young as seven years of age – that were being taken to Cuba. The plan to transport the unsuspecting Mayans to Cuba to work in slave-like conditions was stopped, although the vessel still traveled there with actual paying passengers.
It is still unknown whether or not any Mayans were on board the ship when it sank because even if they were there, they would have more than likely been listed as cargo in order to hide them.
While there have been previous underwater discoveries of African slave ships, this is the first time ever that a Mayan slave ship has been found so this is definitely a significant find. Pictures of the wreckage belonging to “La Unión” can be seen here.