Leading British marine archaeologist Dr Sean Kingsley criticised the inability to protect rare wrecks like the Royal African Company ship as ‘a serious heritage failure’. Because the wreck lies outside UK territorial waters, England has no legal powers to protect wrecks like this.

Further details of the threats to the Royal African Company trader wreck will be published in the next issue of Wreckwatch magazine, of which Dr Kingsley is the Editor.

Kingsley’s research has found that in total, fishing trawlers sweep an area equivalent in size to half the world’s continental shelves each year.

Grey sonar of sea floor with visible comb-like lines. In the bottom centre-right a few impressions of the shipwreck are visible, with some debris scattered nearby

A side-scan sonar bird’s-eye view of the Royal African Company ship. Furrows cut by scallop dredge trawler nets and bottom gear run through the heart of the wreck. Photo: Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc.

As well as an ‘underwater museum’ and ‘time capsule’, according to Kingsley, it’s also viewed by Enslaved as a potential burial ground of the slaves and crew who perished on its final voyage.

Images from a remotely-operated vehicle from 2009 were compared to images taken during the Enslaved filming dives in 2018, in which 48 iron cannon were found scrambled all over the seabed.

Three iron cannon with another at an angle behind, with a diver pointing a torch at them.

Iron cannon on the shipwreck have been dragged by and lost to fishing trawler action. In 2018 the first humans dived the wreck for Enslaved. Photo: © 2020, Associated Producers Ltd./Cornelia Street Productions.

The earlier Odyssey Marine Exploration discoveries also included tobacco pipes, the captain’s glass wine bottles, cannonballs, rigging and the world’s oldest ‘pocket calculator’, a wooden ruler used to measure timber volume.

They also found nine elephant tusks, each weighing up to 24 kilograms. At its height, the trade in elephant tusks was bringing 61 tons of tusks into London every year.

One of these tusks is brought up in the opening episode of Enslaved – a delicate operation for rebreather divers, as the wreck is 110 metres down.

A diver underwater with special equipment placing a tusk into a basket on the sea floor

A rebreather diver prepares to recover an elephant tusk from the Royal African Company shipwreck. Photo: © 2020, Associated Producers Ltd./Cornelia Street Productions.

Alannah Vellacott, a marine archaeological advocate with Diving With a Purpose, said that ‘As Enslaved shows, so much of the African Diaspora’s history lies beneath the waves because of the transatlantic slave trade.

‘Bringing up the tusk saves it from the deep and raises the voices of people who didn’t have a voice. That tusk was worth maybe hundreds of lives of slaves. It’s a symbol of the pillaging of Africa. I never would have imagined this opportunity to give a voice to the silence, breathing new life into people of colour who are still living with questions unanswered.

‘It is paramount that we preserve what we can from wrecks like this, the only connections left to the ancestry and history of so many.’

The journalist and diver Kinga Philipps, also on the filming team, said that ‘issues concerning the blue depths of our planet are often very much out of sight, out of mind. This applies to everything from biomass and environmental issues to history.

‘Discovering the tusk wreck for Enslaved was bittersweet. The wreck, potentially the oldest of a slave ship discovered in human history, was in dire shape courtesy of fishing trawlers having torn at it for decades. Practices like this, when not controlled, will inevitably turn invaluable maritime history into mangled piles of debris, wiping away the stories they could tell.’

Enslaved’s director, Simcha Jacobovici, said that ‘On land people are pulling down statues of slave traders, forcing us to take a hard look at the past. Yet underwater, precious finds that actually witnessed the horrors are being destroyed under our very noses. It’s shocking.’

In Bristol – a city at the very centre of the transatlantic slave trade – during the Black Lives Matter uprising, protesters tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and rolled it into the nearby harbour. 

These events are connected by a long thread stretching back to the wreck of the Royal Africa Company ship. The company’s governor was James, Duke of York and future king of England – and its deputy governor was Edward Colston.

The Colston statue was pulled out of the harbour, and will be displayed in a Bristol museum alongside Black Lives Matter placards. 

The secrets of the Royal African Company shipwreck will not be so easily recovered, thanks to what Kingsley calls ‘bulldozers of the deep’.

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