Jun 22, 2024

The Search for the ‘Guerrero,’ One of the World’s Most Infamous Slave Shipwrecks

Nearly 200 years ago, the slave ship Guerrero sunk, killing forty-one Africans. The wreck vanished. Until now. A group of divers led by Ken Stewart, a Black man in his seventies, believe they found it in the Florida Keys. But in a state that banned critical race theory, telling this story is suddenly complicated.

Thirty feet under the choppy blue waves of the Florida Keys, Kramer Wimberley points to the broken, bleached white coral scattered beneath us like bones. Then he slices his hand across his throat, dead. Marine life here at Molasses Reef, located five miles southeast of Key Largo, is dying from rising temperatures, pollution, and disease. Without action, the once pristine reef, like the others along the Keys, is in danger of being lost and forgotten.

That’s why Wimberley and eleven other divers are braving the unseasonably cool waters this January morning. A fifty-eight-year-old retired firefighter from New Jersey, Wimberley leads a reef preservation program for a volunteer group of Black scuba divers called Diving with a Purpose, or DWP. As he swims past me, I see that he has the word the painted under one flipper, and man on the other. His purpose today is to collect data on the sea life that denotes a healthy ecosystem. The striking absence of pencil urchins, trumpet tritons, and other key indicators leaves Wimberley feeling both dejected and determined. “It can get to be depressing to continue to engage in this work,” he later tells me, but someone has to document the condition over time so that we can see how far and how fast we're moving backward.”

The same can be said for Diving with a Purpose’s primary mission: finding the Guerrero, the notorious pirate slave ship that wrecked on a reef somewhere nearby in 1827. Working closely with local marine archaeologists, DWP has been hunting for it since the group formed in 2004. “I am an African American scuba diver who’s working with an organization that has a vested interest in being able to tell the story of Africans who are transported on slave ships,” Wimberley says, “and it’s a story that I believe needs to be told.”

The story of the Guerrero is little known but among the most dramatic of the transatlantic slave trade. Captained by the infamous pirate José Gomez, the ship was carrying 561 enslaved Africans to Cuba when HMS Nimble, a British anti-slaver patrolling the Keys, opened fire. During the ensuing gunfight and chase, the Guerrero slammed into a reef, shearing in two and plunging forty-one terrified Africans to their watery deaths (and leaving the survivors to an uncertain fate). As Brenda Altmeier, the maritime heritage coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, puts it, “It’s not just a wreck site; it’s a graveyard.”

But thanks to DWP and its ragtag team of citizen scientists and marine archaeologists, the Guerrero’s story is no longer resigned to the past. After nearly two centuries lost at sea, the remains of the ship, and whatever is left of the Africans who died inside it, are lost no more. “Look, I’ll say it,” Corey Malcom, a marine archaeologist in Key West who has been working with DWP, tells me, “we found the Guerrero. I’m convinced of it.”

The incredible story of how the ship was lost and found can finally be told in full. It’s a tale of tragedy, determination, and a powerful friendship that brought this all to light: that of DWP cofounders Ken Stewart, a retired Black copy-machine repairman from Nashville, and Brenda Lanzendorf, a white flight attendant turned marine archaeologist at Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys, the area where the Guerrero went down. With an increasingly divided country and a state that recently banned critical race theory, sharing its history is more urgent than ever, Stewart says. “Do we embrace the legacy of the Guerrero?” he says, “or do we run away from it?”

For Stewart, the importance of that legacy, and his search for the pirate slave ship, goes back to one afternoon he spent with his son in 1989. Stewart, forty-five at the time, was looking for a way to bond with his teenage boy, Ken Jr., when he saw a man climbing out of a pool in scuba gear. A Vietnam veteran with a high school education, Stewart had been an all-around athlete for much of his life but, like most Black people he knew, had never considered scuba diving. Still, he thought learning with his son could be their thing.

There was just one problem: Ken Jr. stopped doing it. Stewart, on the other hand, became a “diving fool” after getting certified. “I fell in love with it. It felt like being inside an aquarium.” But, as he was often the only Black person on a dive trip, it also felt depressingly familiar. For safety purposes, the rule is never to dive alone, yet no one wanted to pair with him. “Folks wouldn’t buddy up with me,” he says. “Nobody said it specifically, but I didn’t get nobody. So I let it go. Those are the experiences that I’ve had as a Black man throughout my life.”

He learned that he wasn’t the only Black diver looking for buddies when he joined the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), a group founded in 1991. He went on to do dozens of dive trips with his newfound extended family. “The bond is being around a folks of color, being around your people,” he says, “and all these people in NABS changed my life.”

During a dive at Biscayne National Park in May 2003, Stewart met the person who would change his life most of all and become his unlikely partner on the hunt for the Guerrero: Brenda Lanzendorf. A salty, savvy forty-five-year-old New Hampshire native with sandy blonde hair and an infectious smile, Lanzendorf was the marine archaeologist for Biscayne, the largest national marine park in the country. Alone at the wheel of her Boston Whaler in her national-park khakis, a Benson & Hedges Light dangling from her lips, she would spend her days patrolling the 256 acres of pristine waters and reef, past lumbering manatees and nesting sea turtles. “She was a dynamic lady,” Stewart recalls.

She too had felt like an outsider of the seas. At age thirty-five, after thirteen years of traveling the reefs of the world as a flight attendant, Lanzendorf pursued her passion by enrolling in an underwater archaeology doctoral program at Brown University, where, as she later told the Miami New Times, “I was constantly told there’s no money in archaeology, and there certainly aren’t any female underwater archaeologists.”

Though both were true, that didn’t stop her from taking her dream job at Biscayne. But, as she admitted to Stewart one afternoon, she was feeling overwhelmed. The park was under a congressional mandate to find and document each of the estimated 100 shipwrecks within the park’s domain. Finding the Guerrero was essentially a process of elimination, which meant they had to chronicle the other wrecks until they located the slave ship. “I could use your help,” she told him. Stewart had created a youth diving program for Black kids in Nashville, and he’d already been taking them here on dive trips. “She said she would train us to perform the things that you need to document a wreck,” he recalls.

And there was one wreck, she explained in a whisper, that she wanted to find most of all: the Guerrero. The location of the lost ship had become an alluring mystery after an amateur Key West historian, Gail Swanson, who worked as a cashier at Home Depot, published a deeply researched chronicle called Slave Ship Guerrero. An accompanying documentary, The Guerrero Project, soon followed. Stewart had never been a history buff and, as he says, “I didn’t know a lot about the African diaspora.” But the story of the Guerrero was like none he’d ever heard before.

It began two centuries earlier, four thousand miles across the ocean in Spain. Though the slave trade had been abolished in 1808, it continued to prosper illegally with the help of pirates. The fiercest among them was Captain Gomez, who helmed an outlaw slave ship he christened “the Warrior,” or, in Spanish, the Guerrero. In 1827, he and his crew set sail for Cuba to cash in. Rather than buying human cargo, they stole slaves from other slavers off the coast of Africa and headed for the Caribbean to make their fortune.

At some point, the pirates had stolen a young African man referred to in logs only as “John.” The pirates ordered John to head down the splintery deck into the dark, dank hold below, where he found unimaginable horrors. In the shadows, he saw hundreds of fellow Africans, men and women, shackled together, body upon body, with no room for movement and nowhere to relieve themselves. John heard their cries and pleas; they suffered from disease and dysentery, were ripped from their family and friends. The hold, barely four feet high, felt thick with heat and the stench of human waste. John was lowered into the mass of darkness and left there with the others, naked and chained. How many of the Africans were dead, he did not know. But by the time the ship arrived within 250 miles of Cuba, nearly 150 of them had perished. He was among the 561 who remained.

To avoid British warships, Gomez cut through the Florida Straits. But at noon on December 19, 1827, he spotted the flags of HMS Nimble, a former slave ship that was now a Royal Navy schooner, on the horizon. As he raised the sails to flee, the Nimblefired two warning shots, then headed toward the Guerrero in pursuit. The chase continued through the night, with the ships firing at each other and cutting through the waves as a violent storm set in. Finally, at dusk, the Nimblecaught up, and Gomez hoisted a lantern to signal his surrender. But it was just a ploy. With the ceasefire at hand, he took the opportunity to raise his sails again and escape—only to feel his ship crash into the shallow reef.

Hearing the cries of the Africans aboard the sinking Guerrero, Nimble commander Edward Holland raced his ship to save them—but ended up smashing into the reef himself. With the Nimble stranded, its crew could only watch helplessly as the men and women aboard the Guerrero struggled to stay afloat. The next morning, the marooned ships got the attention of two nearby wreckers, scavengers of the sea looking to salvage disabled ships. As the wreckers approached, they found the Guerrero on its side, the hull filled with water; forty-one Africans, shackled and immobilized, had drowned. John was among those who clung to life, hanging from the ropes as the water swelled around him.

The two wreckers worked quickly to get John and the rest of the Africans and the Guerrero crew on board. But their rescue proved to be their own demise. That night, Gomez, who had survived the wreck, ordered his crew to attack, and take over the ships from their saviors. On the Nimble, which was still stranded nearby, Holland could only watch helplessly as Gomez and his crew sailed away toward Cuba. They took with them nearly 400 of the surviving Africans, to sell as slaves. One of the wreckers took the 122 others, including John, back to Key West.

After surviving a kidnapping and shackling, a harrowing four-thousand-mile journey, death, disease, a gun battle at sea, a shipwreck, and a near drowning, John might have been thankful to finally set foot on dry land in Florida. But he and his fellow Africans, who were clothed and fed by the locals in Key West, found themselves caught in another battle over their fate. Both the local officials and the British crew considered the Africans their “property.” Eventually, Holland and his crew left the Africans to the Americans, who had other worries to contend with. Word spread that the pirates from the Guerrero were coming back to claim the Africans as their own. John watched with trepidation as the local militia prepared for war, outfitting the coast with cannons and putting a round-the-clock team on watch.

Though the pirates never returned, the Africans were soon in the hands of another white man. According to the law at the time, any Africans taken from slavers became the custody of the U.S. Marshal. When Waters Smith, the U.S. Marshal in St. Augustine, Florida, arrived, he discovered that six of the Africans had died, dozens were suffering from dysentery, and several had gone blind from disease. Fearing for their “greater safety,” as he wrote to the U.S. secretary of treasury, he spent $3,000 of his own money to move them to St. Augustine while the federal government decided on their ultimate fate.

The plight of the Guerrero Africans reached the highest levels of the U.S. government, as President John Quincy Adams lobbied Congress to pass an act determining the slaves’ future. In March 1829, Congress was finally moved to action, reimbursing Smith and sending the Guerrero Africans to Liberia. But there was one man who could not join them: John. During his time in St. Augustine, he, like the others, had been rented out to plantations for labor. He then caught an undocumented disease, which caused him to be held back.

One year later, following his recovery, John returned to the town of New Georgia, Liberia, to join the others as a free man. Of the seven hundred African slaves on the Guerrero, ninety-one made it home alive. In Africa, they became farmers, built a church and a school, and married former slaves sent back there themselves from the slave ship Antelope. Pirate José Gomez, however, was never tried. The 398 Guerrero captives he sold in Cuba netted him the equivalent of $4 million today.

The lost wreckage of the Guerrero carried the weight of history, Stewart knew, after discovering what had happened. “That is the story of every African who was enslaved,” he says. “You were snatched from your homeland and brought here and you’re deprived of your life.” But learning this also stirred his feelings about why such stories matter. “Young people out here are killing each other at an alarming rate. Why is it? You talk to young people—they can’t even get past their grandmothers. I’m not saying that learning your history would make a difference in everything. But lack of knowledge of who you are or who your people were is part of the problem.”

Lanzendorf told him she’d figured out how they could be part of the solution. “Ken,” she said, “I know where the Guerrerois.” After years of research, she’d determined that it was within the bounds of her park. She had to be highly protective of the coordinates, which she wouldn’t reveal to Stewart in order to keep amateur and professional treasure hunters from pillaging her waters. But the problem was, she couldn’t find and document the wreck on her own. And with no budget for staff, she was stuck on the surface. “I can't dive alone,” she said. She needed scuba buddies: Stewart and his group. “She said, if you guys get trained properly, I will take you to the site and you could be the first ones to document that wreck.”

Though she didn’t say it explicitly, Stewart realized how meaningful it would be for Black divers to do this. Back home in Nashville, he emailed his friends in NABS to join his and Lanzendorf’s search for the pirate slave ship. “Tired of the same old diving?” he wrote. “Let’s dive with a purpose!”

Looking through the silt on the ocean floor twenty feet undersea in Biscayne National Park, Stewart struggled to make out what he was seeing. Like many people, he’d always imagined shipwrecks to resemble the Titanic, but in the warm, churning waters of the Florida Keys, the worms and weather don’t leave much intact. “It looks like a bunch of crap,” Stewart says, “but after a while, your eyes get accustomed, and you’ll start to say, ‘Oh, man, there are all these things down there.’ ”

It was April 2005, and he was on a reconnaissance dive with Lanzendorf and Diving with a Purpose. Erik Denson, a fifty-six-year-old Black NASA engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, knew Stewart from NABS and was among the first to join DWP. For Denson, having a group of Black divers find the Guerrero and pass on its story felt profound and important. “We’re one of the big advocates to get that story out there,” he says. “Whether it’s bad, good, or indifferent, it is our history and it needs to be told.”

But the story couldn’t be told overnight. Before Lanzendorf would risk taking the group to the site of the ship, they had to learn the archaeological skills necessary for working on such a historic wreck: from mapping the debris fields to identifying and pinning possible artifacts. Rather than merely having them assist her, she believed in training them so they could train others and expand their volunteer group on their own. “Then I’ll just sit back,” she told Stewart with a raspy laugh.

Despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, Stewart and Lanzendorf shared a passion for their purpose and became the diving companions each had never had. No one dived better, or longer, than Lanzendorf, Stewart realized. Even with her Benson & Hedges habit, she’d mastered her breathing to stay down long after everyone else was on the boat. “Man, I have never seen anybody stay underneath the water as long as she could,” Stewart says. They fell into a routine with their growing pool of volunteers: diving and charting wrecks by day, then heading to Lanzendorf’s home at night to map the sites on her drafting table over wine and her famous homemade lasagna.

But, as Stewart learned, they weren’t the only ones on the Guerrero’s trail. Across the Keys, modern-day treasure hunters, also known as salvagers, were combing the seafloors for shipwrecks. Interest in the Guerrero had been growing since the documentary came out, including among the treasure hunters. This ignited the old battle over who gets to the shipwrecks first. On one side: the marine archaeologists, who want to preserve and study wrecks. On the other: the salvagers (the contemporary version of the wreckers). The treasure hunters have millions of dollars and equipment behind them, enabling them to search in ways and places archaeologists simply can’t afford to engineer. So they are seen as a threat, merely out there to cash in. “It’s almost hatred on the part of the archaeologist,” Stewart says, and Lanzendorf made her feelings clear whenever the subject of the treasure hunters came up. “She didn’t like them.”

There was one other person said to be searching for the Guerrero whom Lanzendorf shunned more than anyone else, even though, technically, he wasn’t a treasure hunter at all: Corey Malcom. A sixty-year-old archaeologist from Indiana with curly dark hair and black-framed glasses, Malcom had a passion for local history and had recently worked to commemorate a lost African cemetery in Key West. But to Lanzendorf, he was saddled with a legacy that made him a threat.

Malcom at the time was the director of archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, in Key West, named for the most notorious salvager in Florida’s modern history. The late Mel Fisher looked and acted like the P.T. Barnum of treasure hunters. A gaudy, gold-chained, golden-tanned midwesterner who’d relocated to the Keys, Fisher was a self-made multimillionaire, a former chicken farmer who gained his notoriety in 1971 after finding the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, whose cargo hold would later be valued at $500 million. When the state of Florida claimed title to the Atocha, Fisher sued and won—with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the treasure hunter’s favor. He then raised the ire of marine archaeologists when he made another greater find: the shipwreck of the English slaver the Henrietta Marie. Though Fisher toured the artifacts at museums around the world, archaeologists never accepted him as anything but a charlatan.

As far as Lanzendorf was concerned, Malcom, who had been running the museum since before Fisher died in 1998, was guilty by association. When he approached her in 2004 about joining forces and searching for the Guerrero, she turned him away. She never liked Corey. And though he was never given a reason, Malcom knew why. “It’s because of the Mel Fisher name; they think I’m a treasure hunter,” he tells me. “But why would we put all this energy into looking for broken old pieces of iron and glass? It’s not because we want to sell it; it’s because it has a story to tell and we want to help people understand that important story.”

Stewart didn’t share Lanzendorf’s feelings about salvagers, and he believed that the more people who could help find the Guerrero, the better. Since she always hinted that one day the gap could be bridged, he decided to try to do so himself. “I thought I could be an intermediary,” he says. But he learned just how much she distrusted treasure hunters when he brought along, unannounced, a famous salvager in the Keys, Captain Carl “Fizz” Fismer, to help on one of DWP’s dives. “That was my first mistake,” he says. Lanzendorf was furious. “All week long, she was mad at me.” As soon as he watched the treasure hunters at work, however, Stewart understood where she was coming from. “After I saw the way he dives, I said, ‘No, this is crazy,’ ” he recalls, “because they destroy reefs, and they’ll even blow up a reef to get what they want.” No treasure hunter was ever asked back again.

But according to Fismer, Lanzendorf was being biased and overprotective of the Guerrero’s location. “They were keeping it a big secret,” he tells me, “because they didn’t want the treasure hunters to raid and rob it.” Yet the Guerrero, he says, would have been stripped by the wreckers centuries ago. “There’s nothing to raid and rob, because everything was taken that had any value.” As for Lanzendorf: “I really have nothing personal against her, but she hated me just because of what I do. She didn’t like treasure hunters at all and absolutely didn’t want us to have any recognition.”

By 2007, three years after cofounding DWP, Stewart and Lanzendorf believed they were closing in on the site. But in October of that year, Stewart received a shocking call that changed everything. “I have stage-four lung cancer,” Lanzendorf said. Though she was only forty-eight, all those years of smoking had caught up with her.

During their many calls that followed, Stewart says, he “couldn’t bring myself to ask her about the Guerrero.” Before long, Lanzendorf lost her ability to speak. The following April, just before DWP’s annual trip to Biscayne, Stewart got an urgent call to come immediately—Lanzendorf was in hospice. She was unresponsive in bed, but when another friend told her that Stewart was there, he says, “she kind of lit up.”

Stewart sat by her bedside through the night, then the next day he had to go meet DWP at the docks. When he arrived, unfortunately, the winds were howling so much that the captain had to call off the trip. “We had never been blown out in all the years,” Stewart says, and he now takes it as a sign. In lieu of diving, the group gathered in the Biscayne Park theater to watch The Guerrero Project together. As Stewart saw Lanzendorf onscreen, he thought about how far they’d come. Just as the film ended, his phone rang. “I got a call,” he recalls solemnly. “Brenda had passed.”

Though devastated to lose his friend, Stewart felt even more determined to fulfill her dream of having DWP find the Guerrero. But, as Wimberley puts it, “she took the location with her when she died.” Now that she was no longer around, Stewart could do the one thing he never could before when Lanzendorf was alive: He dialed the Mel Fisher Museum and asked for Corey Malcom.

By the time Stewart reached out to him in 2010, Malcom had already spent seven years conducting his own separate search for the Guerrero. “A shipwreck is a time capsule,” he tells me one afternoon from the dusty lab he once occupied at the Mel Fisher Museum. Research spills out from his shelves: court testimony, ship’s logs, newspaper accounts, and government records. “It’s a floating community at sea,” he goes on, “and that community is suddenly lost and dashed to the seafloor in an instant.”

Malcom, however, didn’t believe that the ship was in Biscayne National Park as Lanzendorf had said. With a pair of volunteer retired scuba divers, he narrowed down the Guerrero’s location to an unnamed reef in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, just south of Biscayne Park. A magnetometer survey revealed anomalies that seemed to match the story: seven iron-ballast blocks, twenty cannonballs, and an anchor that would match the Nimble’s. But without support and funding, he needed skilled volunteers to continue his analysis. Stewart told him DWP could provide it: “You’re finding a lot of stuff. And it sure would be nice to kind of help and be a part of that. I promised a whole bunch of people that they’re going to see the Guerrero.”

Working with Malcom, the Mel Fisher Museum, and Altmeier of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Stewart and the DWP volunteers began diving John Pennekamp for any traces of artifacts–perhaps even shackles. During one trip, in 2012, Stewart was filming the search underwater when he saw Malcom pointing to something in the sand: a broken demijohn bottleneck, just the kind that would be from a wine bottle in the early 1820s.

Next, they found a piece of an old white ceramic plate with a blue edge, another item that might have been on a ship from that time. Then they saw the cannonballs. Though it was impossible to know for sure if these were from the Guerrero, the matches seemed incredibly on point. “Based on the research that’s been done thus far,” Altmeier says, “these are the things that match most closely to what we know.” Even if Stewart wasn’t certain they’d found the ship, he had a rush of emotions—for this moment, for the Africans, for the story of his people living under the sea. When I ask him how he felt, Stewart falls silent at first from the sheer weight of it. “In terms of what I was thinking and feeling,” he says, “it was historic.”

With permission from the state and federal agencies, which govern John Pennekamp, Malcom and DWP brought a handful of the artifacts to the surface: the bottleneck, the lead shot, blue-edged earthenware, metal rigging, copper fasteners, and wooden plank fragments. After undergoing years of analysis, the objects now reside in a display inside the Mel Fisher Museum. “This is where archaeology makes a difference,” Malcom tells me as we stand near the display one morning in January. “Look at this discussion that we’re having in Florida now, where our governor’s putting forward a proposed law that would make critical race theory outlawed, more or less. You can’t make white people feel uncomfortable for the past.”

But finding the Guerrero“makes the story real,” he says. “It makes it a tangible thing. It is an actual slave ship that exists today. It may be broken into pieces and scattered on the seafloor, but it is no less the Guerrero. And that story, those things, make this undeniable. It’s no longer an abstract thing that might offend people. It is a real physical presence that you can’t avoid looking at, you can’t avoid learning from, because it’s there.”

Despite Malcom’s determination that they have found the ship, Stewart isn’t celebrating just yet. In order for it to become official, the National Park Service must finish surveying the wrecks in Biscayne National Park to eliminate any possibility of the ship being there. “We need to say definitively, one way or the other, whether the remains of a wreck that would match the description of the Guerrero are in the park,” says Joshua Marano, who now holds Lanzendorf’s old post as marine archaeologist for Biscayne National Park. The process should be complete within two years, he estimates. Stewart thinks the delays once again boil down to the old feud between archaeologists and treasure hunters. “They’re dragging their feet,” he tells me, “because if they finish and they don’t find anything pertaining to the Guerrero, Corey could say that his site is the Guerrero.”

The long fight, however, could end as soon as this summer. In July, the DWP will return to Biscayne National Park to help Marano complete the work needed, Stewart hopes, to get the Guerrero site made official once and for all. With Florida Governor DeSantis blocking a new Advanced Placement African-American studies course from being taught in high schools for lacking “educational value,” the history is more urgent than ever.

Stewart will not rest until they bring the story of the Guerrero to the surface – for the Africans who were enslaved, for the children of tomorrow, and for his friend, Lanzendorf, whose ashes he keeps on his mantle. “If she was still alive,” he says, “she would be ecstatic with what we've done with the legacy.”

David Kushner is an award-winning journalist and author. He recently wrote for Esquire about the launch of Viagra, which is being adapted into a movie musical by Spike Lee.

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