Archaeologists in Mexico have identified a ship that led Mayan people to virtual slavery in the 1850s, the first time such a ship was found.
The wreck of the Cuban-based paddle-wheeled steamboat was found in 2017, but was not identified until researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History checked contemporary documents and found that it was the ship “La Unión”.
The ship had been used to take the Mayans captured during the 1
Slavery was illegal in Mexico at the time, but operators of similar ships had reportedly deceived Mayans leaving landless people after the conflict to “sign” as contract workers, often in Cuba, even though they were treated as slaves.
La Unión was on a voyage to Havana in September 1861 when its boilers exploded and sank out of the once important Yucatan port of Sisal.
The institute said the identification was based on the physical remains of the side cutter of wooden hull, whose wood bore signs of fire and whose boilers had exploded. The location of the wreck also coincides with contemporary accounts of the accident that killed half of the 80 crew members and 60 passengers on board.
By October 1860, La Unión had been captured in the nearby state of Campeche and took on board 29 Mayans, including children as young as seven. This trip was apparently prevented, but clearly it did not prevent the ship from continuing its voyages, which also involved taking sisal fibers and paying passengers to Cuba.
It was unclear if there were any Mayans on board the ship’s last voyage; the records are unclear because the Mayans would probably have been listed as cargo, not as passengers, or the ship may have tried to hide their presence.
Archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke noted that conquered Mayan battles were often sent to Cuba, from which many never returned. “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,” she said.
Sisal and henequen were fibers used to make ropes and were usually harvested by Mayans working under serrated conditions on large plantations.
The Maya launched one of North America’s last original uprisings in the lower Yucatan Peninsula in 1847 and fought against the dominance of white and mixed race Mexicans who exploited them. The Mexican government fought the bloody uprising with brutal repression, but could not annihilate the last resistance until 1901.
The ship was found approx. 3 miles (3.7 km) off the port of Sisal in approx. 7 m of water after a local fisherman led archaeologists to the wreck.
A few wrecked African slave ships have been found in waters of the United States and elsewhere, but no Mayan slave ship was identified.