Reclaiming the bones: The African Cemetery on Higgs Beach, Key West

Last week I went to Key West – the southern most tip of the US and part of the Florida Keys.   The Keys are a series of small islands joined together by bridges and causeways.   I had heard nothing but good things about them especially Key West which was home to Tenneesee Williams and Ernest Hermingway and even today the island remains  a creative refuge for artists and writers.  I had not anticipated  the hospitality of the Conches [the name for people from the Keys].   I cant remember when I last visited a place where the local people were so open and inviting – we had our meal covered at dinner by someone we met in a restaurant – another person invited us to their home for dinner and another to his balcony for a festival plus other signifiers of openness and friendship especially amongst the Black population.  The main reason for going to Key West was to celebrate and remember 294 Africans who died on the island in 1860.
Here’s the story.
As well as being the southern most point of the US, Key West was also the closet port to trading routes of the Middle Passage.  The island is at the center of the Middle Passage and therefore very much part of our African collective history with layers of connections between the continent and the Americas.   Many historical documents such as court cases, ships cargo and manifests  have been found and preserved.  And many Africans who managed to escape sought refuge on the island.   In 1860 three ships carrying Africans to be sold into slavery in Cuba were rescued by the US Navy.    The ships, Wildfire, William and Bogota were captured and forced to sail to Key West.  The Africans from the first two ships [508 & 513 survivors] were from the Eastern Congo but there is no record on the origin of the people on the Bogota. Altogether 1,432 Africans were rescued [269 people died at sea] given food, clothing and housing.
The Sadness of Princess Madia

Of  those that landed safely, 294 mostly young boys  died on the island of Key West from the trauma, sadness and disease of the journey and were buried in mass graves in what became known as the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach.   Documents were found showing the location of the graves and so far 9 have been found.   Using special underground radar, Conch archeologist and curator,  Corey Malcolm, was able to locate the bodies and in  2002 the ground was concentrated.  Today there stands a living memorial to those who died in 1860 and to all Africans who were forcibly removed from their homes and who suffered the most horrific of experiences and were scattered across the Americas.  Many of those who survived the Middle  Passage later left Key West for  Liberia but two more young men were drowned as the boat carrying them to the ship capsized. Their bodies were never recovered.
The importance of remembrance!
I know that we must reclaim the bones in the Atlantic Ocean.  Do you know that there is not a plaque, a memorial, a day, a ritual or an hour that is erected in memorial to those one hundred million bodies in the Atlantic Ocean?  All those African bones in briny deep.  All those people who said “no” and jumped ship.  All those people who tried to figure out a way to steer, to navigate amongst the sharks.  We don’t call upon that power.  We don’t call upon those spirits.  We don’t celebrate those ancestors. We don’t have a marker, an expression, a song that we use to acknowledge them.  We have nothing to indicated that those were our people and they mattered!  We willingly self-administer knockout drops.  More horrendous is the fact that we dont tap; we don’t tap into the ancestral presence in those waters. [Toni Cade Bambara]
The African Cemetery
Being at the memorial and actually seeing the positions of the bodies buried beneath, looking out to the Atlantic ocean and knowing millions are buried from the Middle Passage in those seas – I felt such a sadness standing in the cold damp rain.  The beach would have been empty of buildings except for the Fort.  There would not have been the park and the road, just tropical trees, bananas, coconuts palms, breadfruit.  In fact it may have looked very much like home to many of the Africans who survived.   At the cemetery we were reminded that 200 years later, Africans are still dying on the high seas or being washed ashore in Florida.  And still being refused their dignity in death.   Africans from the Senegal and from Haiti died in those waters as recent as 2006, 2007 and 2009.  In June 2006, 53 Senegalese, most from the village of Casamance, left by boat from Cabo Verde to the Canaries and were later set adrift  by traffickers in the  Atlantic where they all died at sea.

The boat was relatively large (see annimation link below) but had no cover or shade. There appears to have been some chaos around the departure of the boat as apparently the Spaniard in charged jumped ship at the last minute.    5 of the Senegalese also left the boat and another got scared after the boat set off and jumped out and swam back to shore. He managed to get his money back from the Spanish “pirate” and later made a report to the police.

The boat is thought to have gone past Mauritania but when it reached Nuadibu (Nouadhibou, Mauritania ) there was a storm and they lost control of the boat. They then started to call friends and family. One of the people they called was the Spanish pirate. A few hours later they were rescued by another boat which towed them to the middle of the ocean and then abandoned them. They only had 40 litres of fuel which ran out plus they had to cope with storms and high seas of the Atlantic.

According to the medical report the people died in the first month. There were a series of storms, the first on January 6th then one approximately every 10 days and with the high winds they were pushed towards Barbados over the 4 month period. The people died of hunger and thirst with bodies being thrown overboard one by one as they died.

Some messages were found on the boat.

“I don’t think I will live (survive) — please call my friend”

“I am from Senegal, I was living 1 year in Cabo Verde. Things are going very badly. I don’t think I will survive. I need the person who finds me to send this money to my family. Please call my friend Ibrahima Drame on this number…” signed Diaw Sounkar Diemi. He left 1300 euros.

The boat was found 76 miles off Ragged Point in the St Phillips parish in SE Barbados with 11 bodies more or less mummified of the 47 who had left Cabo Verde 4 months earlier. The authorities used the telephone messages to reconstruct the story. The 11 bodies are in Bridgetown mortuary

Haitians arriving in the US have always been subjected to discriminatory  immigration policies compared with those arriving from Cuba or Venezuela, dating back to the 1980s when all Cubans and Haitians were labeled “Cuban-Haitian entrants”.  Decisions on entry were discretionary and left to the Attorney-General and no surprise Haitians – fleeing from the Jean-Claude Duvalier [Baby Doc] regime and poverty were the ones refused entry whilst Cubans fleeing from Castro were not.    Later under President Reagan, Haitians were further subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment when Duvalier and the US government sanctioned the search of Haitian ships on the high seas.  In November 1997, the US Congress passed the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act [NACARA], which allowed Nicaraguans and Cubans to become legal citizens as well as other Central America and Easter European citizens, Haitians were not included.

I think it is important to recognise the connections between death on the Middle Passage and death on the seas between Haiti and Florida, West Africa and Europe.  How many Africans died on the way to Haiti we may never know.  What we do know is that the African descendants in Haiti rose up and revolted against the French slavers and declared independence from Napoleon in 1804.   For this Haiti has been punished by the West ever since.
To return to Key West and the survivors of the Middle Passage.  Some 1,137 set off to return to Africa and of those 861 made the journey.  Though they were not able to return to the Congo they at least did reach the shores  of  Africa as they landed in Liberia.
I intend to return to Key West in mid-October for the “Bahamian festival, Goombay” and also to visit the Mel Fisher  museum and the “Last Slave Ships” and the Henrietta Marie exhibitions.  The curator of the museum, Corey Malcolm who also worked on the African Cemetery,  has been researching the origins and journeys of the Henrietta Marie ,  a slave ship which also sailed from Calabar in the Niger Delta.   This is interesting for me as Duke Town – Calabar,  was at the center of the slave trade in the Niger Delta and I have wondered on the relationship between Duke Town and the Duke  family whose descendants  remain one of the most prominent Calabar families today including Donald Duke the former Governor of Cross River State.   The area is too small for there not to be a connection between Duke Town and the Duke family.   The book “Two Princes of Calabar” is also set in  Duke Town.
Now we have one more memorial, a plaque, a ritual, a place and an hour to remember all those 100 million bodies from then and now!  We Africans have all, in some way  at least one connection to all those who died and survived.  In my mind the memorial and being part of the ritual, brought those  million back to life.  They become individual people who lived –  women men and children who had families, who loved, who worked, who laughed and cried.  As you can see from the photo above many of those who survived this particular journey and landed in Key West were young boys.  You can see the sadness, the despair and confusion in their young faces and body language
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