The Life Aquatic

Brenda Lanzendorf's underwater excavations reveal Biscayne Bay's secret past

Of all Biscayne's wrecks, the most deadly and the most fraught — if it does indeed lie here, as Lanzendorf believes — is the Guerrero.

The Guerrero was a Spanish pirate ship carrying an illegal load of 561 slaves from Africa to Cuba in December 1827, years after Spain, England, and the U.S. had abolished the trade. According to written reports, a British schooner on patrol, the HMS Nimble, gave chase on the afternoon of the nineteenth. After hours of scattered cannon fire between the ships, both grounded on reefs. The impact to the Guerrero, which had been sailing at top speed, was massive, rending a gash in its hull and crashing its mast through the deck. Trapped below decks, 41 men, women, and children died. Screams could be heard for two miles, according to written accounts.

Two wrecking crews and a fishing ship soon arrived from Key West to rescue survivors. It wasn't long, however, before the pirates hijacked two of the rescue boats and set sail for Cuban markets with most of the surviving slaves. About 100 of the rescued slaves were brought to America, where they worked on Florida plantations until an Act of Congress returned them to Africa a year later.

Brenda Lanzendorf is Biscayne National Park's sole marine archaeologist, responsible for finding and studying wrecks in an area larger than Singapore
Jacqueline Carini
Brenda Lanzendorf is Biscayne National Park's sole marine archaeologist, responsible for finding and studying wrecks in an area larger than Singapore
A mast base of the Mandalay
Photo courtesy National Park Service
A mast base of the Mandalay

There are more subtle mysteries lurking too. Roger Smith, state underwater archaeologist at the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee, remembers being entranced by wreckage in a particularly shallow area of the bay called the Safety Valve. Little is known about the colonial-era ship that sank there. Smith was awed not only by the site's beauty amid living coral, but also the mystery of something in plain sight below just a few feet of water. "I never cease to be amazed," he says. "There are a lot of things that kind of don't show up in the historical record. You find things that are baffling sometimes."

Then there's the HMS Fowey, the only identified wreck absent from park maps and completely off-limits to the public. A 709-ton British warship that sank off Elliot Key in 1748, the Fowey has been the focus of regular study since its discovery in the Seventies, offering up chinaware, pewter plates, cutlass swords, 3000-pound cannons, wine bottles, and brass buckles.

Lanzendorf has revealed glimpses of nineteenth-century female sea captains, child labor on the high seas, and the economics of Florida's early wrecking industry through the study of ship hull structures, the remnants of sailors' quarters, and the way artifacts are scattered.

"People always say, 'You don't have gold, so that shipwreck isn't worth anything,'" Lanzendorf remarks. "The treasure isn't Spanish doubloons."

As a discipline, underwater archaeology is relatively new. Before the Seventies, the park service did little more than attempt to identify wrecks within its jurisdictions, largely ignoring their stories. Without a comprehensive history of the Florida Keys to refer to, Lanzendorf tries to fill spaces among the "vague generalities" that have been documented. "There's so much more to be learned. It's unbelievable. You never have the whole story, ever."

Although Lanzendorf occasionally brings up artifacts, such as the fully intact porcelain doll she recently recovered from an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century wreck, she leaves most of what she finds underwater, to be studied in context. "We can't even conceive of what questions scholars will ask in the future, but there is no reason to doubt that the answers will be found on shipwreck sites," she says.

"For people who've never been down there, it's like this whole new awakening," says Miami Dade College history professor Paul George. "We can always learn more [from shipwreck sites]. The frontier of knowledge should never be closed off."

As new technologies allow historians to probe deeper into wrecks, more unwritten history — even fairly recent history — is inevitably exposed, says Filipe Castro, a professor at Texas A&M University's well-respected Nautical Archaeology Program. "It's a measure of our ignorance that we know more about the Viking ships than we do about the Portuguese and Spanish ships of the Sixteenth Century," Castro says. Despite the fact that ships were "the most complex, sophisticated, and expensive machines man built until very recently," says Castro, little record remains of the technology and science involved in shipbuilding.

Unlike archaeological sites on land, shipwrecks often preserve under sediment organic materials such as clothing and food remains like corn cobs or seeds, says Marcie Renner, chief conservator of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Historians don't have to worry about development swallowing up history, either — it's doubtful anyone will build a condo on top of a shipwreck.

"It's a time capsule," Renner says, "a microcosm of life at that time," unlike many land sites that were inhabited at various times through history. It's also an unusual record of average, working-class people: sailors, fishermen, salvagers. "A lot of history was written by the higher classes, if you will, or the winners," Renner says.

"The surface has only been scratched in Biscayne Bay," says Smith.

There's little money to scratch further.

Biscayne's base budget, $3.5 million in 2005, represents an increase of less than three percent since 2001. "All parks have struggled, but that's a glaring number," says Jason Bennis, marine policy manager at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. So rangers can do little to patrol wreck sites for looters, and Lanzendorf can only dream of inspecting each site annually, let alone examining more than a handful. Understandably the pace of wreck studies is slow. It would take four archaeologists about ten days to collect data from a single site, and then another month to process the data and begin to make sense of it. "And we don't have four underwater archaeologists," Lanzendorf says with a laugh. "We have me."

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