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Diver Finds Purpose in Searching for 19th-Century Shipwrecked Slave Vessels

Ken Stewart's nonprofit also teaches others how to locate them

ken stewart wearing diving gear

Andy Anderson

Retiree Ken Stewart, 76, is the founder of the Nashville, Tennessee–based nonprofit Diving With a Purpose.

En español | As a kid, I was fascinated by books about the ocean, but it wasn't until I was in my 40s that I decided to become certified as a scuba diver. That's when I first experienced the peacefulness of the sea. When you're down there, there's a complete sense of freedom — no phones, no noise, just this sense of exploring another world. Well over 1,000 dives later, I've found a mission: documenting shipwrecks of slave-trading vessels. A marine archaeologist in Florida's Biscayne National Park asked for my help documenting the wrecks there, and I've gotten others into the hunt.

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The first time I explored a slave ship was in 2004. It was the Henrietta Marie, which ran aground off the coast of Florida in 1700. I was over-whelmed with emotion: I could feel the souls of the Africans who had been held captive on the ship. I decided to form a nonprofit, Diving With a Purpose, to teach veterans and young divers how to identify and document underwater shipwrecks.

For the past four years, DWP and the National Park Service have been surveying the southern end of Biscayne National Park and looking for a Spanish slave ship called the Guerrero, which wrecked in 1827 near the Florida Keys. It was a pirate vessel carrying 561 captive Africans. We've identified some objects that seem to be from the correct historical period, and now we are looking for the smoking gun that will tell us it's the Guerrero: the ship's bell, shackles, ivory tusks, gold or other artifacts. We took a team down in 2018 for a dive but didn't find that definitive proof. We'll be going back again.

— As told to Adrienne Jordan

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