Archaeologists identify 19th-century Maya slave ship

Hyperaxion Sep 17, 2020

The vessel La Unión was taking combatants from the War of the Castes, a rebellion that occurred in Mexico between 1847 and 1901, to work as slaves in Cuba.

A group of archaeologists of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH) announced on Tuesday (15) the identification of the wrecked Cuban ship La Unión, which carried Maya slaves in the 1850s.

The ship was found in 2017, but only now have researchers been able to find documents and evidence that reveal its name and history.

Archaeologists identify 19th-century Maya slave ship
(Credit: National Institute of Anthropology and History).

Forced labor

The ship was used to take Mayas captured during the War of the Castes, a rebel social movement that lasted from 1847 to 1901, to work as slaves in Cuba’s cane fields.

Although slavery was illegal in Mexico at that time, ship operators reportedly bought Maya fighters or tricked them into working as slaves on the island.

La Unión was traveling to Havana in September 1861, when its boilers exploded and it sank in the port of Sisal, in Yucatán, in southern Mexico.

The ship was found about 3.7 kilometers (2 miles) from the port and 7 meters (22 feet) deep.

Model of the ship La Unión
Model of the ship La Unión. (Credit: Lithograph by J. Pass, 1837.)

Across generations

Archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke says that the inhabitants of Sisal passed on the story of the ship from generation to generation, until it reached the ears of researchers.

“The grandparents and great-grandparents of the inhabitants of Sisal told them about a steam ship that took away Mayas during the War of the Castes,” Meinecke said.

“And one of the people in Sisal who saw how they led the Mayas away as slaves, told his son and then he told his grandson, and it was that person who led us to the general area of the shipwreck.”

Detail one of the ship's side paddle wheels.
Detail one of the ship’s side paddle wheels. (Credit: Helena Barba).


The identification was made from the analysis of the remains of the wooden hull. The researchers noted that the timbers showed signs of fire and the boilers had exploded.

The team also found silverware with the emblem of the company that operated the ship.

(Credit: Helena Barba).

Next steps

The next stage of the research will focus on finding the descendants of these slaves.

The researchers plan to travel to Havana, where there is a neighborhood called Campeche.

“These people, or some of them, could be descendants of the Mayas who were taken by force or deception. Research has to be done so these (Mayan) people can know where their grandparents or great-grandparents are,” Meinecke concluded.

Related topics:

Cuba Forced labor Maya Slavery


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