Two nautical miles (3.7 kilometers) from the Yucatecan port of Sisal, municipality of Hunucmá, researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) they identified the steam "La Unión", the first ship that was used for the Mayan slave trade.
For the researchers of the Sub-Directorate of Underwater Archeology (SAS) of the INAH, the discovery is of singular relevance since, beyond how complex it is to identify "with name and surname”, This case speaks of an ominous past for Mexico, which must be recognized and studied according to its context and time.
According to a statement from INAH, the discovery makes more sense by evoking that, although slavery was prohibited since Independence, and despite the fact that on May 6, 1861, President Benito Juárez issued a decree to prevent the forced extraction of any Mayan individual, The fire that on September 19 of that same year caused the sinking of the steamer on its way to Cuba, showed that slavery continued without obeying any law.
In the framework of the campaign "With you in the distance", of the Secretary of Culture of the Government of Mexico, the underwater archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke, head of the Yucatan Peninsula office of the SAS, commented that this research, developed with the support of the director of the INAH Yucatán Center, Eduardo López Calzada, and the deputy director of Underwater Archeology of the INAH, Roberto Junco Sánchez, is of international relevance since Until today, a vessel that smuggled Mayan people had not been documented.
In recent years, he noted, other slave shipwrecks have been discovered: the ships "Clotilda" Y "Henrietta Marie”, In Alabama and Florida (United States), respectively; "The Troubadour”, In the Dominican Republic; and the "Saint Joseph”, In Cape Town, South Africa; but they were all what was known as'slave ships', those who for more than 400 years they stole people from Africa to sell them on the American continent.
The discovery of the ship «La Unión»
The steam "La Unión" was archaeologically located in 2017, within the framework of the Comprehensive Project for the Protection, Conservation, Research and Dissemination of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of the SAS, in coordination with the INAH Yucatán Center and the inhabitants of the region; that year, the remnants of a ship initially named "Adalio”, In homage to the grandfather of the fisherman Juan Diego Esquivel, who guided the archaeologists to the site.
It was observed that it corresponded to a steam dated between 1837 and 1860, when those ships were propelled with a system of boilers, machines with rocker arms and paddle wheels "Mississippi type”.
Although the boilers exploded and the boat caught fire, the bilge - the lower part of the hull, in the lowest area of the engine room and just above the double bottoms - dropped seven meters from the surface to the bottom of the water shallow.
When covered with sand, the wood of the bottom of the hull has been preserved until now, as well as still recognizable elements, such as paddle wheels, boilers, compartments and objects for fastening such as copper bolts; In addition, artifacts related to daily life were identified on board, including fragments of glass from bottles and ceramics and even eight brass cutlery that were used by first-class passengers.
After that first field season, the SAS team began to investigate the provincial archives of Yucatán and Baja California Sur, as well as the national archives of Mexico, Cuba and Spain.
After a three-year process, enough information was gathered to to corroborate that the "Adalio" is, in fact, the steam "La Unión".
Barba explained that the coincidence elements were, for example, that the boilers were found exploded and the wood showed evidence of a fire; the harmony between the technology seen in the field and that described in the ship's plans; as well as the actual location of the wreck, similar to that handled by private reports and press releases of the time.
The ship «La Unión»
The steam "La Unión" It belonged to the Spanish company Zangroniz Hermanos y Compañía, established in 1854 in Havana, which, a year later, was authorized to trade in Mexico, making crossings between Sisal, Campeche, Veracruz and Tampico.
He usually brought first, second, and third class passengers to Cuba, along with merchandise, such as henequen fibers, tanned hides, dyewood, and deerskin. However, his commanders were also in cahoots with the slaveholders, who introduced in small and unsanitary spaces to the Mayans that they captured or deceived.
A year before its sinking, in October 1860, the steamer had been surprised in Campeche carrying 29 Mayans, among them boys and girls aged 7 and 10, but the derision did not end the smuggling of "La Unión."
It was not until after that tragic September 19, in whose shipwreck half of the 80 crew members and 60 passengers died, that the Mexican government paid more attention to searches in ports, in order to prevent the trafficking of people on the routes to Cuba. It should be noted that the previous figures do not count Mayan slaves, since they were not considered people but merchandise.
The INAH specified that the documents consulted by Abiud Pizá and Gabriel León, part of the SAS team in the Yucatan peninsula, refer that the shipping company Zangroniz Hermanos y Compañía was active during some of the most critical years of the Yucatán Caste War (1847-1901), in which indigenous and creole fought for reasons related to excessive tax collection and the grabbing of farmland.
A strategy that Hispanics and Mexican oligarchs used was to order, from 1848, the expulsion of those Mayans who were captured in combatHence, many were sent to Cuba, as the island had a shortage of labor in the sugar cane plantations.
“Each slave was sold for up to 25 pesos to intermediaries, and they could be resold in Havana for up to 160 pesos, men, and 120 pesos, women”.
The archaeologist pointed out that another way to get slaves was through characters called ‘hookers', whose job it was to go to towns like Yxil, Kanxoc, and Valladolid, to offer the indigenous people - many of whom had lost their lands due to the war - false papers to make them believe that they would go to Cuba as settlers, where they would have land and generate income.
In "La Unión" and another steam from Zangronis called "México", since 1855, monthly chartered an average of 25 and 30 people, many of whom were never able to return to the peninsula.
However, a part of his memory lies in the Havana neighborhood of Campeche, where for generations many of the Mayan slaves and their descendants lived.
The historian Abiud Pizá investigated that, although Zangroniz is absent from Mexican documentation in the years immediately following the shipwreck, during the Second Empire and the Porfiriato he won contracts for the construction of railways.