Across Geography and Time:

Kamau Sadiki Dives With a Purpose

Interview by Vernon Smith

February 2023

Kamau Sadiki

Kamau Sadiki is a board member and lead instructor with Diving With a Purpose (DWP), an international organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of submerged heritage resources. DWP provides education, training, certification, and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation. The organization's special focus is the protection, documentation, and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks and the maritime history and culture of African-Americans who formed a core of labor and expertise for America's maritime enterprises.

Sadiki is featured in the Netflix documentary “Descendant,” which follows the descendants of the slave ship Clotilda, the last slave ship to smuggle African captives into the U.S. more than 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, as they try to figure out how to best honor their ancestors. Sadiki participated on the field mission that confirmed Clotilda's discovery in the Mobile River in Alabama. He has participated in the archeological search, survey, and documentation of five known slave ships: Guerrero in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida; Sao Jose Paquete de Africa off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Fredericus Quantus and Christianus Quintus in Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica, and Clotilda.

He has also worked on multiple shipwreck sites around Mozambique Island, Mozambique; St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; Biscayne National Park in South Florida; and in NOAA's Thunder Bay and Florida Keys national marine sanctuaries.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Please tell us about your upbringing and what or who first ignited your interest in maritime archaeology?

Actually, my interest in maritime archaeology developed in the latter part of my life. I was born and raised in the rural south where I spent many summers between school years swimming in ponds and the local segregated pool. I lied about my age and joined the Boy Scouts when I was 10-years-old, earned a swimming merit badge, and spent many weekends camping out and enjoying the rivers and lakes that were in our camping environment. So, I was nurtured around water and always had a love for it.

I earned my initial scuba diving certification in 2006 from Dr. Albert José Jones, the iconic scuba pioneer who has trained thousands of African American divers, after a serendipitous meeting in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Through the Underwater Adventure Seekers, a dive club established by Dr. Jones in 1959 in Washington, D.C., I got connected with Diving With a Purpose (DWP). I consider myself a student of African and African American history. So, when I heard that DWP was focused on the stories of shipwrecks that participated in the Trans-Atlantic Era of African Enslavement (TEAE), it was a natural attraction. I took the DWP archaeology course in 2007 and now I'm currently a board member and lead instructor with DWP. I've participated in numerous archaeology field missions with DWP, which has afforded me the opportunity to dive on five known or suspected TEAE shipwreck sites, two most notable are the Sâo José Paquete de Africa, the first archaeologically documented shipwreck in which Africans lost their lives and the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring captured Africans into the USA with the intent to enslave them. After retirement in 2017, I fully submerged myself into the work of DWP and maritime archaeology.

five iron bars fastened together with two pieces of metal are sitting in a blue bin
Iron ballast recovered from the São José slave shipwreck undergoing treatment. The ballast was used to weigh down the slave ship and its human cargo. Photo: Smithsonian Slave Wrecks Project/Iziko Museums

Diving With a Purpose has fostered education and professional training to encourage greater diversity and inclusion within the field of maritime archaeology, including youth programs and partnerships with local communities and NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. What is the driver for this particular focus?

Probably the most important program is our Youth DWP program where we take young people ages 12 to 20 and teach the skills of underwater archaeology documentation, coral reef restoration/conservation and the importance of the marine environment. Since 2014, DWP has trained more than 150 youths from diverse backgrounds, virtually at no cost to the youth and their families. It is from a keen recognition that we, as older adults, won't be able to do the work of DWP forever. So, it becomes critically important to engage young people, not only to sustain the program well into the future, but more importantly, to provide them an opportunity to learn and develop critical skillsets that will be of value to them as they mature and take on the challenges of life. As we identify shipwrecks that were involved in the TEAE, it is imperative that we engage the local communities, especially descendant communities, as part of the outreach effort to build capacity, connect them with their cultural heritage and create opportunities for engagement in controlling the narratives of these historical events.

diver with clipboard wearing full scuba gear swim underwater
As part of its Youth DWP program, DWP has trained a diverse group of more than 150 youths in underwater archaeology, coral reef restoration/conservation, and the importance of the marine environment. Photo: Courtesy of Michaela Strong

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, around 35,000 ships were used to bring over 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, never to return. Nearly 2 million captives would perish on their journey across the Atlantic. What motivates you to locate, document, and interpret sites and stories associated with arguably the most horrific and extensive trade in humans in world history.

hundreds of naked people sit on the deck of a ship in very close proximity to one another
In this engraving published in the June 2, 1860, issue of Harper's Weekly, captive Africans are shown on the slave ship Wildfire—the men in the foreground, the women on an upper deck behind them. This vessel was captured by the USS Mohawk and brought into port at Key West, Florida. Image: Library of Congress

My motivation comes from a deep desire to restore memory, to correct injustices, and an embodied sense of ancestral connectivity. Those 2 million Africans, not to mention the millions more that died in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas as a consequence of European enslavement, are restless souls who have never been laid to rest ritualistically. They have yet to rest in peace. I think it is important to appropriately memorialize those Africans, keep them in memory, so that they are never forgotten, even those whose specific names we will never know. So, until they are acknowledged and memorialized with respect, there will always be work to do.

How do you approach the story of the global slave trade, a story that for many African Americans is wrought with deep trauma, pain, and sadness, but a story that some people consider ancient history, irrelevant to people living today?

The Trans-Atlantic Era of African Enslavement caused massive historical trauma practically on every continent. The descendants of the victims of that enslavement are deeply connected to the horrific experiences suffered by our ancestors through epigenetic trauma, which is played out in behaviors we see today, such as identity denial, cultural distortions, and victims blaming and attacking other victims. If we remain disconnected from our ancestors, we will always have this huge hole in our souls. History is very relevant to the present and if not studied and acknowledged, victims of history will always wander around lost and misguided. As noted historian, Dr. John Henrik Clarke stated, “History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.” Truth can be painful but necessary if we are to restore our humanity.

Of the slave ships that you have researched and documented, is there one that holds particular significance to you?

Well, each one of these shipwreck sites have very unique stories to tell and are critically important to the materiality of the Trans-Atlantic Era of African Enslavement. However, there is one shipwreck that is very special in its uniqueness and that shipwreck is Clotilda, the last known ship to bring captured Africans into the United States with the intent to enslave them. What makes Clotilda so unique is not only that it was the last known ship of the enslavement era but it is the only shipwreck in which more than 70% of the actual ship remains intact. This makes it hugely archaeologically important. You can actually see the outline of the ship in sonar images and, more importantly, you can see the actual cargo hold where the 110 Africans endured the Atlantic crossing. Of the 12,000 ships that were involved in the TEAE, there is no other artifact in the historical record like Clotilda. So, it carries a very special significance and must be preserved as a central piece of the narrative of the Clotilda story. I'm humbled to have had the honor to work on the wreck site of Clotilda and with the descendant community of Africatown, a town established after the Civil War by 32 of the enslaved people who were on board Clotilda.

a newspaper advertisement that says to be sold, on board the ship bance island, negroes, just arrived from the windward & rice coast
Photograph of a newspaper advertisement published April 26, 1760, for the sale of enslaved people at Ashley Ferry outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Image: Library of Congress
the outline and details of a shipwreck resting on the seafloor
This sidescan sonar shows the bow and the midship area of Clotilda, including the area of the hold in which the captives endured their 40-day voyage across the Atlantic. Image: SEARCH Inc./Alabama Historical Commission

Knowing that Clotilda transported 110 captive men, women, and children from Africa to the United States, mere commodities to be bought, sold, and traded, what was your mental state of mind as you prepared for your dive inside the ship?

Since my very first dive on a shipwreck that was involved in the enslavement of my ancestors, I've noticed that I connect very deeply, emotionally and psychologically, with the horrific trauma that is embedded in these vessels. I tend to embody that trauma and I can feel it. We dive on these shipwrecks to do science and archaeology, but there is another dimension that cannot be overlooked, at least for me. Embedded in these artifacts are unthinkable traumatic experiences and when I touch them, that energy reverberates through me. You can actually “feel” their screams and voices. When I dive on these shipwrecks, I have to ritualistically acknowledge the pain and suffering of my ancestors and find a way to calm myself to be able to “listen” and connect with the experiences that the artifact/shipwreck represents. So, for my first dive on Clotilda, a dear friend of mine, Sabrina Johnson and I, composed an Ancestral Prayer that I recited before entering the waters of the Mobile River to start the dive on Clotilda. That prayer was a communication with the spirits of the enslaved Africans who experienced the trauma of that journey. It was our embrace and statement of resistance and resilience.

a person wearing a hard hat helps another person don their scuba gear
Jay Haigler (right), a board member and lead instructor with DWP, checks Kamau Sadiki's equipment before he dives Clotilda. Image: Daniel Fiore/Alabama Historical Commission

Throughout the “Descendant” documentary, we see members of the community reckoning with the story of Clotilda, including discussions about community redevelopment and opening a museum. What are your hopes for communities like Africatown, Alabama, to preserve and protect their history for current and future generations? What are some of the challenges facing these communities?

Ongoing systemic racism has devastated these communities but, in spite of, they have resisted and shown incredible resilience over the years. Economic and environmental racism is so blatant in many of them, particularly Africatown. The “Descendant” documentary has really helped shine a bright light on the Africatown story. My hope is that Africatown flourishes again and its people reap the economic benefits of their own story. I would also like to see environmental justice and equity centered in collaborative actions that will be taken to deliver clean air, water, and land to produce a healthy, prosperous, revitalized community.

a stone slab with the words this is a national preservation and beautification program of african american landmarks, monuments, and historic sites
Detail view of the marker erected to commemorate Cudjo Kossula Lewis, considered to be the last surviving victim of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States. Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, Alabama. Photo: Womump via CC BY-SA 4.0
A black metal sign with yellow text that reads old plateau cemetery africatown graveyard
A historic marker in Africatown, Alabama. Africatown was founded by descendants of some of the enslaved people aboard Clotilda, and it was the home to some of the last survivors of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States. Photo: Leigh T. Harrell under CC BY-SA 3.0

Forty-one of the 561 enslaved Africans aboard Guerrero died when the Spanish slave ship sank off the Florida Keys in 1827 in waters that today comprise Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. How confident are you that Guerrero will be conclusively located?

As you mentioned, Guerrero sank in 1827, on December 19th. We basically know the general location where Guerrero sank but the exact location is still being investigated. I'm pretty confident that the exact location will be found in the near future. Extensive archaeological surveys and documentations have been done across most of the area of the suspected sinking location. More work has to be done to basically eliminate or verify material possibilities of the location of Guerrero. DWP hopes to complete that work over the next year or so. We just have to wait and see what the results of those investigations will provide in answering the questions of where the remains of Guerrero actually are located.

a scuba diver hovers above the seafloor where a tool shaped like an arrow with black and white squares has been placed
Kamau Sadiki inspects a potential artifact from the slave ship Guerrero in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

Speaking of Guerrero, Diving With a Purpose started 20 years ago when members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers were interviewed for a documentary about the ship. Considering how you started, where does DWP see itself 20 years from now?

That's a difficult question. One of the prime motivators for DWP engagement in this type of work is because of systemic inequities that continue to exist in our society. So, in one sense, I hope 20 years from now those racial/social/economic, etc. inequities won't exist. However, given the current climate, I'm not too optimistic about that. I am hopeful that 20 years from now DWP will have grown to the point of having a well endowed brick-and-mortar institution that offers a wide range of maritime archaeology and marine environmental courses and programming with a continued focus on youth. This institution would be an international training center providing instruction for a global community. Personally, it is my hope that 20 years from now DWP will be at the forefront of institutions studying the materiality of the Trans-Atlantic Era of African Enslavement and have archaeologically documented and told the stories of at least five additional shipwrecks during that era.

seven people sit facing each other at tables with computers arranged in a horseshoe shape
International 3D modeling expert Dr. Kotaro Yamafune (foreground) addresses representatives from DWP, the Society of Black Archeologists, and NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program during a photogrammetry workshop at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Supported by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the workshop provided the partner organizations with new competencies and skills they can share within their networks. Image: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

What do you want your legacy to be?

That I was an inspiration for good. That I put in the consistent work to destroy the global system of white supremacy, replacing it with a system of justice where no one is mistreated…and that I made my momma proud!

Webinar: Connecting Ancestral Memory Through the History and Archaeology of the São José Paquete de Africa and the Clotilda Slave Shipwrecks

Join Kamau Sadiki as he talks about his participation in the underwater archaeological work on the wrecks of São José Paquete de Africa and Clotilda as a strategic partner with the Slave Wrecks Project, SEARCH Inc., and Smithsonian's National Museum of African American Culture. The presentation will highlight the work of DWP, a non-profit organization of scuba divers whose primary mission is to bring back into memory the stories of shipwrecks involved in the commodification and enslavement of Black bodies

Watch the Webinar