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  • A fragment of the steamboat La Union, used to transport enslaved Mayan, was identified after three years of research in the waters of Sisal port, in Yucatan, Mexico, the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH) reports. September 15, 2020.

    A fragment of the steamboat La Union, used to transport enslaved Mayan, was identified after three years of research in the waters of Sisal port, in Yucatan, Mexico, the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH) reports. September 15, 2020. | Photo: EFE/EPA/INAH

Published 16 September 2020
Opinion

Mexican anthropologists found remains of the Cuban-based paddle-wheel steamboat La Unión three years ago off the Yucatan port of Sisal, announcing Tuesday it carried Mayan men and women to work as slaves on Cuban sugar plantations.

The first time such a ship had been found, archaeologists with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) identified it on Tuesday as having brought Maya captured during the 1847-1901 rebellion known as the War of the Castes to work on Cuban sugarcane fields.

On a trip to Havana in September 1861 when its boilers exploded, killing 70 people on board and sinking off the once-important Yucatan port—only to be found 156 years later, two miles from the port in 22 feet of water by a local fisherman. 

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While slavery was illegal by that point in Mexico, ship operators deceived Mayan farmers left landless by the conflict to sign on as contract workers, often in Cuba, treated like slaves and considered cargo to conceal their presence.

The Maya launched one of North America's last indigenous revolts in the lower Yucatan peninsula in 1847, fighting the Mexican government and the white and mixed-race Mexicans. They exploited them until the last of the resistance was wiped out in 1901.

Archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke explained that Mayan combatants were frequently sent to Cuba and often never returned. "Each slave was sold to a middleman for 25 pesos, and they resold them in Havana for as much as 160 pesos, for men, and 120 pesos for women," she said.
 
While a few wrecked African slave ships have been found in U.S. waters and elsewhere, La Union—which also brought sisal fiber and paying passengers to the Caribbean island—is the first Mayan slave ship to be identified in history. 

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