Mexico identifies submerged wreck of Mayan slave ship

This July 24, 2017 photo released by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) on Sept. 15, 2020, shows what the INAH says is a detail of the iron skylight from the bow area of the Mayan slave ship "La Union," off Sisal, in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. Archaeologists in Mexico say the ship had been used to take Mayan Indigenous people from Mexico, captured during and 1847-1901 rebellion known as The War of the Castes, to work in sugarcane fields in Cuba. The La Unin was on a trip to Havana in September 1861 when its boilers exploded and it sank off the once-important Yucatan port of Sisal. (Helena Barba/INAH via AP)
This July 24, 2017 photo released by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) on Sept. 15, 2020, shows what the INAH says is a detail of the iron skylight from the bow area of the Mayan slave ship "La Union," off Sisal, in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. Archaeologists in Mexico say the ship had been used to take Mayan Indigenous people from Mexico, captured during and 1847-1901 rebellion known as The War of the Castes, to work in sugarcane fields in Cuba. The La Unin was on a trip to Havana in September 1861 when its boilers exploded and it sank off the once-important Yucatan port of Sisal. (Helena Barba/INAH via AP)

MEXICO CITY – Archaeologists in Mexico said Tuesday they have identified a ship that carried Mayan people into virtual slavery in the 1850s, the first time such a ship has been found.

The wreck of the Cuban-based paddle-wheel steamboat was found in 2017, but wasn’t identified until researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History checked contemporary documents and found evidence it was the ship “La Unión.”

The ship had been used to take Mayas captured during an 1847-1901 rebellion known as “The War of the Castes” to work in sugarcane fields in Cuba.

Slavery was illegal in Mexico at the time, but operators of similar ships had reportedly bought seized captured combatants, or deceived Mayas left landless by the conflict to “sign on” as contract workers, often in Cuba, where they were treated like slaves.

The La Unión was on a trip to Havana in September 1861 when its boilers exploded and it sank off the once-important Yucatan port of Sisal.

Institute archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke said the inhabitants of Sisal had passed down through generations the account of the slave ship, and one of them led researchers to it.

“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," Barba 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."

The identification was based on the physical remains of the wooden-hulled side-wheeler, whose timbers bore signs of fire and whose boilers had exploded. The location of the wreck also coincides with contemporary accounts of the accident, which killed half of the 80 crew members and 60 passengers aboard.