Slave Ship Research - Slave Ship Guerrero

Who Is Gail Swanson? by Stephen Scruggs

Gail Swanson‘The Slave Ship Guerrero’ is a book written by Gail Swanson detailing the story of the wrecking of a Spanish slave ship off the Florida Keys in 1827 and the African people who perished in her hold. The book is not only a testament to the dedication and personal sacrifice of the author but also a statement about the blatant disregard of an important chapter in the history of African-Americans. Gail Swanson has been a Florida resident for over 22 years and spent 15 years researching the dramatic history of America’s tropical archipelago. Her extensive research into the Guerrero along with the search for the ship’s remains by others is featured in Karuna Eberl’s ninety minute 2005 documentary, ‘The Guerrero Project’.

During the month of June 2010 I experienced the thrill of diving the waters where the Guerrero sank and the honor of interviewing the lady that opened our eyes to this lost piece of our heritage. These are my questions and these are her answers:

1) How did you first learn about the Guerrero?

While doing research on an unrelated topic I ran across a book entitled “Shipwrecks in Florida Waters”. I found it interesting that research for this book was done in Spain and England. Because of my profound interest in Florida Key’s history, I went to the Florida Keys library to find more information. It was then that I discovered there were no books on shipwrecks in the Florida Keys. The history of America is not in America, it’s in Europe. People don’t realize that. My focus was originally on history in 1500, 1600 and 1700’s of the Florida Keys but there was nothing in the library. The librarian laughed at me because I was looking for history that didn’t exist. In his mind there was no history prior to 1600 because the Keys didn’t yet exist. I discovered that a lot of the reefs names’ are derived from wrecked British warships. Then I found out through others that history on British warships could be requested by mail from London. I obtained a list of British warships that had been in battles or wrecked in the Keys through a researcher in a London library. I shared these papers from London with the Keys librarian. One day the Keys’ librarian showed me a book called ‘Territorial Papers of Florida’ printed in around 1940 that contained two pages about a British warship named Nimble and a slave ship in the Keys in 1827. I originally dismissed this info but had guilt feelings about ignoring what could be something significant. Through a series of turns amid library shelves I kept stumbling across books in which the name Nimble kept popping up. The Nimble led me to the Guerrero. This is actually how I first learned about the Guerrero.

2) As a non-academic, what got you interested in historical research and documenting historic events such as the Guerrero?

After living in New Orleans, where I first got interested in history, I talked my husband into moving to Florida where I lived for twenty-two years. I was first interested in unusual natural phenomena in the Florida Keys and I wanted to write a book on the subject. This is what got me started in research. Then I saw the National Geographic Special on the Atocha, the ship that Mel Fisher found. I got a book on the Atocha ship wreck and could not put it down. I learned the author researched ancient records in Spain to get information for the book. I didn’t know such books and records existed. This book got me interested in archival work.

3) Have you been involved in any other research that you would like others to know about?

My original goal was to write a book about unusual natural phenomena in the Florida Keys. Since I‘d never written anything before I decided to practice by writing a nature calendar containing 365 events for each day of the year because of all the rich natural surroundings in the Keys. I was also overwhelmed by all the rich history in the region as it related to the world: populated with Native Americans who were wiped out by the Spanish, physically located only a few miles from Cuba with a European population, a Native American population, a Cuban population and a major sea lane with a perilous, unavoidable reef, war ship traffic and pirates from the Bahamas. The Florida Keys is one of the most dramatic places in entire western hemisphere.

4) Based on your work researching the Guerrero, do you feel that you have earned an acceptable amount of respect from academic researchers, historians, public officials and others you’ve come in contact with?

No. Because I don’t live in the Keys, the Key Westers ignore the history I come up with. I think they may be irritated that an outsider is digging through their history. I have given volumes of records to Key West libraries for twenty years and none has ever been catalogued. My book was self-published because it took 13 years to put together and I wanted it out fast. I didn’t want to deal with publishers or editors or marketing because I knew that could add more years to it being released. I wanted to be sure and retain the rights because I thought it would make a nice movie. I’ve spent over $7500 on travel alone out of my own pocket. I approached the African-American museum in Detroit because I believed it to be one of the largest in the country and they showed no interest.

5) I am sure that your research has sparked the interest of many in the scuba diving community to actually find the Guerrero. Have you ever considered taking up the sport of SCUBA diving?

I wanted to take up the sport at an earlier age but unfortunately I have an inner ear problem that prevents me from diving.

6) Have you had continuing involvement with ‘Diving with a Purpose’ (DWP), Key Biscayne Park, or Karuna Eberl as a result of your being the expert and writing the book? Were you close to Brenda Lanzendorf, the Biscayne Bay Park Service archeologist who died? What about Black activist and artist Dinizulu and Gene Tinnie featured in the documentary?

If it weren’t for Karuna we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Her DVD is responsible for all the attention that my work has received. Brenda was a close friend. Gene and Dinizulu are great people and we continue to stay in touch to this day.

7) How do you feel about the History you studied in school versus the history you’ve learned through your independent study?

I always thought history was something that was made up and put into a text book. I’ve personally uncovered records of twenty-four different slave ships in the Florida Keys. Seven wrecked and only two found, the Henrietta Maria and a wreck off the Middle Keys called the ‘Ivory Wreck’ (discovered in 1950) that was written up in the Encyclopedia of Middle Passage published in 2007. Most of these records are in Spanish. John Quency Adams was involved in the Guerrero twelve years before the Amistad and he mentioned it in his diary. I’ve also found records of ships moving slaves from Virginia to New Orleans before Key West was founded. None of this was taught to me in school and still is not to this day.

8) The personal and financial sacrifices you‘ve endured to tell the story of the Guerrero are well documented. What compelled you to take on such a project?

This is international history, not local Florida Keys history. It cannot be ignored. These stories must be told.


Last Updated (Sunday, 03 March 2013 20:08)