Underwater excavation of slave ship’s wreck off Perth coast

Archaeologists study the wreck of James Matthews, a former slave ship lying just off the coast of Perth. The ship sunk in 1941 and was discovered in 1973 on the depth of 2-3 metres south of Fremantle, south-western Australia.

Underwater excavations (by Nicolas Perpitch via ABC)

The ship was formerly known as Don Francisco and was owned by a notorious and powerful slave trader Francisco Felix de Souza. He operated out of West Africa and was involved in power plays with leaders of the Kingdom of Dahomey, in present day Benin. The ship was seized in 1837 off the island of Dominica as it headed towards Cuba by the British (Britain abolished slave trade in 1833), who found 433 slaves crammed inside the 24.5-metre hull.

Underwater investigation (by Nicolas Perpitch via ABC)

The ship was repaired and renamed the James Matthews and served as a merchant vessel until sinking after slipping its anchor during a storm and hitting rocks in July 1841. It travelled laden with farm equipment and construction material for the newly established Swan River colony. Most of the cargo preserved due to anaerobic environment provided by the sand in which it was buried.

Plan of the James Matthews (by Nicolas Perpitch via ABC)

Archaeologists studied the wreck and created a 3D model, which is said to help gain a better understanding of the site over time. Researchers were able to recover a leather shoe, a parasol with much of the lace preserved, an ivory chess set, and pulleys with rope still largely intact. Historic documents also suggest that there might be 200 gold sovereigns also lost to the sea, but there is no evidence for their presence yet.

Chess pieces recovered from the wreck (by Nicolas Perpitch via ABC)
Finds from the ship (by Nicolas Perpitch via ABC)

(after ABC & Nicolas Perpitch)

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