Kemah filmmakers’ study of shipwreck tells story of illegal slave trade
Documentary filmmakers Richard Coberly and Veronica Veerkamp, of Windward Media in Kemah, know a thing or two about piracy on the high seas. For nearly two decades, they have made countless expeditions to the Turks and Caicos Islands, gathering information about Trouvadore, a slave ship that wrecked just off the coast of East Caicos in 1841.
The ship, captained by De Bonita Velasea, was bound for Cuba from Africa with 300 slaves onboard. But the ship got off course and landed on a reef in this British territory where slavery had been abolished. African slave trading was illegal, but the smuggling of slaves was big business with thousands of ships crossing the Atlantic in a steady stream, continuing until the 1860s. By 1865, some 12 million Africans had been shipped from their homelands to the Americas and outlying islands; more than 1 million of them dying from mistreatment and illness.
When Velasea’s 135-foot wooden Baltimore clipper got stuck on the reef, he and his crew were close enough to land to row the 193 remaining slaves, who had survived disease and illness on the voyage, ashore. Velasea sought the help of a nearby plantation owner and offered him $3,000 for a boat that would take them to Cuba. The plantation owner pretended to comply, but sent a messenger to Grand Turk to alert the authorities, who arrested Velasea and the crew. They were tried and sent to jail, while the 193 slaves were free to live their lives as citizens of the Turks and Caicos.
The Trouvadore project initially started with archaeologists Donald Keith and Toni Carroll, a husband-and-wife team Coberly and Veerkamp met while working on a previous documentary, “In Search of La Salle.” The foursome became friends and like minds began looking for a new project.
Keith told Coberly he’d found a reference to a slave shipwreck that no one had ever heard of. They began to do the research and knew the story had to be told.
“I knew right away it would make a good documentary because it was so unique,” Coberly said. “We presented it to PBS, who gave us the go-ahead, organized the fundraising and we were on our way.” Unfortunately, a corporate reorganization occurred at PBS and the project went by the wayside.
“We found a distributor, Looking Glass International, based in Australia, who will be presenting the project to various media outlets for broadcast rights,” Coberly said.
The rest of the program will be shot as funding becomes available and ultimately will become a two-hour special documentary.
“The best part about this story is that those 193 slaves survived,” Veerkamp said. “They were emancipated immediately, given plots of land and went on to gain apprenticeships in local trades.”
The worst part of the expedition is the foul weather and living aboard the dive vessel, Coberly said.
“The area is very remote, uninhabited, and the shipwreck area is surrounded by acacia bushes full of stickers,” he said. “Subsequent storms have pushed the ship inward, but it is surrounded by coral reefs, so the project is precarious.”
Coberly has worked the underwater camera, but mainly acts as producer and director of photography, while Veerkamp is the writer and researcher.
The biggest artifact of the Trouvadore is the ship itself. It is in several major pieces: A section of the hull that didn’t rot because it was covered in sand; a section above the keel; and multiple pieces of timber.
“We anticipate taking a few more trips to Turks and Caicos, and eventually going to Cuba to film where the slaves were bound,” Veerkamp said.