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A unique shipwreck found in 2017 has been identified by archaeologists in Mexico. The paddle-wheel steamboat from Cuba was discovered to carry Mayan people who became slaves in the 1850s.

Researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History confirmed that the vessel was the "La Unión." Between 1847 and 1901, there was a rebellion called "The War of the Castes" at the Yucatan Peninsula which involved capturing Mayans to be sold as slaves in Cuban sugarcane fields.

At the time, slavery was illegal in Mexico so ship operators claimed that the people they captured were contract workers. Some of the Mayans were deceived into a life of slavery in Cuba.


La Unión Slave Ship

Previous evidence has indicated that La Unión was on its way to Havana, Cuba in 1861 when the boilers exploded and the ship sank. As it sank in the former port of Sisal, its people have passed down the story of the slave ship throughout generations. One of them shared the story to the researchers, shared archaeologist Helena Barba-Meinecke.

The ancestors of Sisal have passed on the story of "a steamship that took away Mayans during the War of the Castes." One of the witnesses at the time that Mayans have led away as slaves told his son, who then told his grandson. "It was that man," a local fisherman, "who led the team to where the shipwreck was."

Remains of the ship showed evidence of the boiler explosions wrecked the timber and caused a fire. The explosion had killed 40 of the crew members and 60 passengers, which coincided with accounts of the accident.

There was also silverware and the emblem of the company that owned the ship. The wreck was found about two miles from Sisal at 22 feet below.

A year before the accident, the same ship was caught in Campeche, a nearby state, taking 29 Mayas which included seven-year-old children. Authorities kept the ship from leaving but did not stop the continuous trade.

Mayans were usually aboard ships that carried sisal fiber and paying passengers headed for Cuba. At the time, sisal and henequen were fibers to make rope, which was harvested by Mayans from large plantations all over Yucatan.

Read Also: 200-Year-Old Shipwreck Discovered in Mexico Believed to Have Passed Through the 'Nightmare Reef'

Identifying Mayan Descendants

Researchers remain uncertain how many slaves were aboard La Unión before it sank since the Mayans were likely to be listed as cargo. Another theory is that the records are inaccurate to hide the slave activity.

Mayans combatants that were sent to Cuba rarely returned to their homeland, said Barba-Meinecke. Middleman bout the slaves for 25 pesos each. Men were resold in Havana for 160 pesos while women were sold for 120 pesos.

For further research, the team will look for the descendants of the Mayan slaves in Havana, in the neighborhood of Campeche. Some people from this neighborhood "could be descendants of the Mayas who were taken by force or deception," said Barba-Meinecke.

Read Also: 17th Century Dutch Cargo Vessel Found in the Baltic Sea

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