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The date was Dec. 19, 1827.

Keeper John Whalton was tending to his lightship, a sort of mobile lighthouse, which was anchored a few miles off Key Largo. He was about to witness a tragedy.

As Whalton later said, “I saw the flash and heard the report of seven or eight guns.”

An international ban on the slave trade had been enacted, yet a Spanish slave ship, the Guerrero, was sailing along the Florida coast. Aboard the ship were 561 captive Africans, kidnapped from five nations, and a crew of 90 Spaniards who were little more than pirates.

In hot pursuit of the Guerrero -- Spanish for “warrior” -- was the British warship Nimble. The British had received a tip that the Guerrero was bound for Cuba, where the Africans would be exchanged for goods to be exported to Europe.

The two ships were firing their cannons at each other as they neared the shore -- too close to the shore, as it turned out. As Whalton watched, both ships piled onto a reef.

The Nimble merely ran aground, but the Guerrero struck the reef so hard that her masts snapped and collapsed. The massive poles fell into the hold where the Africans were imprisoned, killing about 40 of them.

The Spanish ship sank immediately. A Baltimore newspaper later reported, “The cries of 561 slaves and the crew were appalling beyond description.”

Desperate to salvage their profit, the crew of the Guerrero hijacked two of the vessels that came to their aid. They forced about 400 of the Africans aboard these ships and took them to Cuba, where they were sold into slavery.

A salvage ship picked up the remaining survivors and took them to Key West. Later, they were moved up the coast to St. Augustine, but instead of returning them to Africa, the 121 survivors were rented to nearby plantations, where they were treated as slaves.

Finally, in 1829, the refugees were put aboard a ship to Africa. The ship developed leaks, and they were taken instead to Barbados. After several months, they finally arrived in Liberia.

The Guerrero’s voyage ended when it sank off the coast of Florida, and its dramatic story seemingly died with it. For decades, the only hint of its existence could be found in obscure historical accounts.

That changed 13 years ago when historian Gail Swanson learned about the wreck. Swanson was so intrigued by the story of the Guerrero she began researching its story, even selling her house in Key West and funding her research with the equity.

Today, because of Swanson’s research, expeditions are competing to discover the Guerrero’s resting place. A documentary about the ship and the search for it has been filmed by Wandering Dog Films and Blue Cactus Pictures.

The Guerrero Project will have its world premiere during the second annual Savannah Ocean Film Festival, which will be held Sept. 23, 24 and 25 at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Trustees Theater and the Tybee Island Marine Sciences Center.

The festival is sponsored by the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, which is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The enthusiasm in Savannah and the region generated by last year’s successful film festival has inspired us to expand the event this year,” says Sanctuary Manager Reed Bohne.

This is the first time most of the festival’s films have been shown in the Southeast. Yet admission to every one of them is free -- although you will need tickets to get in.

More than 20 films will be presented during the festival, including 3000 Years Under the Sea; Blue Water, White Death; and The Power of Water.

In addition, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center will host two days of free children’s programs on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Those films will include Humphrey the Lost Whale, SeaHouse and The Rainbow Fish.

There also will be a community lecture about the film, The Guerrero Project. The lecture will take place Monday, Sept. 26 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at Savannah State University’s Jordan Auditorium in the College of Business Administration.

The lecture is part of a program called Seaing is Believing, which is funded by a City of Savannah Weave-A-Dream grant. Members of the cast and crew will take part in a panel discussion on the content and making of the documentary.

Among those attending will be director Karuna Eberl; historian Gail Swanson; Gene Tinnie, co-director of the Dos Amigos/Fair Rosamond Middle Passage Ship Replica Project; Ken Stewart of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers; and Florida treasure hunter Captain Carl Fismer.

As part of the community lecture, an essay and visual arts competition for students in grades K-12 is being held. The essay contest is open to any public or private school student in grades 7-12, while the visual arts competition is open to elementary students in kindergarten though 6th grade.

Students can address one of four topics: Ocean Exploration, African Americans and the Sea, Coastal Issues or Marine Protected Areas.

One of the highlights of the festival will be the appearance of Stan Waterman, pioneer underwater film producer, who will present Giants of Underwater Film on Friday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. Waterman has won five Emmy Awards, just a few of his honors throughout a career that spans nearly 50 years.

In addition to numerous documentaries, television series and films for National Geographic, ABC and ESPN, Waterman collaborated with Peter Gimbel on the classic shark film, Blue Water, White Death. Waterman worked with his close friend Peter Benchley on The Deep as the co-director of underwater photography.

Frank Capra, Jr., the president of Screen Gems, will be on hand Saturday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. to present From Cousteau to Capra -- Our Changing Views of the Ocean.

The final segment, Maritime Heritage in the Southeast, will be presented by Karuna Eberl on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. The world premiere of The Guerrero Project will be presented during this segment.

Films on all three nights will be followed by question-and-answer sessions between the presenters and audience members. All in all, the formula that captivated Savannahians last year is back -- with some more events added for good measure.

“The first festival was a wonderful success,” says Gail Krueger, Communications and Outreach Coordinator at Gray’s Reef. “It showed us people living in our area are looking for information about the oceans. This is a good way of getting information to them. Not everyone has a boat. Not everyone can dive.”

The intent has always been to make admission to the films free, Krueger says. “We have great partners who help keep it free,” she says.

Putting the festival together is a major project, Krueger says.

“It’s somewhat difficult because our focus is so narrow. We look for films about the oceans, marine creatures and people who relate to them. We don’t have as many films to choose from,” she says.

“One of our goals is to change that. We are in a growing partnership with Savannah College of Art and Design film students. We want them to make more maritime films.”

The whole intent of the festival is to show people how important the oceans are to our health and to foster stewardship of the oceans. Krueger says some local middle, high school and grade school students will be brought in to attend the community lecture. “The idea is to inspire more children to explore maritime issues.” The deadline of the essay and art contests has been extended to Oct. 14.

“We hope to get students of all ages thinking about the marine environment,” Krueger says. “It doesn’t matter if you never go to the ocean, everything you do on land impacts the ocean. The health of the ocean impacts all of us.”

The ocean’s story includes the entire scope of human history. Much of the oceans’ history has been lost -- but one story that has been discovered has already had a big impact.

The Guerrero’s value is mostly historic. After the ship sank, salvagers recovered as much as they could.

However, there may be artifacts remaining at the site, including musket balls, utensils and equipment used aboard the ship, that would be of great interest to historians today.

In searching for the ship, teams of researchers use iron-sensing magnetometers and old records. There are two other known slave ship wrecks off the Florida Key, and scholars believe there may be many more.

About 12 million Africans survived the terrible voyages that took them from their homes into slavery. Undoubtedly there were many who perished at sea.

Throughout The Guerrero Project, footage of the scientific expeditions is incorporated with interviews and perspectives from historians, humanitarians and social advocates. There also are line drawings to depict some of the events that occurred during the wreck and its aftermath.

The Guerrero Project marks Eberl’s directorial debut. She first learned about the story from Swanson.

“I realized nobody really knew about it,” Eberl says. “ It’s an important piece of history.”

The need to tell a story doesn’t guarantee it will happen, though. “The biggest challenge in making any film is finding funding for it,” Eberl says. “Another challenge is trying to the role of this kind of history in society today.”

There was yet another hurdle -- racism. Eberl, who is white, was told flat-out that whites should not be telling a story that is essentially African American.

Not by African-Americans, mind you, but by white film festival organizers and heads of agencies that fund grants.

“The real problem has been, who has the right to tell a story like this,” she says. “The African-American community has been very supportive. Others felt we were too white to tell this story. We were told this point-blank by funding and progressive agencies.”

That was a real puzzle for Eberl and her crew. “We just set out to tell the story about people,” she says. “I felt this story was about all of us. It’s such an important part of American history, which influences all of us.”

Even Eberl agrees the project was different from most, though. “The film was shot 20 feel below the ocean, and edited 9,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado mountains,” she says with a laugh.

At the time, Eberl was based in Colorado. She has since moved to Los Angeles, where she has produced a feature documentary, My Next Neurosis, which examines beauty and self-image. She currently is producing a feature film, Saving Elena.

Eberl’s background is diverse. She has worked as a journalist, screenwriter, novelist, editor, photographer, film crew member and producer.

“I was introduced to film three years ago,” Eberl says. “After being on a film set, I was hooked.”

Eberl first learned about the Guerrero while working on a documentary about marine treasure hunters. It was there that she met Swanson, who first learned about the Guerrero in 1992.

“I was not a historian, I was doing nature work in the Keys,” Swanson says. “I was working on a nature calendar. I couldn’t fill out the entire 365 days, so I decided to fill in the gaps with history.”

At first, Swanson stuck with the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s. She did not want to incorporate any history past 1800.

But along the way, Swanson encountered the story of the Guerrero. She tried to ignore it, but couldn’t put it behind her.

“I got a guilty feeling,” Swanson says. “I asked a researcher to look for official records.”

Soon, the documents began to pile up. “It took weeks to transcribe them on tapes,” Swanson says. “I couldn’t believe the drama that was unfolding in each document.”

Swanson’s excitement increased when she learned that the American names given to the African survivors who were taken to the Keys had survived. That meant information about them could be traced.

“That’s what really sent me off,” Swanson says. “They were no longer nameless. I could follow them.”

At first, Swanson funded her research with a series of odd jobs. She finally sold her house and used the equity to fund the project.

“It’s not as benevolent as it sounds,” Swanson says. “I got a divorce, so I could hardly afford a house in the Florida Keys. Then I got a cataract and could hardly work at all,. I ended up $30,000 in debt. I found a much cheaper house in central Florida, and used the $50,000 equity and also lived off credit cards.”

However, Swanson does not consider the project a labor of love. “It’s been a labor of obligation,” she says.

“I found these people in the archives. I owed it to them to tell their stories.

“Their story was totally forgotten,” Swanson says. “This all happened 35 minutes from where I lived, but it was totally forgotten.”

Swanson did all this work without any thought of making money. She had already written one book, Documentation of the Indians of the Florida Keys and Miami, 1513-1765, and planned to self-publish a history of the Guerrero.

“I do it for the totally forgotten people,” Swanson says, adding that her first book is about Indians who vanished before the Seminoles arrived and have been forgotten. “I don’t care about presidents and other name-nabbers.”

When Swanson met Eberl and told her the story of the Guerrero, Eberl expressed interest in making a documentary. “I’m really impressed with her following through with it,” Swanson says.

While Swanson is delighted so many researchers want to find the Guerrero because of her work, she does not hold out much hope that the wreck will be found. It lies within the boundaries of the Biscayne National Park.

“I think the archaeologists with the National Park Service don’t want anything to be found,” Swanson says. “I don’t get along with archaeologists at all. They think it will be more damaging to find something than to never find it.”

Although Swanson has devoted the past 13 years to the Guerrero, she plans to move on to other projects. There are many more stories she wants to dig into.

Swanson’s research has led to the discovery of an African burial ground in Key West. “There are 300 people buried there off another slave ship in 1860,” she says.

One of Swanson’s planned books will cover unusual natural phenomena. In all, she has eight books in the works.

Dinizulu Gene Tinnie also will travel to Savannah for the screening of The Guerrero Project and the community lecture the next day. An artist and historian of the Middle Passage, a term used to describe the Atlantic slave trade, he has devoted his life to helping others understand the Middle Passage.

Tinnie currently is the co-director of the Dos Amigos/Fair Rosamond Slave Ship Replica Project. This group hopes to build a replica of a slave ship by 2007, in time for he 200th anniversary of U.S. Abolitionism in 2008.

The story of the Guerrero is important, Tinnie says, “because it’s part of the story of the whole Middle Passage. It’s all part of an untold story, which is the story of who we are. Here is a case of a specific ship with real evidence and real names. It really makes the story something we can understand better with human terms and get a real feeling for.”

Though the story has been largely forgotten, it has turned up in obscure records. Tinnie says author and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois referred to the Guerrero in his Harvard doctoral thesis. “Here is a story that not only is human, here is something that happened in American waters,” Tinnie says.

How did such a story get lost? “Without being too simplistic, we know for certain that whole bodies of history have been left out -- Native American history, African American history,” Tinnie says. “The way schools once operated, journalism operated, that stuff was not considered important.”

Today, researchers, journalists and educators are more open minded, Tinnie says. “The whole point is that it isn’t someone else’s history,” he says. “Some people came here because there was a slave trade, whether we like it or not.”

Discoveries such as the Guerrero make history come to life for people who have never showed an interest in history before. Tinnie himself came to his interest in history as an adult.

“I can remember in school I wasn’t fascinated by history at all,” he says. “I discovered it through a need to know more, to know how we came to be where we are.

“History just really needs to be looked at,” Tinnie says. “It is really time for us to take a good hard look at ourselves. Those of us who call ourselves Americans need to take a good look at what that means now.

“Essentially, history is the story of how people found food, clothing, shelter,” he says. “It really is what holds us together, and gives us the identity we have.

“Why should anybody care about this?” Tinnie asks. “Because it can get us to the point where we realize we all come from a collective ancestry.” w



For a complete schedule of films, visit graysreef.noaa.gov.



Tickets to the Savannah Ocean Film Festival, set for Sept. 23-25, are free and available at the Trustees Theater Box Office, 216 E. Broughton St. Call 525-5050.



The Tybee Island Marine Science Center is at the foot of the Tybee Pier. For information about the children’s films, call 786-5917.





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Linda Sickler

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