Maritime Cork: ‘Slave ship’ one of five wrecks on seabed off Courtmacsherry

Maritime Cork: ‘Slave ship’ one of five wrecks on seabed off Courtmacsherry

Likely a ship’s crew, with lifebelts bearing the name, An Saorstat Cork’

“THERE are five shipwrecks on the seabed around Dunworley and one of them is the wreck of a slave ship.”

That information, amongst several sent to this column about our maritime culture and tradition around the Cork coastline, intrigued me.

Dunworley is a few miles from Courtmacsherry, on the west Cork coast, and, on a storm-ravaged morning in December 1701, many bodies were discovered along the shoreline there. Some were white-skinned, others were black, according to the records of the time.

Piecing the story together, the Amity, a 90-foot-long sailing ship, had sailed from the coast of Guinea and was blown by Atlantic gales onto rocks in Dunworley Bay, where it broke up. The vessel was owned by the Royal African Company and is described in the historical records as being a slave-ship, probably bound for England. Apart from one young African, all aboard died; it was pounded to pieces by the gales.

As well as slaves, it carried ivory and hardwood from Africa. The owners, the Royal African Company, wanted to recover as much of the cargo as possible. It employed local people to help and, records say, “much of her cargo was recovered, including glass beads.”

The ‘Shark’, which operated in Cork harbour.
The ‘Shark’, which operated in Cork harbour.

But, as was not unusual at that time in coastal communities, they also say that “other locals were spiriting away items of cargo washed ashore, tusks and hardwood, despite a watch being kept, but no action was taken against those who had availed of the bounty of the lost ship’s cargo.”

What happened to the young African boy is not recorded.

The national Underwater Archaeology Unit surveyed Dunworley Bay in 2005. The larger Cow Rock and the smaller Horse Rock, in the bay, were described as “proven to be a hazard to shipping throughout the ages.” There are believed to be at least five wrecks in Dunworley and there may be more.

These include what could be one of the vessels that was involved in the 1631 raid on Baltimore, known as the ‘Sack of Baltimore’, by Barbary Coast pirates, who took local people as slaves.

Another is that of a ship from the Williamite era. Silver coins have been recovered from that over the years and there is also the wreck of what was described as “an African gold trader.” That gave rise to a belief that there was gold to be found.

It has been suggested that the Amity could be one of the oldest slave ships in the world.

Wrecks over 100 years old, and archaeological objects underwater, irrespective of their age or location, are protected by national legislation, under Section 3 of the National Monuments Act of 1987.

The Underwater Archaeology Unit, part of the National Monuments Service, has created an archive of 18,000 wrecks around the Irish coast, though is estimated that the true figure could be as high as 30,000.

Two other items that have come to my attention are pictured here. Both are postcards, one of a ship that is described on the back as the ‘Shark’. It was a vessel operating in Cork harbour.

The other is a photo of what appears to be a ship’s crew, with lifebelts giving the name ‘An Saorstat Cork.’

I’ll be returning to these when more research is completed.

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