The Middle Passage, 2010

Key West, Florida, is the southern most tip of the US, once home to Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway. It is part of the Florida Keys, small islands joined together by bridges and causeways. Today, Key West remains a creative refuge for artists and writers. And the hospitality of the Conches (people from the Keys) is just fascinating.

However, other things brought me to this area. I arrived at Key West to celebrate and remember 294 Africans who died there in 1860. Here’s the story.

Back in the day, Key West used to be the closest port to trading routes of the Middle Passage. In 1860 three ships carrying Africans to be sold into slavery in Cuba were rescued by the US Navy. The ships, Wildfire, William and Bogota, were captured and forced to sail to Key West. Africans from the first two ships (508 and 513 survivors respectively) were from the Eastern Congo but there is no record on the origin of the people on the Bogota. Altogether, 1,432 Africans were rescued (269 died at sea) and given food, clothing and housing.

However, of those that landed safely, 294, mostly young children, died on Key West from the trauma, sadness and disease. They were buried in what became known as the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach. The location of nine graves is known, while the rest are still to be found.

Photo: The African cemetery on an 1861 map drawn by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Credit: Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society.

On the ground where some bodies were located stands a living memorial to those who died in 1860. It is also a memorial to all Africans who were forcibly removed from their homes and suffered the most horrific of experiences.

Photo: African Cemetery at Higgs Beach today. Credit: rod 2.0.

On our visit to the cemetery, we were reminded that, 200 years later, Africans are still dying on the high seas or being washed ashore in Florida. They are still being refused dignity in death. As recent as 2009, Haitians escaping dire poverty died while trying to reach the coasts of Florida.

How many Africans died on the way to Haiti in 1860 we may never know. What we do know is that their African descendants in Haiti rose up and revolted against the French slavers, declaring independence from Napoleon in 1804. For this Haiti has been punished by the West ever since.

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