Trail Honors People from One of Last Slave Ships to Land in U.S.

The Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, from coastal Georgia, perform during ceremonies opening the new "Wanderer Memory Trail" Nov. 17 on Jekyll Island.
The Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, from coastal Georgia, perform during ceremonies opening the new "Wanderer Memory Trail" Nov. 17 on Jekyll Island.

By The Maritime Executive 11-23-2018 01:02:28

The Jekyll Island Authority has officially opened the Wanderer Memory Trail, which tells the story of the survivors of the Wanderer, the last known slave ship to land in Georgia and also one of the last known slave ships to arrive in the U.S.

Located on the southern end of this Georgia barrier island, the Wanderer Memory Trail is located near the point where the Wanderer illegally came ashore on November 28, 1858, with more than 400 enslaved Africans on board.

The new trail walks visitors through the true story of Umwalla, a young African boy brought to America on that ship 160 years ago this month. Through a series of interactive exhibits along the trail, the pieces of Umwalla's journey – from capture to freedom – are unveiled.

The slave ship Wanderer was built originally as a stately and swift luxury yacht, which helped disguise its secret, illegal transport of enslaved Africans from West Africa to America. Physical changes had been made internally to the ship, so that hundreds of slaves could be packed into the vessel.

In October 1858 – a half-century after the U.S. Congress outlawed the importation of enslaved Africans – the Wanderer departed the coast of West Central Africa, bound for America with more than 500 enslaved Africans crowded inside the hold. 

The vessel was ill-equipped to carry so much human cargo, and the conditions on board were gruesome and dangerous. About 100 of the slaves perished during the transatlantic voyage. Their bodies were thrown overboard. Those who survived were unloaded at Jekyll Island and then sold across the South. The end of slavery would not be declared until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

The captives who were put through that horrific crossing to the States were remembered during the dedication of the Wanderer Memory Trail on November 17. The ceremonies at the Jekyll site featured singing by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, a troupe of performing artists who themselves are descendants of African slaves. When the public was invited to enter and experience the new trail for the first time, each guest was given a lighted candle, to honor the survivors of the Wanderer, as well as those who died at sea. At trail's end, visitors observed a moment of silence before extinguishing their candles, just before the sun set over the Atlantic nearby.

"This trail is an important and poignant reminder of the conditions these enslaved people suffered through during their journey to the United States, and the unthinkable hardships they faced after they got here," said Dr. Deborah L. Mack, associate director, the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Strategic Partnerships, National Museum of African American History & Culture. "It also references their path to freedom, and it vividly reminds us that despite the circumstances of their arrival, the dynamic culture these brave people brought to America continues to influence coastal Georgia and countless places beyond."

The new Wanderer Memory Trail is the second memorial to be placed on the south end of Jekyll Island in tribute to the enslaved passengers of the Wanderer. In 2008, the Jekyll Island Authority dedicated the first Wanderer Memorial, a large, metal sculpture honoring the ship's survivors. When the sculpture began to deteriorate from exposure to the coastal salt air and had to be removed, the opportunity to design a new type of memorial emerged. 

The Wanderer Memory Trail was designed by longtime exhibit design veteran Curt Bowman, of Artaventure, in Richmond, Virginia. The trail's elements were produced and installed by Bowman and Jekyll Island Authority staff and volunteers. Contributors to the development of the trail have included the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History & Culture; the State of Georgia Historic Preservation Division; the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission; the Old Slave Mart Museum, in Charleston, South Carolina; and various descendants of known Wanderer survivors.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.