The wreckage of the Cuban-based paddle-wheel steamboat was found in 2017, but it was not identified until researchers at the National Institute of Anthropology and History examined contemporary documents and found that the ship was “La Union”.
The ship became known as “The War of the Castes” for working in sugarcane fields in Cuba and was used to take the Maya captured during the 1847–1901 rebellion.
Slavery was illegal in Mexico at the time, but operators of similar ships reportedly left the landless in Cuba from the struggle to “sign on” as contract personnel, though they were treated like slaves.
La Unon was on a trip to Havana in September 1861 when its boiler exploded and it closed the once important Yucatan port of Sissel.
The institute said the identification was based on the physical remains of a thin wooden side-wheeler whose wood had traces of fire and whose boilers had exploded. The location of the wreck also matches contemporary accounts of the crash, which killed 80 crew members and 60 passengers aboard.
In October 1860, La Union was captured on 29 May in the neighboring Campeche state, including children as young as seven years old. That voyage was apparently halted, but apparently it did not prevent the ship from continuing its voyage, including sisal fiber, and Cuban passengers had to pay.
It was not clear whether there was any Maya aboard on the ship’s final voyage; The records are not clear as Mayas may have been listed as cargo, not as passengers, or the ship may have tried to hide its presence.
Archaeologist Helena Barba Mineke said the captured Maya fighters were often sent to Cuba, from which many never returned. “Each slave was sold to a middleman for 25 pesos, and he reissued them in Havana as 160 pesos, for men and 120 pesos for women,” she said.
Cessal and hennequin were the fibers used in rope making, and were commonly harvested by Mayes, who worked in sarf-like conditions on many plantations.
The Maya launched one of North America’s last indigenous rebellions in the lower Yucatan Peninsula in 1847, fighting against the domination of white and mixed-breed Mexicans who exploited them. The Mexican government fought the bloody rebellion with brutal repression, but could not wipe out the final resistance until 1901.
The ship was found 2 miles (3.7 km) from the port of Sissel in about 22 feet (7 m) of water after a local fisherman led archaeologists to the wreck.
Some wrecked African slave ships have been found in the United States and elsewhere in the water, but no Mayan Slav ships were identified.