The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a 501 (c) (3) accredited, not-for-profit organization existing to research, interpret, and exhibit the maritime history of Florida and the Caribbean in ways that increase knowledge, enrich the spirit, and stimulate inquiry.

Archaeology & Research / More ... Peter Mowell

THE PETER MOWELL 1860

By 1859, the Peter Mowell was based out of New Orleans, Louisiana, and it sailed and sailed regularly between there, Tampico, and Havana.  In February of 1860, the schooner was purchased by Salvador Prats, head of the trading house of Prats, Pujol & Co.

On February 8, under Prats’ ownership, the Peter Mowell cleared New Orleans for Monrovia, Liberia “and a market.” The “market” turned out to be located in the ocean waters near the Congo River. There, the schooner met with a larger vessel carrying around 1000 captive Africans. Over 400 of the people were transferred from the bigger ship to the Peter Mowell.

After an Atlantic crossing of 36 days, as they approached The Bahamas, the crew of the Peter Mowell sighted the Steamer Karnak, cruising on its normal route carrying mail between New York and Nassau. Thinking the Karnak was a British Navy man-of-war capable of intercepting them in their illegal scheme; they became anxious and tried to dodge it. At dawn on July 25th, the Peter Mowell’s crew maneuvered in close to the Abaco Islands but miscalculated and ran onto Lynyard Cay. The schooner was bilged near latitude 26° 21' N, and was a “total wreck.” The Peter Mowell was quite close to the island and many of those on board utilized an extended spar to get from the ship to the shore. The mishap was witnessed by the crew of the Karnak, and they reported it to authorities in Nassau.

Wreckers came to the aid of the survivors and found 390 Africans and eight crewmen from the Peter Mowell on Lynyard Cay. These people were put on board three wrecking schooners and carried to Nassau, to be delivered to the authorities there. Because the slave trade was illegal, the crewmen were put in jail. The Africans were held in quarantine and treated for illnesses they had acquired on the slave ship. Once they received medical clearance, the Africans refugees were housed in the barracks at Nassau’s Fort Charlotte.

There was some question about what to do with the Africans, but Bahamas Governor C.J. Bayley decided that it would be best if they served as indentured servants to citizens of the British colony, before being freed and allowed to become Bahamians themselves. Under the terms of servitude, the Africans of the Peter Mowell would serve for six years before being given their independence. The schooner’s jailed crew was released from custody on a legal technicality - they were foreigners who had arrived in The Bahamas only accidentally. In 1866, the Africans were indeed freed and allowed to become Bahamians. Their presence added greatly to the colony’s rich Afro-Bahamian culture.

Historical research into the wreck of the Peter Mowell yielded a likely location for the remains of the slave ship. In July of 2012, a team of researchers from the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and the Bahamas Antiquities, Monuments, and Museums Corporation partnered with volunteers to travel to Lynyard Cay to test the theory. On the first day of exploration, right where predicted, a shipwreck consisting of ballast stones, iron spikes, copper fasteners, copper sheathing, and sheathing tacks, was located. Though the site was poorly preserved, and few items remained beyond the most durable parts of the ship, everything that was found matched precisely with what the historical record says about the Peter Mowell. There is no doubt that the site found along the shore of Lynyard Cay is that of the long-forgotten slaver.

Post-excavation research has identified people associated with the Peter Mowell and, through genealogy, their descendants. Charles “Chance” Harvey, a 13 year old boy from the Congo River region when he sailed as a captive on the slaver, became a New Providence house carpenter, and he has descendants living in both the Bahamas and Florida. Henry

Selner, a crewman on the Peter Mowell, became, after his release from the Nassau jail, a lighthouse keeper and then a farmer in Florida; much of his family lives there today. Ridley Pinder, the lead wrecker who rescued the shipwreck’s survivors, has a number of descendants in the Abaco Islands of The Bahamas. These connections are the first known instances of people in the present day being able to link their family heritage to the site and remains of an actual slave ship.

Currently, an exhibit about the Peter Mowell can be found at the Pompey Museum in downtown Nassau, and traveling displays are taking the story elsewhere in The Bahamas. The Peter Mowell is also featured in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum’s traveling “Spirits of The Passage” exhibition.

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