A December 1827 letter from Key West, Florida, published in Niles’ Register newspaper details the wreck of the Havana-based pirate slave ship Guerrero on Carysfort Reef in the Upper Florida Keys.
Guerrero, carrying 561 African captives, was being chased by the British Royal Navy schooner Nimble, which was patrolling the area against illegal slavers, when both ships ran onto the Florida Reef. As the letter notes, “Guerrero bilged in a moment and lost all her masts.” Even worse, though, the writer describes that “The cries of five hundred sixty-one slaves and her large crew were appalling beyond description.” Forty-one Africans drowned almost immediately, trapped in Guerrero’s flooded hold. Nimble also ran aground shortly after Guerrero did, but its crew was able to re-float the schooner by jettisoning iron ballast, shot, and guns.
The next morning, Florida Keys wreckers successfully saved the surviving Africans and the large crew of pirates from Guerrero. That evening, some of the rescued pirates hijacked two of the wrecking vessels and made their way to Cuba with 400 of the Africans. Nimble’s crew could only watch, as the navy schooner had been damaged in its collision with the reef and was unable to sail.
Over the next few days, the crew of the Nimble salvaged much of the Guerrero’s cargo, artillery, and fittings. They were able to fit the wrecked slaver’s rudder onto the Nimble to replace the one it had lost when it grounded. Nimble was eventually able to sail to Key West, along with the wrecking sloop Surprize and 121 of Guerrero’s rescued Africans. Authorities at the small island city took charge of the Africans. The items salvaged from Guerrero were soon auctioned at Key West.
Since 2003, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, in partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the RPM Nautical Foundation, and the Diving With a Purpose program, has worked to identify the shipwreck sites of Guerrero and Nimble. Using magnetometers to locate probable targets, the team has combed the reefs most likely to hold the remains of the ships. These surveys have revealed three sites that appear to be part of the 1827 story, but more evidence will have to be gathered before it is known with certainty if the remains are indeed those of the slave ship Guerrero and its pursuer HMS Nimble.