National Geographic has released a new podcast, “Into the Depths”, that is available on all platforms on January 27. The six-part series is hosted by Tara Roberts, who followed a team of Black divers on their journey to document and identify sunken slave ships.
Roberts’ background is in print journalism, having worked for magazines such as Ebony, Essence and CosmoGirl. She’s also taught journalism at the university level and worked in non-profit.
Roberts found the team of Black divers randomly when she saw a picture of them in a museum. The divers are a part of Diving with a Purpose (DWP), a 501c3 organization focused on the protection and documentation of slave trade shipwrecks. Roberts reached out to DWP and was invited to dive with them.
At the time, she did not have any experience with diving and so she joined a local dive group to begin her training.
“I got to know these divers and just decided that they were incredible, and that their story was incredible,” Roberts said. “So, I decided I wanted to help tell their story.”
Roberts ended up quitting her job at the time to put all of her focus into this project. She eventually stumbled upon a notice from National Geographic that they were looking for more explorers and storytellers. She applied and received funding that allowed her to travel the world with the divers.
While working on the podcast – Roberts visited Mozambique, South Africa, Senegal, Benin, Togo, Costa Rica, Florida and Alabama. She interviewed over 100 individuals of all ages, from as young as 16 to as old as 90.
“Into the Depths” wasn’t originally a podcast, though. The grant Roberts applied for was to tell the story in blog entries about her travels. Yet after hearing the voices of people in different parts of the world talk about the history of the slave trade, she believed others should too.
“I just realized that this story was huge and complex and nuanced,” Roberts said. “Trying to tell it in blog posts just didn’t do it service. So I went back to [National Geographic], and I told them that I was starting to hear this story as a podcast, like I felt like it was an audio story.”
Working on “Into the Depths” provided Roberts with an experience that allowed her to learn about a story that often goes untold. Something that stuck with her was realizing the magnitude of human lives lost during the slave trade.
“There are probably about 1000 ships that wrecked during the Middle Passage,” Roberts said.
“So far, less than 10 of those wrecks have been found. But these are the ships that brought over close to 12.5 million Africans … They estimate that 1.8 million Africans lost their lives in the Middle Passage.”
Roberts also took the time to learn about the communities connected to some of the shipwrecks by working with archeologists and historians. One of the topics covered in the podcast is who was involved in the slave trade. Roberts learned through this journey that it was not just the enslavers and the enslaved on the Middle Passage ships.
“Many of these ships were insured, because financial backers had raised money or put their own money into it, and they wanted their money back,” Roberts said.
“So if a ship didn’t make it, they would file an insurance claim and get paid. So you’ve got insurance companies who are involved in this, you have construction companies, wood building companies, it’s all of these other actors that are a part of the slave trade and it made money off of it. And some of that wealth that was created still exists today.”
While on this quest to expand the historical record and honor those who died, Roberts discovered the maritime underground railroad, which she has a personal connection to. The maritime underground railroad was a network that helped those who were enslaved to freedom on boats.
Roberts’ hometown, Edenton, North Carolina was one of the stops. This inspired her to take a deeper look into her own familial history. Her great grandfather, Jack, was born into slavery in 1837.
With the help of a genealogist, Roberts was able to learn that Jack owned over 150 acres of land and that he fought in the Civil War.
“I didn’t know that there was something to feel pride around with my ancestor, until I started to look back … And I started to see him,” Roberts said. “And I think that that is available for other African Americans, that maybe they might also be inspired to look back into their own families.”
Roberts hopes that “Into the Depth” is a thought provoking listen that sparks conversation.
“I hope that this podcast maybe sparks something inside of [people], and gives them the courage to look back and uplift those who came before us and to honor them, and to find something to wrap their arms around and to feel pride around,” Roberts said.