In tracing the final journey of a slave ship, he found a spiritual link to his ancestors.
By Michael H. Cottman,
Washington Post, Sunday, February 7, 1999.
Rain was falling like lead pellets on the wooden deck of the Virgalona.
A storm was blowing in and Moe Molinar was at the helm of his 51-foot salvage boat, riding the swells and wiping sea water from a face browned by years of sun.
An underwater treasure hunter, Molinar was accustomed to riding out storms. On this day he was determined to make one more dive to the wreck of a Spanish galleon that had sunk nearly 360 years ago filled with gold, silver and $400 million worth of jewels.
Rolling backward over the edge of his boat in his scuba gear, Molinar plunged into the water and sank slowly down to the wreck. He was making one last sweep of the sandy ocean bottom when his hands hit against something rigid and unfamiliar.
Directly in front of him, caked in rust and limestone, was two feet of iron. Reluctantly, as if the pile would bite, Molinar tapped his fingers gently on it. The heavy heap didn't have the texture of treasure. He reached out again and lifted a large chunk from the pile. Molinar peered at it through his mask for what seemed like an hour until it finally dawned on him what he was seeing: a pair of encrusted shackles, irons designed to fit tightly around wrists much like his own.
Molinar cringed as he let the shackles drop to the ocean floor and furiously began to wipe the rust from his hands. There were no galleon's gold bars or jewels here, but something more painfully precious. By sunset, he had pulled dozens of rusted shackles out of the ocean, piling them onto the deck of his ship, bulky ones and tiny ones fashioned to
restrain children's wrists.
Moe Molinar, black treasure hunter, had stumbled on the wreck of a slave ship -- the only one ever found in U.S. waters and the only one found anywhere with its grisly artifacts still around it. Like a tightly rolled message in a bottle, its secrets were about to be opened.
For 10 years after Moe Molinar's 1972 discovery, the shackles -- and the cannons he had found in 1973 -- lay undisturbed in a Key West warehouse. Treasure hunters didn't know what to make of these relics. Then in 1983, a small group of young marine archaeologists, intrigued by the mystery, revisited the site and came upon a ship's bell. As they chipped away at the limestone encrustation a name and a date emerged: Henrietta Marie, 1699. This was the clue needed to confirm that the underwater wreck had, indeed, been a slave ship.
By the time I heard about the Henrietta Marie, another decade had gone by. In 1992, I was making a career as a newspaper reporter, but spending many of my non-working hours scuba diving, part of a small but growing number of black divers. That spring, I got a newsletter from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers announcing plans for a dive to a slave ship. I was determined to be part of it -- as a reporter and diver. It wasn't just that the Henrietta Marie would make a great newspaper story; as an African American I felt desperate to know -- I needed to know -- more about this ship, its history, its owners and their terrible business. I needed to know who had captained the ship, made its shackles, set its sails and navigated it to Africa. Who had paid for the capture of free African men, women and children and ordered the rebellious ones to be slaughtered.
After I made that 1992 dive, I couldn't get the Henrietta Marie out of my head. I learned it had begun its dreadful voyage in London, sailed to West Africa and then on to Jamaica to disgorge its human cargo before sinking. The Henrietta Marie became my window for understanding how millions of black people could have been enslaved and treated so badly, how these atrocities happened and what lessons we could learn -- as blacks and whites -- from this buried ship.
Here was a rare opportunity -- to visit the waterways where it had sailed, to give names and personal histories to faceless slave traders, and, ultimately, pay homage to the suffering and courage of my ancestors. Because of slavery, it is nearly impossible for African Americans to pinpoint the origins of our ancestors. We cannot identify a country in Africa where they were born, let alone a city or village. We can only know they came from somewhere on the west coast of the enormous continent. Are my people Ibo from Nigeria, or Fulani from Mali, or Wolof from Senegal, or Ashanti from Ghana? I will never know. What is important is not necessarily my quest for answers, but my appreciation
for their culture -- my culture, too -- and my need to draw strength from those who came before me and survived.
Similarly, African Americans rarely get a chance to find a name, locate a person or trace the history of someone who can be held responsible, somehow, for that black genocide. I had found a place to direct my questions -- and my anger. The Henrietta Marie gave me the opportunity to curse and scream for the Africans who had died without the chance to
curse and scream at someone themselves.
I set out on what became an extraordinary odyssey, following a route set three centuries before. I began where the Henrietta Marie began, on a splintered wharf along the Thames River in England.
The Prospect of Whitby pub was a haven for slave traders and thieves. The Henrietta Marie anchored somewhere near the infamous old drinking establishment on the Wapping pier in East London in the spring of 1697, as it waited for favorable winds to set sail for the coast of West Africa.
Here, it stocked up on the basics required by slave traders: iron bars, glass beads and pewter ware to trade for humans in Africa; linen and calico cloth, indigo and paint for the British inhabitants of the Caribbean, where the slaves would eventually be sold; weapons, fresh water, tobacco, rum, brandy and wine for the crew. And, of course, the grisly tools of bondage: heavy chains, iron collars and shackles for slaves' necks, wrists and ankles, and sharp contraptions to pry open the mouths of African men and women who attempted to defy their fate by starving themselves. The Henrietta Marie also carried eight large cannons, commissioned by John "Mad Jack" Fuller, a wealthy arms dealer and Jamaican plantation owner who had a lucrative investment in the slave trade.
After immersing myself in 300-year-old documents -- British bills of sale and wills, ship logs, letters and diaries and the significant research of British slave ship historian Nigel Tattersfield -- I suspected that Mad Jack might make a promising lead. Markings on one of
the cannons pulled to the surface from the Henrietta Marie indicated it had been made at a foundry some 70 miles southeast of London that he had leased or owned. I finally tracked the place down on a dirt country road.
There was nothing left, of course, except a stream and an old house occupied now by a very pleasant British woman and her husband, who operate a bed-and-breakfast there. Yes, she said, a foundry had once stood on the property -- she sometimes came across old ale bottles from the 17th century. She recognized the name of Fuller as among those who
at some point had leased the ironworks. Here was the first solid connection to the Henrietta Marie. I was elated by the discovery, but also a bit unnerved: I had a real person to whom I could connect the ship.
The Henrietta Marie, 80 feet long and 120 tons, left London in September 1699, according to a newspaper report from the time. It set a course for Africa's Guinea Coast -- which ran from what is now Sierra Leone to Lagos in Nigeria. It would likely have taken about three months to get there. According to accounts from the 1600s of slave ship captains and
owners, slavers would anchor their ships six or seven miles off the coast and, using the ship's longboats and hired African canoes, head into the interior, by river, to raid villages and claim their human booty. Captured in raids or sold outright by African slave owners and traders, the men, women and children would have their mouths bound with oakum -- a type of loosely twisted rope -- and be tossed into the bottom of the boats offshore. Many others drowned when they were tied together like so many logs and floated out to waiting slave ships.
Up to 15,000 African people were taken from the interior of what is now Nigeria each year during the 1600s and 1700s, and documents show that on at least one trip, the Henrietta Marie filled its hold here. It is also possible that the Henrietta Marie made a stop at one of the most infamous slaver locales, Goree Island, just off the coast of Dakar,
Senegal. Documents show that the ship probably stopped at Dakar. A visit to Goree Island would have been in keeping with what other slave ships at the time did.
From the 1500s to the 1700s, as many as 15 million Africans were brought in chains to the West Indies and the United States -- up to 6 million others died en route. The first stop for many of them was Goree Island, according to historians. There, they were crammed into raw, airless stone chambers for up to three months, shackled by the neck and ankles,
given European names and routinely flogged, raped, even murdered. The ones who survived were dragged through the "Door of No Return," a passageway leading directly onto the slavers' vessels. It was the last thing they would see or touch of their homelands or, in many cases, their families.
Today, only one slave house, built in 1526, is left on this rocky island, preserved as a monument to the process that forever cut off African Americans from their roots. I had been to Goree Island before, in 1986, as part of a group reporting trip on the Sahara drought, and had been profoundly moved. Goree Island is a compelling place for
African Americans: a site of pain but also survival. There is an extraordinary energy on it that forces black people to take a journey back in time, to cry, to release themselves to the calling from within, to give in to a hidden power, to remember that we are descendants of
kings and poets and traders and astronomers.
This time, almost a decade later, was different. As I stepped off the ferry that connects Goree to the mainland, I felt as though I were tracking down real souls, who might have come through here in terror and rage, and whose history had become intertwined with my own.
As I made my way through the slave house, I could hear the wind ripping through its windows, and images of black people being packed inside the dust-choked rooms filled my head. In front of me was a five-foot-high, five-foot-wide pit where black men who attempted to resist were held for days at a time, without food, water or sunlight. I crouched down to enter and made my way to the very back of this airless hole, trying to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling.
I was drenched with sweat and having trouble breathing. I told myself it was my allergies, but clearly it was something else. I had an overpowering feeling of isolation. My chest tightened and my eyes were tearing. I couldn't blame it on the dust.
Whether it was by way of the Door of No Return or through raiding parties at Calabar, in present-day Nigeria, old histories and captains' records collected by Tattersfield show that toward the end of January 1700, the Henrietta Marie's captain, Thomas Chamberlain, loaded about 250 men, women and children onto his ship and shackled them in pairs in
tight, rat-infested bunks in the sweltering lower decks. After provisioning the ship, he set a course to Port Royal, Jamaica.
By the late 1600s, slaves were being imported to Jamaica to work 60 or so sugar plantations. By the mid-1700s, the island had more than 400 sugar plantations and was the world's largest single producer of sugar. Enslaved black labor made that possible.
Some historians hold that slavery was just a matter of economics -- the lucrative business of trading in flesh, providing those who needed it with cheap labor -- and that it had little to do with race. But the version that the Henrietta Marie serviced -- and that has molded the history of African Americans -- was different from forms that came before: It was derived from a single source -- Africa -- and it was exclusively black.
"Why was it that laborers had to be transplanted across a wide ocean to work in America?" writes James Rawley, a slavery historian at the University of Nebraska. One answer, he writes in an academic paper about the context of the Henrietta Marie, is that Africans were cheaper to buy and maintain than white labor, even indentured servants, who worked a specific term of years in return for ocean passage. But the other,
overwhelmingly important reason, he argues, was simple racism. "By the 17th Century Englishmen had come to believe Africans were inferior. An ethnocentrism emphasizing skin color -- black standing for evil and the powers of darkness -- set Africans apart not only from Englishmen but . . . Native Americans as well."
And maybe there was this, too, Rawley writes: Dark-skinned people could not get lost in a crowd if they ran away. They could not blend in with the white population, so to select black people as slaves would put to rest any confusion about who were the workers and who were the rulers.
When the Henrietta Marie neared its destination of Jamaica, some 14 weeks after leaving Africa, it was carrying 190 Africans -- 90 men, 60 women, 30 boys and 10 girls. Some 60 others had died along the way, a not-surprising number, since more than 50 percent of the "cargo" often perished in the Middle Passage, and their bodies were tossed overboard.
The survivors were soon prepared for their arrival at port -- shaved, their skin oiled, their sores dressed. Small groups of men and women were allowed on deck for fresh air. All were fed larger portions of food for the remainder of the voyage.
On May 18, 1700, the enslaved Africans filed off the Henrietta Marie into Port Royal, according to Jamaican records from the time. Squinting in the bright sunlight after so many months below, their muscles tight and sore from more than three months of lying on their sides, they were delivered to Jamaica nude and branded with the initials H-M -- branding
was standard practice for all slavers. The next day, they were herded into the square at Port Royal and auctioned off to the highest bidder.
His work done, Capt. Chamberlain set a course for England a few weeks later. He sailed out of Port Royal harbor and onto a northwestward route, which would take the ship past the Cayman Islands, around Cuba's Cape San Antonio, and eventually into the treacherous stretch of water between the Tortugas and Marquesas Keys off the coast of Florida.
It was there, in the Florida Strait at the end of June 1700, that the Henrietta Marie was blindsided by powerful winds. According to Tattersfield, the ship dropped its anchors in a frantic effort to ride out the sudden hurricane. But the wind was too much. Wood was ripped from the decks, splintering into the sea. The Henrietta Marie's massive
mainmast cracked like a twig. Chamberlain and his crew, about a dozen men in all, were washed over the side of the sinking ship, swallowed up by the raging force of nature.
I came to see the Henrietta Marie's end as a reckoning of sorts: slavers dying a violent death, buried in the same seas where so many African men and women met their deaths. They drowned, surrounded by the chains and shackles, manacles and leg irons that were their stock in trade.
Jamaica was sweltering when I arrived in the summer of 1995, determined to search for any traces of the 190 men, women and children unloaded there by the Henrietta Marie. Of course, none of these people had names or official papers that I would be able to find. But I was hopeful that I might run into something familiar in the musty documents stored in the
Institute of Jamaica library, which lists property owners as far back as the 1500s.
Indeed, in no time I was tracking the footsteps of none other than Mad Jack Fuller himself. "Fuller, John, sugar plantation," ran one of the listings in the old property books. Early probate records, their binders tattered along the side and their pages as brittle as crumpled leaves but their words still surprisingly legible, showed that the family -- John, his sons Stephen and Rose -- had been prominent citizens of Jamaica. The Fullers, I found, had owned several plantations in the early 1700s, but the largest one was a 1,500-acre sugar plantation called Knollis Estate north of Kingston. One document listed Mad Jack as
an absentee owner who depended on a variety of relatives to oversee his properties. Given the connection between Fuller and the Henrietta Marie, it was possible that some of the enslaved Africans aboard the ship ended up working on one of his plantations -- as payment for the cannons he supplied or just as outright purchases.
The next day I found a place listed on Jamaican road maps as Knollis and hired a young man from Kingston to drive me there. We set out into the Jamaica countryside, with the towering Blue Mountains in the distance, and 40 minutes later encountered a sign reading "Knollis." We turned down a bumpy dirt road and reached a solitary house. An elderly
gentleman answered the door. The Knollis Estate, he said, was no longer, but down the road about two more miles was the Tulloch Estate, which once had been part of it.
Today, the Tulloch Estate is a 300-acre banana farm, owned by Ann Turner, a middle-aged British woman, and her son, and worked by 250 Jamaican employees. We drove up a rocky road to the estate's front gate and knocked on the front door of the modest one-level house that is Turner's home. When she answered, I introduced myself, saying I was an American doing research about a slave ship that had once come to Jamaica. After shaking my hand and asking if I wanted tea, Turner surprised me by immediately criticizing black Americans for calling ourselves "African Americans" instead of simply "black" people. "You're causing problems," she said. "It's segregation. You're starting a kind
of apartheid by separating yourselves. Why are you doing this? Why are you being so divisive?"
I explained that some black people want to identify more closely with our African ancestors and in that spirit, African Americans were not acting divisively but, rather, celebrating our heritage. "It's divisive," she repeated. "It's only going to cause more trouble."
It appeared that Turner and I had gotten off on the wrong foot. I wanted a tour of her estate, so I changed the subject. As we walked, I asked her the size of her "plantation." Another mistake. "This is not a plantation," she said, her voice rising. "This is a farm. That was then, this is now." I walked a bit ahead of her, with a foreman she'd asked to help show me around, but soon it was clear my visit was coming to a close. "Do you need anything else?" she said, her voice quite loud, as we stood atop a small hill overlooking her farm. "I better be getting back to work."
I thanked her and left the property where I was no longer welcome, looking back to watch her employees, Jamaican men and women, sweating in the fields. They work long hours for little pay, some of the workers had told me. Maybe it was unfair, but as I watched I was reminded of the drawings of their ancestors who worked the same land more than 300 years ago, in slavery.
As I was leaving, a man wrinkled with age came up to me. "There's an old Jamaican family that's been around here for years," he said quietly. "There are a lot of them, a large family. They live down the road. "Their name is Fuller." As I approached the one-story white house surrounded by blooming flowers, an old black man, with a mop of white hair and deep lines etched in his forehead, was sitting on the porch. He told me his name was Colin Fuller.
He was 93 years old and lived within walking distance of the Tulloch Estate. "I was born right out back," he said proudly. He spent a lifetime in the fields cutting cane for landowners -- all British nationals. When he was 18 years old, he was hired to harvest the land of the sprawling estate. It was arduous work, often 12 to 14 hours a day, and he got paid about 10 cents per day. On that he managed to raise seven children.
Colin, it turned out, was just one of dozens of Fullers who live in an area known as Bog Walk and in the larger parish of St. Catherine, with its vast banana, citrus and coffee farms. Across the way was his nephew Larkland Fuller, who was also born in Bog Walk, 65 years ago. He, too, worked on the Tulloch Estate for more than 30 years, picking coconuts and carrying bananas from the field. In the end, he quit. He felt
exploited, he said.
Until slavery in Jamaica was abolished in 1838, slaves were given the last names of the men who owned them. If the Tulloch Estate was in fact located on the land of the Knollis plantation owned by Mad Jack Fuller -- as I had been told -- it seemed plausible that Colin Fuller and his many relatives were descendants of those poor souls brought here on the
Henrietta Marie. Although John Fuller did not acquire the Knollis property until 1703, according to the records I had seen, and the Henrietta Marie's captain had sold his cargo of African people at a public auction in 1700, Tattersfield's theory is that many of the 190
slaves from the ship were taken to the Knollis Estate. So when Fuller purchased the property, he also purchased the men, women and children who were working there, enslaved Africans who may have made the passage aboard the Henrietta Marie.
It is possible, of course, that this theory is wrong. I had been researching the Henrietta Marie for nearly four years when I landed on Colin Fuller's doorstep. I had traveled to London, and Africa, and Florida, and Jamaica. But as I looked into his hazel eyes I felt that I had been guided to the first black person somehow associated with that slave ship.
It was clearly time to pay another a visit to the Henrietta Marie itself.
I had been down to see the wreck once before, as part of the group organized by the National Association of Black Scuba Divers to place a memorial plaque on the seabed where the ship had sunk. That had been a particularly emotional, almost mystical, visit.
This time I was with a smaller group, all friends -- historians, archaeologists, a dive buddy -- who were as taken with the Henrietta Marie as I was.
We had arrived at our destination at New Ground Reef in the Florida Keys aboard the 42-foot fishing boat Rattle and Hum. We were planning a dive the next morning to search for the iron box we believed the Henrietta Marie had used to bring back a cache of valuable elephant tusks, some of which Moe Molinar had found in his dive years before. Under a black sky sprinkled with tiny specks of light, I could see the flickering lamps of
shrimp boats in the far distance. I had been on the road on one project or another for three years. I'd been searching for artifacts and documentation, traveling across three continents, interviewing dozens of people and poring over hundreds of documents, and now I had returned to the site of the Henrietta Marie. A tremendous feeling of peacefulness
descended over me.
Just days earlier my wife, Mireille, had walked into our living room with some news: "I'm pregnant!" she said. I had given up on parenthood -- we had both been so busy and so consumed with professional lives. I was overjoyed, even giddy -- and completely terrified.
Drifting in the middle of nowhere and yet more rooted than ever, I sat on the deck of the Rattle and Hum and took in a deep breath of salty sea air, a lung full of fatherhood.
The next morning, sore from a night of being tossed around on slender bunks, we set off. The water was calm and clear; if the box was down there, we should be able to find it. And if we found it, we would know that the structure of the doomed slave ship lay all around us, buried in the sand.
I plunged in with the others and dove to the ocean floor. I could see the concrete monument with its bronze inscription resting right where we had left it more than three years before. I swam around the memorial, touching it gently as if I were seeing it for the first time. And then one of my partners signaled. He was pointing furiously to a rectangular object, covered with algae and tall strands of grass. It was the box -- some 36 inches long, 38 inches wide and 36 inches deep, its lid long gone.
As I descended over it, I could tell that the Henrietta Marie was buried in the sand all around me. I remembered the prior dive, how I had unearthed soggy planks of the Henrietta Marie's wood from three inches under the sand, and how splinters from her savaged hull had pierced my fingers.
For nearly four years, the Henrietta Marie -- this horrible, precious piece of my history -- had nagged at me, haunted me, even pricked my skin under the sea.
It did so, I believe, to remind me to be uplifted, not discouraged, energized, not angry, to force me to remember that I am part of a long line of African people who overcame 300 years of brutality and oppression.
It pricked at my conscience, I think, so that I would remember to tell America, and the world, that it needs an education in the African holocaust to fully understand the racial hostility of today, to say that if there is no attempt to understand this piece of world history then we are doomed never to live in peace.
Everyone needs a special place, a place of peace. This place for me has been 30 feet underwater on the site of a sunken slave ship. New Ground Reef is a spiritual site for me; an underwater refuge of hidden wisdom that shapes my consciousness and soothes my soul; a place where I am never really alone. On the site of the Henrietta Marie, I reaffirmed that the anchor in my life is family. Under a vast ocean, I comforted the souls of my ancestors and prepared to greet the future -- my soon-to-be-born daughter. I hovered over the sands that had safeguarded the shackles of slaves until they could be placed into Moe Molinar's hands, until black divers could come to pay tribute and a black writer could tell the story.
And yet somehow I knew, the knowledge as faint and as clear as the rainbow arching over the Rattle and Hum and across the sky above me, that this was not the end of my journey, but just the beginning.
Michael H. Cottman is a reporter for the Post's Metro section. This article is adapted from his recently published book, "The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie."