About this page
This page is locked. Want to contribute to this page? Contact bgill
The oldest slave ship ever excavated
The oldest slave ship ever excavated, wrecked off Florida in 1700, is yielding a multitude of artifacts—and blood-curdling history.She was a British merchant ship employed in cruel commerce, her sweltering hold crammed with human chattel. It was the 18th of May, 1700, and the Henrietta Marie was nearing the coast of Jamaica, her final destination before the long ride back to England. The ship had left Africa with as many as 300 captives sold into slavery by fellow Africans—likely of rival tribes—mostly for iron and copper bars offered by the British crew. Many died along the way; slave-ship mortality averaged 20 percent.
As land appeared on the horizon, Captain Thomas Chamberlain, anxious to conduct business, ordered his crew to prepare the prisoners for arrival. Goaded onto deck, men, women, and children were fed, cleaned, shaved, and oiled, their wounds finally tended, in preparation for sale.
At Port Royal, naked and in chains, slaves went on the auction block. Potential buyers might prod their bellies, poke fingers in their mouths to check their teeth, and even taste their sweat—thought by some to be a gauge of health. By one estimate Henrietta Marie’s cargo grossed well over £3,000 (more than $400,000 today) for the ship’s investors. Most of the captives were headed for sugar plantations where they’d be worked to exhaustion, many dying within five to ten years.
Their fate was not Chamberlain’s concern. Captain and crew weighed anchor in late June and set a homeward course, their ship now packed with New World sugar, cotton, wood, indigo, and leftover trade goods. But storms plagued their exit and the ship foundered on New Ground Reef, 34 miles (55 kilometers) off Key West, Florida. All aboard perished at sea.
It was nearly 300 years before treasure hunters, employed by salvager Mel Fisher, raised the first relics from the wreck. But their passion was gold, and they soon abandoned the slaver to search for richer ships. In the 1980s and ’90s other divers continued the salvage as scientists began conserving the rescued items. Today those scientists are in the water, examining the ship’s fragile hull and coaxing the last artifacts from the sand. Their work is key: Henrietta Marie is the oldest slaver ever excavated and one of only a handful from American waters. Says marine archaeologist David Moore, “She’s a vital piece of history.”
The Ghosts of the Henrietta Marie
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."
Pewter was the unbreakable dinnerware of the time. It was also recyclable, and when styles changed owners could bring back their old plates and have new ones made. One of the investors in the Henrietta Marie was Thomas Winchombe, a pewter manufacturer. His portion of the investment included pewter tankards, bowls, basins and plates. Pewter wares were used by the crew and captain for eating and drinking, and were popular trade items with African royalty.
Black Scuba Divers
In May of 1993, the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers placed a memorial plaque on the site of the Henrietta Marie.
The plaque faces the African shore thousands of miles away, and has the name of the slave ship and reads, “In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors." Dr. Colin Palmer stated, "the story ends in 1700 for this particular ship, but the story of what the ship represented continues today," he says. "The importance of the Henrietta Marie is that she is an essential part of recovering the black experience - symbolically, metaphorically and in reality"
Slave Ship Henrietta Marie, 1699
The Henrietta Marie in Perspective
by Dinizulu Gene Tinnie
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of studying a phenomenon like the Atlantic "slave trade," as it was known, is the realization that such developments are not as monolithic and constant as even their vast scope, verifiable statistics, and widely recognized patterns might suggest. It can be easily overlooked, in examining a phenomenon that endured for more than four centuries, involving tens of millions of individuals, that it is in fact a story of individuals: each person, each voyage, each ship has a different story to tell, a different - but definite - impact on history.
Indeed it is because of this realization that the term "slave trade" is placed in quotation marks above. Despite the wishful thinking and rhetoric of its practitioners, despite the numerous cargo manifests attesting to the non-human nature of the chained captives packed into the ships' holds, this was not a commerce in passive, docile "slaves" but in living human beings, with families, knowledge, skills, responsibilities, dreams and aspirations no less legitimate than those of any other human beings. Nor could such a commerce, which could only be carried out through routine aggression, systematic murder and kidnapping, rampant destruction and corruption, be called "trade" in any legitimate sense of that term, which suggests a fair and equal exchange.
And this same appreciation of the individuality and humanity of each African woman, man and child that was swept into the vortex of the Middle Passage, must extend to the non-African participants as well: the coastal slave dealers and officials, the builders and garrisons of the trading forts, the crews and officers of the ships, the outfitters and makers of the shackles, chains and instruments of torture, the buyers in the Americas, the shipowners and financiers, the opponents and voices of abolitionism - ultimately whole nations of individuals being transformed economically, socially and spiritually by the products, profits and demands of the lucrative enslavement enterprise.
It is therefore too simple to indict "the British," the French," "the Dutch," "the Spaniards," "the Jews," "the Muslims," "the Africans," or anyone else as a single nation or "race" for this massive violation of humanity in the name of profit. Rather, this enterprise was the doing of individuals, each accountable for his or her part within it, just as we are each individually accountable for our part in maintaining or destroying the negative legacy that this horrific chapter of our shared history has bequeathed us.
It is our need to understand the Middle Passage in such human terms, rather than as mere diagrams, words and numbers, that makes the artifacts from the wreck of the Henrietta Marie so valuable and important. For here, through the mute evidence of iron shackles, weaponry, beads and other trade items, pewter ware still with knife marks made by the crew, parts of the ship herself, we not only make tangible contact with an actual ship and with actual people whose lives and destinies were indelibly altered by this one specific voyage across the Atlantic, but we are also led into the complete story of a single vessel that, while unique, was also typical and revealing in so many respects of the times and historical forces that dictated her - and the world's - fate.
Dinizulu Gene Tinnie is Adjunct Professor, MDCC, and President of the African American Caribbean Cultural Arts Commission, Inc.
"Gently Touch the Souls of Our Ancestors":
First, get on your scuba gear and come with me to take a dive into the waters off the coast of Key West, Florida. You are a treasure hunter, looking for the wreck of a Spanish galleon that sunk hundreds of years ago, filled with gold, silver and $400 million in jewels. You think you see something promising about 30 feet under the water, so you go down to get it, feeling your way around the ocean floor until the object is solidly in your hands. But instead of gold or silver, you have in your hands a rusty piece of iron. You stare for a moment before you realize that you are holding a pair of shackles -- shackles that were used to bind wrists just like your own.
This is just what happened in 1972 when a scuba diver named Moe Molinar went searching for jewels and instead discovered something grim and terrible. Further dives and research determined that this wreck was actually a kind of historical treasure: the Henrietta Marie, an English slave ship that sunk off the coast of the Florida Keys in June 1700.
The Henrietta Marie is part of something larger - it is a remnant of the triangular trading system in which Europeans brought goods to Africa, traded them for African people, and sold those people as slaves in the Americas. In turn, Africans laboring as slaves, particularly in farming, produced much of the tremendous wealth of the New World. This trade went on from the 1500s until the late 1800s, and as many as 50 million Africans were sold in the Caribbean and the United States. Millions more died en route to the Americas.
Michael Cottman, an African American journalist and diver, first visited the wreck of the Henrietta Marie in 1992. He was so impassioned by his dive that he decided to trace the triangular trade on the three continents where it occurred and write about his own journey in a book called The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie.
One of the hardest parts of learning and thinking about such terrible practices as the European trade in African slaves is trying to imagine how anyone could treat people so cruelly. Cottman writes that seeing the wreck of the Henrietta Marie made him direct his anger about slavery by pursuing its history: "It did so, I believe, to remind me to be uplifted, not discouraged. . . 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 could 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 to never live in peace."
Let us, too, go back three centuries in time with Cottman and follow the path of the Henrietta Marie.
We start on a wharf on the Thames River in England, where the ship begins its journey, stocked for the voyage. Before it leaves port, the ship is loaded with such goods as iron bars, glass beads and pewterware to trade for humans in Africa. There are also chains, iron collars and shackles to bind the necks, wrists, and ankles of these people.
Next, we go to an infamous trading center at Goree Island off the coast of what is now Senegal, West Africa. While I was still just an amateur trekker, before joining the Odyssey, I spent a summer in Senegal and paid a visit to Goree. I am getting chills as I write this, for I remember how powerful it was to see the only original slavehouse that still exists on the island. I have been inside small and confining rooms where imprisoned Africans were shackled for days or months with little food or water before being loaded onto slave ships bound for the Americas. The cells seemed so heavy and constricting -- and yet I was the only person in the room, while the imprisoned Africans were brutally crowded. Plus, I had the luxury and freedom of being able to turn around and walk outside.
Imagine that you are an African child, captured from your home by an African slave trader and separated from your family. You are marched through Africa for months and taken to the coast, to Goree, to await your fate in one of these dusty rooms, cramped with so many others who share your misfortune.
Outside the cells, there is an opening marked "La Porte de Voyage sans Retour," or the Door of No Return. Right now, if you look through it, all you see is miles and miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Usually, I love being around water and find that vast expanses of ocean are both soothing and invigorating. But I know that at this place, millions of Africans were dragged from their homelands and families, never to set foot on African soil again. This time the ocean is not a symbol of freedom and life, but a powerful reminder of a voyage that caused so much suffering. It is one of the saddest sights I have ever seen.
Yet, as Michael Cottman writes, Goree is not only a place 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 remember that we are descendants of kings and poets and traders and astronomers."
From Goree, the Henrietta Marie would have embarked on the Middle Passage, the terrible journey from Africa to the Americas. The conditions aboard slave ships were unspeakably horrible. People were packed together below decks, often without room to even sit up. Men were shackled together, and women were often raped by the crew. In the filthy conditions, diseases spread quickly, and as many as half the Africans on any ship might die. Others committed suicide by jumping overboard.
When we were learning about English colonization, Becky and I visited replicas of ships that crossed the Atlantic earlier in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was struck by the conditions in which the colonists had to travel: crowded conditions made worse by the stench of urine and maggots in the food. Yet the colonists had a choice; they had their freedom. I try to magnify and multiply these unfavorable conditions infinitely in my head, to think of shackles and beatings, to imagine a complete disrespect for life. I try to think of what it was like for the Africans who were forced into this journey.
And yet as I sit here in this coffee shop with my laptop, there is no way for me to truly comprehend. No matter how many words I read or sites I visit there is no way for me to understand completely the horrors of the slave trade. We must continue to learn, though, and find out as much as we can. We must acknowledge the horror, as well as the strength of those who survived.
So come with me again, to the next stop for the Henrietta Marie -- Port Royal, Jamaica, where 190 Africans are dropped off. Here the Africans are washed, shaved, oiled and branded with the initials H-M in preparation for their sale. An auction is held, and each is sold to the highest bidder, most likely to work on the sugar plantations of the region. These Africans, including 40 children, have survived the passage. The transatlantic journey, however, is only the beginning of their suffering.
Leaving the Africans in Jamaica, the Henrietta Marie continues, embarking on the return voyage to England. In the dangerous waters near Key West, the ship is hit by a powerful storm, and it cracks apart and sinks to the ocean floor. There it sits for hundreds of years, until Molinar's discovery and historical work by people such as Michael Cottman.
Now we are back to present day. Becky and I visit the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Key West, where artifacts from the Henrietta Marie have been preserved and displayed. We see the shackles. Some shackles are so small, they could only have been meant for a child. It is gut-wrenching.
Come down for one more dive into these waters. Now that the full scope of what this wreck represents has become clear, the emotion of making such a dive is overwhelming. You almost want to avert your eyes. But instead, look closely. Do you see that plaque? It's over there, on the site where the shackles and other grim artifacts were originally found. At five by five feet in size and one ton in weight, it's hard to miss. It was placed there in 1993 by the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers.
"In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors."
The rookie scuba diver from Nashville, Tennessee had just spent 20 minutes beneath the Gulf of Mexico exploring the site of a sunken slave ship and paused to offer a quiet reflection after climbing back aboard the Sea Eagle.
"This dive is not like the others," Tillman said last week as he peeled off his wet suit. "This dive gives me something to think about."
Tillman was one of 10 young people from Tennessee and Ohio who made history by taking a 40-mile boat ride from Key West to New Ground Reef to dive the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, a 17th Century slave ship that sank 300 years ago.
Archeologists now believe the Henrietta Marie has yielded more than 22,000 artifacts, the largest collection of tangible objects representing the early African slave trade.
Last week, the youngest certified scuba divers to explore the slave-ship wreck, strapped on air tanks, stepped off the dive boat, and descended 25 feet into history.
"I thought about the past," said Chris Cannon, 16, from Nashville. "How they were packed into slave ships like sardines; how they were helpless in chains. It wasn't fair. And I realized how they sacrificed their lives. When you close your eyes, it touches your heart."
"This was a spirit dive," said Marcus Johnson, 16, from Nashville. "We feel it. And we need to be thankful."
Underwater, where buried planks of wood from 1700 still hold painful reminders of the African slave trade, Johnson had more questions than answers.
"I asked myself would I have been strong enough to deal with slavery? he said. "I don't know."
The highlight of their experience, the young divers told BlackAmericaWeb.com, was reading the inscription on the one-ton monument that was placed near the wreck in 1993 by members of The National Association of Black Scuba Divers, (NABS) which included this writer.
The monument was placed facing east toward Africa to pay homage to generations of African people who died in the lower decks of the Henrietta Marie, to those who perished on other slave ships during the Middle Passage, and to others who drowned in the sea.
One of the divers who positioned the monument underwater was Dr. Jose Jones, an internationally renown marine biologist, co-founder of NABS, and a pioneer in the diving industry. Last week, Tillman, and other young divers who ranged from 11 to 19 years of age, helped Jones scrape marine growth off the plaque and clean the lettering.
"Henrietta Marie: In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people," the inscription on the monument reads. "Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors."
Tillman said the memorial moved him to rest on his knees.
"I said a prayer in front of the monument," said Tillman, who became the youngest certified scuba diver to dive the Henrietta Marie site since it was discovered in 1972. "I hope they come to peace with their death. I'm glad I was there. It was a good spiritual experience."
Enslaved Africans did not actually die aboard the Henrietta Marie when it sank during a storm in 1700. They were off-loaded and sold on auctions blocks in Jamaica weeks earlier. In fact, of the 190 African people aboard the Henrietta Marie, there were 90 men, 60 women, 30 boys and 10 girls. According to historians, many Africans died aboard the Henrietta Marie or perished deep in the Atlantic during the ship's sailing years.Thirty-three years ago, divers recovered 80 pair of iron shackles from the site, including tiny shackles -- weighing about one pound each %u2013 that were designed for children.
"I had a lot of feelings underwater," said Sabrina Williams, 19, from Nashville. "[The monument] made me think about my ancestors and about slavery."
The 10-hour pilgrimage to New Ground Reef was sponsored by Ken Stewart, co-founder of the Tennessee Aquatic Project, (TAP) a Nashville-based, non-profit community program that offers scuba diving instruction, but also focuses heavily on education, discipline, self-esteem and black history.Stewart said he planned last week's trip to coincide with the commemoration of the annual "Juneteenth" celebration %u2013 when on June 19th, 1865, Union Soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas spreading the message that the slaves were free. Though it marked a turning point, the news came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Only students who are excelling in their school work were allowed to make the trip to Key West.
Stewart co-founded TAP 12 years ago, he said, because many black young people do not have opportunities to learn about marine science and underwater archeology.
A longtime NABS member, Stewart pointed out that the weather forecast for last week's journey called for heavy rains and choppy seas. Hours before the scheduled dive, Stewart considered postponing the trip, fearing for the safety of the young people.
But heading out to sea over white-capped waves and rain, dark clouds gave way to sunshine, and the strong currents that churned under the boat, suddenly subsided.
"The ancestors were waiting for our children," Stewart said. "This dive was in God's hands."
Stewart said each of the TAP members are strong swimmers and lifeguards, and are also taught to respect others and always have steadfast faith. Most of Stewart's young people are either in college, on their way to college, or preparing for college.
"We stress education," he said, "because there is greatness in these children."
Stewart said the slave-ship dive also coincided with the NABS Youth Summit, which was held last week in Key Largo, Florida. The young divers from Cincinnati who participated in the events were part of a 22-year-old non-profit program that combines youth ministry, Bible study and scuba diving for black youth.
Several NABS members said it's important for the organization to continue its youth outreach efforts across the country. The goal, they said, is to offer young people unique opportunities in marine science, oceanography and history while also assisting single parents.
(Our dive boat, the Sea Eagle, also has an extraordinary history in Key West. She has received 11 awards from the U.S. Coast Guard for rescue missions during the "Freedom Flotilla" of 1980 when thousands of Cuban refugees fled Cuba in makeshift rafts for the shores of Key West and freedom in America.)
Malcom told the young people last week that archeology is a challenging and rewarding profession, though not exactly lucrative. Malcom said he is presently working on multiple shipwreck projects and enjoys the rich history that he often uncovers.
"You have to love it," he said. "We worked on the Henrietta Marie for years. It's a job where you can spend a lifetime researching one ship."
The Henrietta Marie wreck was first discovered by accident in the summer of 1972 by a treasure salvaging company owned by the late Mel Fisher, a flamboyant and well-known treasure hunter. One of the divers who originally discovered shackles from the wreck was Moe Molinar, an underwater treasure hunter.
Molinar, who was born in Panama, was the only black diver working for the company. The last black men to touch the slave ship shackles had been bound by them and packed into the lower decks of the Henrietta Marie. Centuries later, one of the first people to touch those same shackles was a free black man -- Molinar.And last week, for the first time ever, young certified scuba divers followed Molinar's lead and visited the site of the Henrietta Marie for themselves %u2013 black underwater explorers of their generation.
As the Sea Eagle pulled away from New Ground Reef , the young divers stood at the back of the boat, whispered their thoughts, and tossed long-stemmed flowers into the sea to honor their African forefathers whose names they will never know.
"Our generation does care," said Marcus Johnson. "Slavery has relevance but nobody has taken the time to teach us."
By: Michael H. Cottman
Olaudah Equiano~on the Middle Passage
When I looked around the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.
Equiano’s narrative shows a vivid picture of how life on a slave ship like the Henrietta Marie was hell. Equiano describes how the men and women were chained together and crammed into the hold of the ship. The smell that assaulted Equiano made him sick. When Equiano wouldn’t eat because of the sickness he endured, his captors would flog him. Also, if some of the slaves were to try to escape or to kill themselves to end their suffering, they were cut severely. Equiano describes the condition best,
The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us ... This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (25)
Luckily for Equiano, he made it through this journey alive. Many of the people that were on the slave ship with him died unnecessarily.
The last voyage that the Henrietta Marie made, no one survived. The ship got caught in a storm and went down, along with the many innocent African slaves chained together in a cramped space in the hold of the ship.