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More about the Henrietta Marie



"Gently Touch the Souls of Our Ancestors": The Tale of the Henrietta Marie


Let me take you on a journey. Be warned: it is a journey filled with pain, suffering and the most disturbing side of human nature. Yet it is also a story of survival and hope. Let me share with you the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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 shop door
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.

Slaves exited here for ships headed to the New World
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.

The inside courtyard where slaves were gathered
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."

Special thanks to Anne-Marie Harvey for her tremendous help with this dispatch!


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Daphne - Sing out strong and loud! I speak Gullah, and I'm proud!
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Irene - "Great Blacks in Wax": a museum that packs a punch
Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
Nick - The rebellion is on!