A Slave Ship Speaks
The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie
by Dinizulu Gene Tinnie
In 1972, as famed treasure
hunter Mel Fisher and his company diligently searched the waters off Florida's
southernmost tip for the legendary sunken Spanish galleon Nuestra
Señora de Atocha with her bounteous trove of silver, gold
and jewels, their determined quest brought them to a moment in history
full of suspense, possibilities and promise.
As they traversed a place called New Ground Reef, off the Marquesas Keys,
some 36 miles from Key West, their sophisticated search equipment revealed
something on the sea floor, about thirty feet below the surface, clearly
the remains of a sunken ship. Could this be "the day"? Soon enough they
would learn that this was not the Atocha, but that they had come
upon a treasure of another kind, arguably even more valuable.
One of the first
items to be brought up from the wreck - an ivory tusk - virtually said
it all: this ship had been to Africa. And that could mean but one thing.
All suspicions were confirmed as other objects surfaced, unmistakable
among them despite nearly three centuries of seaborne encrustation, the
haunting, ominous shapes of iron shackles. A slave ship had been found.
Although it was not realized at the time, this find would be destined
for widespread notoriety, as a symbol and embodiment of a troubled yet
precious heritage. It would be the first (and, thus far, only) slave ship
wreck in North American waters to be seriously studied, thanks in large
part to individuals like diver Tony Kopp and, later, diver/archaeologist
David Moore, whose tireless research led to the identification of the
vessel and to the story of her ill-fated voyage.
Indeed, Moore's work is the
very reason and basis for most of this exhibition. It was he who discovered
the ship's cast bronze bell at the wreck site. As the encrusted deposits
were carefully removed from it, a name and date were revealed in raised
letters: "THE HENRIETTA MARIE 1699."
Now the scant remains of the ship and all the bits and pieces found at
the site took on a real life and meaning. Now, with an actual name and
date, documents could be searched that would tell of the ship's original
size and shape, her owners and crew, her cargo, and her voyage to New
Calabar on the African Coast, from which she transported Igbo captives
to Jamaica, before meeting her end in a storm as she turned homeward through
the Florida Strait in 1701.
In 1993, as
Moore's research continued apace and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage
Society meticulously assembled and prepared the artifacts from the site
for this touring exhibition, the Henrietta Marie made her true entry into
the national (and international) consciousness. The occasion was the ceremonial
placement of an underwater plaque and monument at the wreck site by the
National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), the culmination of
a formidable organizing and fundraising effort yielding valuable alliances,
international news coverage, numerous articles and commentaries, at least
two books and several film projects.
The Henrietta Marie symbolizes in many ways the beginning of America's
long-awaited coming to terms with a national trauma, an invitation for
our collective healing to proceed. Her sparse remains and history-laden
artifacts confront us squarely with the tangible evidence of a past which
can be neither changed nor denied. But from such a confrontation comes
knowledge, and with knowledge comes the power to shape our present and
future so as not to repeat the errors and misdeeds of our past. Though
her mission was born of greed and driven by the dark forces of corruption,
ignorance and fear, the Henrietta Marie has reemerged in our time as a
beacon of hope. Hers is a story that must be told.