Resources > History > A Slave Ship Speaks

The Henrietta Marie in Perspective

by Dinizulu Gene Tinnie

West AfricaPerhaps 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.

slaveIndeed 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.

shacklesAnd 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.

jugIt 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.