HISTORICAL MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN FLORIDA

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A Slave Ship Speaks
The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie

by Dinizulu Gene Tinnie

shipIn 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.

tuskOne 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.

bellIndeed, 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.

plaqueIn 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.

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