Freedom Shackled on the Slaveship Henrietta Marie
By: John Shepler
Behind the black curtain, there are voices. They are African voices of different dialects, each with an invitation to share a personal story. Step through the curtain and it becomes clear that these are the voices of ghosts. Their words echo through the cramped quarters that are a recreation of the cargo hold of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship. Yet there are no people to be found. Only black mannequins of men laying on their sides. They are bound in chains and stuffed on top of and beneath wooden shelves, shelves like you might use to store possessions for later use. Indeed this is how they were assessed. Possessions, articles of barter, stowed and secured for delivery to market.
The history books we're taught from have sanitized the horror out of the merchant slave business. It's all so matter of fact. The wealthy merchants of Europe loaded their wooden sailing ships with pewter bowls and mugs, glass beads, linen, iron bars, and sometimes muskets. They launched their investments toward the Ivory Coast of West Africa, where powerful tribal chiefs unloaded those goods and replaced them with ivory, gold and the spoils of war...human captives. From there those ships sailed to the West Indies, near America, once again unloading the human and material cargo and reloading with refined sugar, coffee and cocoa, before setting sail on the trip back to Europe. It was referred to in polite company as the triangular trade route. It is more correctly the transatlantic slave route.
To gain any emotional understanding of that experience, one needs to be taken back there and dropped into the midst of what occurred. One needs to listen to the ghosts, as they tell their stories. You hear their words being spoken. You read the documents and study the drawings. You touch the shackles that bound their arms and legs, even try them on as some young black boys do to sense what it was really like for their ancestors. What was it really like? It was a holocaust that lasted for 350 years.
Imagine yourself a proud tribal warrior on the continent of Africa in 1699. Your pride and happiness come from a life of honor in loving and caring for your family, protecting your tribe and celebrating your ancestors and the great spirits who look after you. Your world is one day shattered without warning in a pitched battle with an aggressor tribe, but you are not killed. Your hell on earth has just begun as you are bound and dragged away to a distant port, held with hundreds and thousands of others in a wretched prison and finally thrown brutally into the cramped hold of a dark wooden vessel. Some of your companions crack under the strain. They dive off the ship in a desperate attempt to avoid the fate that has been whispered through the ranks. You are food for a distant people. You will be killed and eaten one day.
As the ship rocks and pitches through the waves for weeks on end, the stresses take their toll. Some die of a broken heart, giving up all hope of ever seeing Africa or their loved ones again. Others expire from malnutrition, the intense atmosphere of human waste and the diseases that pass in lightning speed from one naked body pressed up against another. At times, the mortality is as high as 50%. Your chances of even standing on land again are no better than a coin's flip. And to those in charge, this is OK. They buy a man or woman for a few pounds and sell them for two or three times that. When the wastage is accounted for, there is still gold on the table.
For centuries they got away with it. From generation to generation, the conspiracy of trading manufactured goods for humans, and then for refined materials worked by those humans, passed unchecked. The elite invested their money and goods as they would in speculation today. The warring tribes were all too happy to cash in troublesome captives for the luxuries of European civilization. Monarchs, clergy and people just like you and me turned a deaf ear to the cries for abolition or the screams of fellow humans writhing in pain. Ironically, the Declaration of Independence was signed in the United States by those who demanded freedom for themselves but enslaved others. In the end, it was more the changing marketplace of the industrial age that abolished slavery by making it obsolete than mankind coming to its moral senses.
Yet the ghosts will not rest until their voices are heard and their anguish validated. They come back to us in movies such as Amistad, the story of a mutiny on one such slave ship and their trials up to the Supreme Court. They come to us from the sea, as Mel Fisher searched for pirate's treasure and instead found the Henrietta Marie, quietly waiting where she perished off the Florida Keys in 1700, her human cargo already enslaved in the Caribbean. The greenish lettering of her ship's bell, the remains of her cargo and still-intact iron shackles gave her away. The physical evidence is there for us to touch.
Books of Interest:
The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African-American's Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship's Past by Michael H. Cottman, Designed by Lenny Henderson. In telling the story of the salvage of the slave ship, this gripping book takes the historical abstraction of the African slave trade and charges it with the immediacy of warm flesh and cold iron. 16-page photo insert.
Slave Ship: The Story of the Henrietta Marie by George Sullivan. In an especially good book for students, George Sullivan provides a history of the slave trade, talks about how the Henrietta Marie was discovered, and discusses the details of salvaging treasures that have been under water for hundreds of years. There are many maps, pictures and illustrations to bring the story to life.
The Middle Passage, White Ships/Black Cargo by Tom Feelings; John Henrik Clarke.The Middle Passage is the name given to one of the most tragic ordeals in history: the cruel and terrifying journey of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. In this seminal work, master artist Tom Feelings tells the complete story of this horrific diaspora in sixty-four extraordinary narrative paintings. Achingly real, they draw us into the lives of the millions of African men, women, and children who were savagely torn from their beautiful homelands, crowded into disease-ridden "death ships", and transported under nightmarish conditions to the so-called New World. An introduction by noted historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke traces the roots of the Atlantic slave trade and gives a vivid summary of its four centuries of brutality. The Middle Passage reaches us on a visceral level. No one can experience it and remain unmoved. But while we absorb the horror of these images, we also can find some hope in them. They are a tribute to the survival of the human spirit, and the humanity won by the survivors of the Middle Passage belongs to us all.
Spirit Dive, An African-American's Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship's Past by Michael H. Cottman. A powerful and compelling testament of one man's attempt to make sense of the history of his ancestors, chronicling his journey while confronting questions with no answers and striving for reconciliation with his homeland's past and his own country's future.
Expedition Whydah; The Story of the World's First Excavation of a Pirate Treasure Ship and the Man Who Found Her by Barry Clifford, Paul Perry. Two great stories in one big book. Business, adventure, and ghosts: from a writer's point of view, this book has everything. Which means, of course, that it has everything from a reader's point of view, too. This is a story of obsession, that of a modern day explorer named Barry Clifford and an 18th-century pirate named 'Black' Sam Bellamy. Bellamy crashed his pirate ship, the Whydah, on the sandy shores of Cape Cod in April of 1717. At least 146 pirates were killed in that crash, along with the booty from 50 ships. Such a crash would have been a heyday for the residents of the impoverished Cape had they been able to reach the capsized vessel. Unfortunately for them, the storm prevented any kind of salvage, and they could only watch in frustration as the ship filled with treasure sank into the voracious sands of the Cape. Shortly it disappeared and people forgot exactly where it had sunk. Eventually it became a legend, like so many other 'lost gold' legends around the world....Enter Barry Clifford. It is 266 years later and he is telling Walter Cronkite the story of 'Black' Sam Bellamy at a Thanksgiving get together at writer William Styron's house. 'Why don't you look for the Whydah?' asks Cronkite. And Barry does. Through an exciting process of discovery, he finds the Whydah.
Slave Ship Guerrero by Gail Swanson. A Florida Keys historian writes about the wrecking of a laden (561 Africans in the hold) Spanish slave ship wrecking off Key Largo in 1827 while being pursued by a British warship, HBM (His Britannic Majesty's) schooner Nimble.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
A Slave Ship Speaks - Tour schedule and information for the Henrietta Marie exhibit, through August 22, 1999. I visited the exhibit when it appeared at Midway Village in Rockford, IL.
Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829 - Discover what it was like to actually be on aboard one of the slave ships. Diagrams included.
Records of Slave Ship Movement - Information on slave ship movement between Africa and the Americas from 1817-1843
Florida Keys Black History - Historian and author of the book "Slave Ship Guerrero" Gail Swanson has researched the history of slave ships in the Florida Keys.
Copyright 1998 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: July 4, 1998 as part of A Positive Light