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Henrietta Marie

NABS plaque to honor the slaves lost on the Henrietta Marie.
NABS plaque to honor the slaves lost on the Henrietta Marie. (Credit: NABS)

Thirty feet underwater, buried under layers of sand off the coast of Key West, Florida, the 300-year-old slave ship Henrietta Marie tells a story of a painful past.

The Henrietta Marie is the oldest slave ship ever excavated and one of only a handful from American waters. Today, the Henrietta Marie is believed to be the world’s largest source of tangible objects from the early years of the slave trade, including the largest collection of slave-ship shackles ever found on one site.

“She’s a vital piece of history,” said marine archaeologist David Moore, who spent years researching and exploring the Henrietta Marie.

NABS members honor the courage and strength of the slaves from the Henrietta Marie with a 2,700 pound concrete monument.
NABS members honor the courage and strength of the slaves from the Henrietta Marie with a 2,700 pound concrete monument. (Credit: NABS)
The Henrietta Marie was probably built in France, and came into English possession late in the 17th century. It was put to use in the Atlantic slave trade, making at least two voyages carrying Africans to slavery in the West Indies. On its first voyage, in 1697-1698, the ship carried more than 200 people from Africa that were sold as slaves in Barbados.

At 80 feet long and 120 tons, the Henrietta Marie was built for speed. She left London in September 1699, and set a course for Africa's Guinea Coast -- which ran from what is now Sierra Leone to Lagos in Nigeria. It would likely have taken about three months to get there. Up to 15,000 African people were taken from the interior of what is now Nigeria each year during the 1600s and 1700s, and documents show that on at least one trip, the Henrietta Marie filled its hold here.

In 2004, 18 black scuba divers returned to the wreck of the Henrietta Marie to experience an exceptional connection to the past. They boarded a boat in Key West, Fla., cruised out to sea and descended 30 feet into the Gulf of Mexico to explore the scattered wreck of the slave ship that sank 300 years ago.

NABS diver, Dr. José Jones, cleaning off the monument at the wreck site.
NABS diver, Dr. José Jones, cleaning off the monument at the wreck site. (Credit: NABS)
The dive to the wrecked slave ship marked the first of periodic pilgrimages to pay tribute to the enslaved Africans who were chained aboard the Henrietta Marie -- innocent victims of the Atlantic slave trade known as the Middle Passage. The pilgrimage was sponsored by members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (http://www.nabsdivers.org)

After a two-hour ride to New Ground Reef, the divers formed a tight circle, held hands as the boat rocked easily, and were led in prayer by Bill Murrain, a Murrain Associates, Inc. lawyer and a past president of NABS.

“We invite God’s presence to join us as we pay homage to our forefathers whose fateful voyage on the Henrietta Marie through no choice of their own brought us back to this place,” Murrain told the divers. “We stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us to honor their memory and to make this world a better place.”

Michael Cottman’s book, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie.
Michael Cottman’s book, “The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie.” (Credit: Michael Cottman)
Strapping on air tanks, the divers dropped to the ocean floor and swam around the buried wreckage, pausing to read the bronze plaque embedded on a concrete, 3-foot-tall, one-ton monument that was placed near the wreck by black divers in 1993. One of the divers who positioned the monument facing east toward Africa was Dr. José Jones, a marine biologist, co-founder of NABS, and a pioneer in the diving industry. Jones spent 82 minutes underwater scraping away marine growth from the plaque to make it legible.

“As I sat underwater, a reconnection was made with the Henrietta Marie, the enslaved people it carried, and the Henrietta Marie legacy,’’ said Jones, who has logged more than 6,000 dives in 50 countries. He has characterized his exploration of the Henrietta Marie as “the most emotion-filled dive I have ever made.”

Michael Cottman, NABS diver and award-winning journalist, was so inspired that he wrote a book titled, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie.

Jones said the 27 words etched in stone underwater have special meaning for all divers – black and white – who visit the sacred site that symbolizes slavery and survival. The crusted inscription on the bronze plaque reads: “Henrietta Marie: 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.”

 

 
 
 
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