Monday, January 12, 2009

The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie

In the summer of 1700, the English merchant-slaver Henrietta Marie sank in unknown circumstances thirty-five miles west of Key West, Florida. Shortly before this mishap, she had sold a shipment of 190 captive Africans in Jamaica.
The shipwreck was first found by Mel Fisher’s divers in 1972 but only partially excavated. Their brief work revealed that it was later than the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which they were searching for, as well as being English. Known as the "English Wreck" for the next ten years, it was not until July of 1983 that divers returned to the site. Archaeologist David Moore went out to study the wreck with Henry Taylor, a salvor who had made an arrangement with Mel to work at the site. They knew that what lay below was not a treasure vessel, but suspected it would be able to make an important contribution to history.The ship was much more important than they hoped. On most ships of the period, one or two sets of iron shackles were carried to punish sailors who might misbehave; the large number found on this site was unusual. Then came an enormous breakthrough - a diver discovered the ship’s bell. The cast bronze bell was heavily encrusted with concreted sand, sediment and coral. When the crew gently chipped this covering away, something remarkable was revealed -- the means to identify the long-lost ship beyond a shadow of a doubt. "THE HENRIETTA MARIE 1699" was etched in block letters on the bell. The identification brought a startling immediacy to the excavation. Once records of Jamaican shipping returns confirmed the vessel’s status as a slaver, the wreck’s significance was apparent - the Henrietta Marie was the earliest slave shipwreck identified by name.

The identification allowed researchers to use historical records to begin reconstructing a little-known passage in American history. Early in the research process, records were uncovered showing that the Henrietta Marie had been a London-based vessel, registered as 120 tons burden. Sturdy and fast, she traveled the infamous triangular trade route favored by the slavers - from England to the Guinea coast, to the Americas, then home again.

Accounts relating to the Henrietta Marie’s voyages were uncovered, as were the names of her investors, captains, and wills of some of her crew members. Artifacts found at the site proved particularly helpful in creating a picture of shipboard life and the practices of the slave trade. (source:


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