Thursday, September 09, 2004


Black Scuba Divers Visit Sunken Slave Ship "Henrietta Marie" off Fla. Coast


Date: Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Eighteen black scuba divers boarded a boat in Key West, Fla. last week, cruised out to sea and descended 25 feet into the Gulf of Mexico to explore the scattered wreck of a 17th Century slave ship that sank 300 years ago.

The dive to the wreck of the Henrietta Marie slave ship marks the first of what will become an annual pilgrimage 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.

After a two-hour ride to New Ground Reef, the divers that included this writer formed a tight circle, held hands as the boat rocked easily, and were led in prayer by Bill Murrain, a health-care administrator from Atlanta 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, that included a representative from “We stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us to honor their memory and to make this world a better place.”

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.

The inscription on the 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.”

One of the divers who positioned the monument facing east toward Africa in 1993 was Jose Jones, a marine biologist, co-founder of NABS, and a pioneer in the diving industry. Last week, 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.”

Enslaved Africans did not actually die aboard the Henrietta Marie when it sank during a storm in 1700. They were off-loaded and sold on auctions blocks in Jamaica weeks earlier. In fact, of the 190 African people aboard the Henrietta Marie, there were 90 men, 60 women, 30 boys and 10 girls. According to historians, many Africans died aboard the Henrietta Marie or perished deep in the Atlantic during the ship‘s sailing years.

“There was a spiritual linkage here,” said Pamela K. McField, a nurse from Los Angeles who traces her linage back to the Honduras in the 1500s. “I needed to make this pilgrimage. This spiritual connection made my voyage to the Henrietta Marie necessary and the connection was forceful.”

She added: “I felt tears rolling down my cheeks and yet I felt uplifted and encouraged. A sense of comfort overcame me. My ancestor’s eyes were watching.”

The membership of NABS is made up of black professionals representing a range of interests and occupations. Today, half of all NABS members are women.There are 53 NABS clubs across America, and clubs in Africa, Belize and Cuba.
“This experience will go down as one of the most awesome experiences of my life,” said Ruth Cauthen, a dentist from Virginia Beach, Va.

Cauthen said her feelings diving on the wreck of the Henrietta Marie were perhaps similar to Jews, who are often reminded of the suffering their families endured as a result of the holocaust.

“I only wish that our history was documented as well as the concentration camps were documented so more people would be truly aware of the atrocities that occurred during the Middle Passage and the slave trade,’’ she said.
Archeologists now believe the Henrietta Marie has yielded more than 22,000 artifacts, including nearly 100 pair of iron shackles, the largest collection of slave ship shackles ever found on one site, and more than 15,000 multi-colored glass beads, used by Europeans to trade for African people along the coast of West Africa. The artifacts represent the largest collection of tangible objects from the 17th Century slave trade.

Included in the shackles recovered from the site were tiny shackles -- about one pound each -- that fit into the palm of a hand, shackles designed for children.

The wreck was first discovered in the summer of 1972 by a treasure salvaging company. One of the divers who originally discovered shackles from the wreck was Moe Molinar, a longtime underwater treasure hunter.
Molinar, who was born in Panama, was the only black diver working for the company. The last black men to touch the slave ship shackles had been bound by them and packed into the lower decks of the ship. Centuries later, one of the first people to touch those same shackles was another black man -- Molinar.

“This past weekend I rediscovered history,” said Erik Denson, an Orlando, Fla.-based engineer with NASA and a NABS member. “The truth must be told so that history does not repeat itself. The story must be told so our ancestors can truly rest.’’

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