Finding Sanctuary

A search to uncover a slave ship's past leads to a writer's spiritual awakening

By Michael Cottman

February 2020

michael cottman
Photo courtesy of Michael Cottman

In 1992, journalist and author Michael Cottman was part of a group from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers who placed a memorial plaque on the seabed where the slave ship Henrietta Marie sunk in June 1700, waters now part of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In this excerpt adapted from his book, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie, Cottman reflects on the significance of the shipwreck and its place in African American history.

The call that beckoned me underwater to a ship of splintered wood and smothered souls didn’t come from the telephone: It came from the sea.

It echoed from a thrashing surf 7,000 miles away on the African continent; a sea that raged from the banks of the Niger River, flowing into the mouth of the Old Calabar River, the Bight of Biafra, and the streams of Sierra Leone, racing along the Ivory Coast, slamming the jagged jetties of the Caribbean Sea and spilling into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, the place our pilgrimage.

It was a punishing sea that left a nation of African bodies in its wake. It was a sea that snatched black children from the arms of their mothers, fathers from their sons, husbands from their wives. It was a sea that silenced a generation of black heartbeats.

It was – and is – a sea that never sleeps; a sea that spits swells; a sea that always stares back no matter from which direction you approach it; a sea with no back door.

a diver at the henrietta marie memorial plaque
A memorial plaque honors the enslaved African people who were transported across the Atlantic on Henrietta Marie. Photo courtesy of Michael Cottman

After I made that 1992 dive, I couldn't get the Henrietta Marie out of my head. I learned it had begun its dreadful voyage in London, sailed to West Africa and then on to Jamaica to disgorge its human cargo before sinking. The Henrietta Marie became my window for understanding how millions of black people could have been enslaved and treated so badly, how these atrocities happened and what lessons we could learn – as blacks and whites – from this buried ship.

Here was a rare opportunity – to visit the waterways where it had sailed, to give names and personal histories to faceless slave traders, and, ultimately, pay homage to the suffering and courage of my ancestors. Because of slavery, it is nearly impossible for African Americans to pinpoint the origins of our ancestors. We cannot identify a country in Africa where they were born, let alone a city or village. We can only know they came from somewhere on the west coast of the enormous continent. Are my people Ibo from Nigeria, or Fulani from Mali, or Wolof from Senegal, or Ashanti from Ghana? I will never know. What is important is not necessarily my quest for answers, but my appreciation for their culture – my culture, too – and my need to draw strength from those who came before me and survived.

Similarly, African Americans rarely get a chance to find a name, locate a person, or trace the history of someone who can be held responsible, somehow, for that black genocide. I had found a place to direct my questions – and my anger. The Henrietta Marie gave me the opportunity to curse and scream for the Africans who had died without the chance to curse and scream at someone themselves. I set out on what became an extraordinary odyssey, following a route set centuries before.

From the 1500s to the 1700s, as many as 15 million Africans were brought in chains to the West Indies and the United States – up to 6 million others died en route. The first stop for many of them was Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, according to historians. There, they were crammed into raw, airless stone chambers for up to three months, shackled by the neck and ankles, given European names and routinely flogged, raped, even murdered. The ones who survived were dragged through the "Door of No Return," a passageway leading directly onto the slavers' vessels. It was the last thing they would see or touch of their homelands or, in many cases, their families.

goree island
Enslaved Africans were brought to Goree Island off Senegal before being transported to North America. Photo: Justin Pyle/USAF

Today, only one slave house, built in 1526, is left on that rocky island, preserved as a monument to the process that forever cut off African Americans from their roots. Goree Island is a compelling place for African Americans: a site of pain but also survival. There is an extraordinary energy on it that forces black people to take a journey back in time, to cry, to release themselves to the calling from within, to give in to a hidden power, to remember that we are descendants of kings and poets and traders and astronomers.

On May 18, 1700, the enslaved Africans filed off the Henrietta Marie into Port Royal, Jamaica, according to records from the time. Squinting in the bright sunlight after so many months below, their muscles tight and sore from more than three months of lying on their sides, they were delivered to Jamaica nude and branded with the initials H-M – branding was standard practice for all slavers. The next day, they were herded into the square at Port Royal and auctioned off to the highest bidder. His work done, Capt. Thomas Chamberlaine set a course for England a few weeks later. He sailed out of Port Royal harbor and onto a northwestward route, which would take the ship past the Cayman Islands, around Cuba's Cape San Antonio, and eventually into the treacherous stretch of water between the Tortugas and Marquesas Keys off the coast of Florida.

drawing of henrietta marie
Henrietta Marie was a slave ship that carried enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage. Image courtesy of David Moore/North Carolina Maritime Museum

It was there, in the Florida Strait at the end of June 1700, that the Henrietta Marie was blindsided by powerful winds. According to British historian Nigel Tattersfield, the ship dropped its anchors in a frantic effort to ride out the sudden hurricane. But the wind was too much. Wood was ripped from the decks, splintering into the sea. The Henrietta Marie's massive mainmast cracked like a twig. Chamberlaine and his crew, about a dozen men in all, were washed over the side of the sinking ship, swallowed up by the raging force of nature.

I came to see the Henrietta Marie's end as a reckoning of sorts: slavers dying a violent death, buried in the same seas where so many African men and women met their deaths. They drowned, surrounded by the chains and shackles, manacles and leg irons that were their stock in trade.

It was clearly time to pay another visit to the Henrietta Marie. I was with a smaller group, all friends – historians, archaeologists, a dive buddy – who were as taken with the Henrietta Marie as I was. We had arrived at our destination at New Ground Reef in the Florida Keys aboard the 42-foot fishing boat Rattle and Hum. We were planning a dive the next morning to search for the iron box we believed the Henrietta Marie had used to bring back a cache of valuable elephant tusks, some of which famed African-American diver Moe Molinar had found in his dive years before. If we found it, we would know that the structure of the doomed slave ship lay all around us, buried in the sand.

henrietta marie's ship's bell
Henrietta Marie’s ship's bell. Photo: David Moore/SlaveryImages.Org

A tremendous feeling of peacefulness descended over me. I plunged in with the others and dove to the ocean floor. I could see the concrete monument with its bronze inscription resting right where we had left it years before. I swam around the memorial, touching it gently as if I were seeing it for the first time. And then one of my partners signaled. He was pointing furiously to a rectangular object, covered with algae and tall strands of grass. I couldn’t see it at first. “This is it! This is the box!” There it was – 36 inches long, 38 inches wide, and 36 inches deep. As I descended over the box, I could tell that the Henrietta Marie was buried in the sand all around me. I remembered prior dives on the site, how I had unearthed soggy planks of the Henrietta Marie's wood from three inches under the sand, and how splinters from its savaged hull had pierced my fingers.

For years, the Henrietta Marie – this horrible, precious piece of my history – had nagged at me, haunted me, even pricked my skin under the sea. The ship did so, I believe, to remind me to be uplifted, not discouraged, energized, not angry, that I am part of a long line of proud and distinguished African people who survived the dawn of American slavery 400 years ago and overcame a history of brutal oppression. It pricked at my conscience so I would remember to tell America, and the world, that it needs an education in the African holocaust to fully understand the racial hostility of today, to say that if there is no attempt to understand this most underreported chapter in world history then we are doomed, never to live in peace.

Everyone needs a special place, a place of peace – a room in a home, a cabin in the hills, a bench in the park a sanctuary from pressures and problems, somewhere to reflect, to bury the past or plan for the future, a place to confront troubles or conduct a private celebration, to pray, to cry. This place for me has been 30 feet underwater on the site of a sunken slave ship. New Ground Reef is a spiritual site for me; an underwater refuge of hidden wisdom that shapes my consciousness and soothes my soul; a place where I am never really alone.

Michael Cottman’s most recent book, Shackles From The Deep: Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy, is designed for young readers ages 10 to 16 years old.