Mel’s Mother Lode

June 29, 2010

Today’s the Day.

— Mel Fisher’s Daily Mantra –

In 1622, the Tierra Firme Fleet, a convoy of 28 Spanish ships, departed Havana, setting sail for Spain.  Five of those ships never made it out of the Florida Straits.  Two of them, the Spanish galleons Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, floundered in heavy wind and seas, finally succumbing to the hurricane forces and sinking near Key West, taking their passengers and magnificent treasures with them. It was September 6, 1622.


For over 15 years, beginning in 1970, treasure hunter Mel Fisher searched for the Santa Margarita and the Atocha off the Florida Keys.  The search was overwrought with competing salvors, lawsuits and litigation, financial woes and personal heartbreaks. But Fisher never gave up. And for this, he was rewarded greatly. The Atocha was found on July 20, 1985 in fifty-five feet of water. Its treasures, referred to as the “Atocha Mother Lode,” would eventually be valued at $450 million dollars.


Not sure what to expect, we entered the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Greene Street in Key West.  At the admission desk we received a sticker which boasted “I lifted a gold bar.”  Half way through the exhibit this would come true as I placed my hand inside a designated glass casing and lifted a heavy gold bar.

The exhibit is quite spectacular. The gold bars, the silver ingots, the jewelry…

Gold Ingots from the Atocha and Santa Margarita


Silver Ingots


Atocha and Santa Margarita Exhibits


In his book, The Search for the Atocha, Eugene Lyon, Colonial Spanish Historian and consultant to Fisher during his search, describes Mel Fisher after early successes this way:  

Since treasure hunters are often men of great drive and ego who are living out their fantasies, they may color their adventures highly, and tend to dramatize their finds in extravagant terms. Mel, now beginning to loom large in the treasure fraternity, possessed all these characteristics to excess.  He was ready to gamble for higher stakes, to take more risks, and to exaggerate more than anyone. 

Much has been said about Fisher through the years, but at the end of the day, Fisher has the last laugh.  Proof of this is found in the exhibit right here in good ‘ole Key West.


Shackled to the Sea

June 25, 2010

A month or so ago I came across a book in the library that caught my attention.  The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African-American’s Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship’s Past by Michael H. Cottman sat on the shelf of Florida-related books.  At first it wasn’t clear how the book was connected to Florida.  But after a quick review, it became obvious.  In 1700, the British slave ship Henrietta Marie sank just 35 miles west of Key West.  The first remains of the ship were found in 1973 by Moe Molinar, the only captain of African descent hired by the infamous treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Molinar had been searching for the treasures from the sunken Spanish ship Atocha and instead came across something totally unexpected.  Cottman tells it this way in his book:

Moe was reluctant to leave the site of the sunken Atocha. With nightfall only about an hour away, Moe decided to make one last sweep of the ocean floor before heading to the surface.  And then his hands…hit against something rigid, unfamiliar, and cold in a way that had nothing to do with the eighty-degree water around him.  Lying flat on the bottom, his chest pressed hard against sand, Moe’s eyes widened through the sting of salt water that was seeping through his mask…Slowly, with rugged hands, he parted layers of the ocean floor…He blinked twice, as if his eyes were deceiving him. Directly in front of him, caked in rust and limestone, were two feet of encrusted iron; ancient weighty chunks were piled high in the form of a pyramid…What is this? he thought to himself…Moe tapped his fingers gently on the mound of rusty iron. It was solid and sinister…He reached out again, this time lifting a large chunk of encrusted iron from the ocean floor and holding in his hands a pair of hardened, sea-soaked shackles…As if suddenly punched in the gut, he was struck by the painful realization that the heavy iron handcuffs he was holding were designed to fit tightly around black wrists much like his own.

After several shackles had been brought to the surface, Cottman writes this:

The irony of the moment was undeniable: The last black men to touch these shackles had been bound by them and forced on a three-month voyage, packed in the lower decks of a sweltering ship with little food and water. Centuries later, the first person to touch those same shackles was another black man – a free man, Moe Molinar.   

A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie Exhibit

While in Key West recently we visited the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum which houses an extensive exhibit of the Henrietta Marie, educating all  about the ways of the slave trade and its atrocities.  And there, on display, a few pairs of the shackles found.

Among the seven thousand artifacts recovered from the Henrietta Marie were the largest collection of slave-ship shackles and English–made pewterware ever found on one site. Experts now consider the Henrietta Marie the world’s largest source of intangible objects representing the early period of the slave trade, providing us with greater insight into the African diaspora 

In his book, Cottman attempts to reconstruct the slave ship’s journey, covering three centuries and three continents, while trying to make sense of his ancestors’ history.  He travels the route the ship might have taken, from England to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal (where he visited the “Door of No Return”) to Jamaica, where the slaves were unloaded. 

Cottman and other members of  the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers have since placed a plaque at the shipwreck site, situated to face the African shores.  Its message reads:

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.