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.


Florida Diving – Part II

June 22, 2010


Key West has never been known for spectacular diving.  However, just this time last year they hit the big time. In an effort to establish an artificial reef, the U.S.S. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a 522-foot WWII transport ship, was sunk six miles off the coast of Key West.  That sinking was pretty spectacular in its own right.

This is one of the main reasons we travelled to Key West during our recent trip – to dive two dives on the Vandenberg with SubTropic Divers.  Unfortunately the visibility was only 30-40 feet on the first dive.  With a mild current, we managed to see only part of the ship.  On the second dive, the visibility had increased a little to about 40-50 feet.  Matt and I went off on our own and managed to go from the middle of the ship (where we were dropped) to the bow, then back down the full length of the ship to the stern. We didn’t have enough time to look in all the holes of the ship or swim through all the swimthroughs purposefully blown out for divers.  Not much marine life has moved in yet but I did find several Arrowhead Crabs and other small creatures already staking out their claim. 


On the way home from our ten-day trip around Florida, on a whim, we decided to stop off in Jupiter and dive two morning dives with Jupiter Dive Center.  Matt had been diving with them several times and loved the dives.  BUT….where the water temperature in the Keys had been between 80 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, recent storms had left the waters around Jupiter hovering between 66 and 68 degrees.  I thought the Dive Guide was joking with us when he mentioned this.  He wasn’t. 

For anyone who knows anything about diving and wetsuits, my suit is a 4/3 (4-mil on the core, 3-mil on the arms and legs).  This accompanied by tropical gloves and a thin beanie (hood) does not equal adequate coverage for 66-68 degree water!  Somehow, though, I managed to tough it out.  I would find a warm spot and try to stay in it as long as possible.  The visibility was horrible, maybe 20 feet if you were lucky.  It was very easy to lose sight of the Dive Guide and my dive buddy (Matt) for that matter.  This was one of those times you really had to stay tight as a group.  Three of us, along with the Dive Guide, stayed down for the entire dive, somehow surviving the cold and low visibility.  A few times I could just make out large shadows in front of me, unaware of what type of marine life it was.  I did however see some of the largest Goliath Groupers I have ever seen.  This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.  From turtles to Great Hammerheads, South Florida waters seem to grow everything big.


I have yet to dive for fossilized shark’s teeth in Venice, or dive the aircraft carrier Oriskany sunk off the coast of Pensacola.  With all these great diving opportunities in the state of Florida, adding Florida scuba diving to my List of 50 Things to Love About Florida is a must.