The Slavery Papers I: Of Slave Ships Lost

Let me preface this first entry of The Slavery Papers — an on-going exploration — by emphasizing that The United States was a mere cog in the enormous international operation known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The world's economies were driven by the enslavement of Africans, and to this history we are all connected...

As I shared in the Introduction, it was the curating of harlem is...DOWNTOWN that sparked The Slavery Papers. Presented by Community Works at Federal Hall National Memorial in commemoration of Black History Month, 2016, the exhibition included essays, graphics, and visual works reflecting elements of the experience of slavery, particularly as it occurred in New York City (then New Amsterdam). Assembling this data filled in some gaps in my knowledge, but also opened up new ones. Each answer led to another question, demonstrating just how much there is to know.

As part of the exhibit, we were proud to feature a selection of historically themed quilts created by Michael A. Cummings - an award-winning artist and one of only a handful of males in a tradition dominated by women. One of these quilts, which was consequently used as our promotional image, represents the slave ship, Henrietta Marie. Cummings has an entire series of astounding works on the Henrietta Marie, which foundered in 1701, thirty-five miles west of Key West, Florida. 

“Escaping the Slave Ship...Henrietta Marie” 2006. Textiles & mixed media. 67 x 90 in.
“Escaping the Slave Ship...Henrietta Marie” 2006. Textiles & mixed media. 67 x 90 in.

Escaping the Slave Ship...Henrietta Marie (pictured above), unfolds a tumultuous scene of the slave ship sinking, slaves falling off or, perhaps as the artist re-imagined it, jumping to freedom. At nearly 6x8 feet, it is a striking and masterful work of art that succeeds at conveying a feeling of horror and triumph at once. 

Having had a number of conversations with the artist about the Henrietta Marie, and fascinated and curious to know more, I embarked on a little digging. Here is what I discovered:

The Henrietta Marie made two voyages, transporting a total of about 400 captives (200 per passage) from Africa to Jamaica between 1697-1701. It was upon return from the final drop that the ship wrecked, for reasons unknown. The sunken ship was found off the coast of Florida in 1972. Over 1000 objects were recovered from the wreckage — including an unprecedented number of glass beads, trade goods, and the most complete and diverse collection of slave trade artifacts to have ever been found on any slave ship, anywhere in the world. The National Association of Black Scuba Divers later dedicated the site in a touching memorial, and submerged a one-ton plaque bearing a heartfelt message to the ancestors (1993). An exhibition on the shipwreck traveled the country and continues to exhibit at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Florida, and a documentary was produced (narrated by Cornel West). The Henrietta Marie went on to become a symbol of the courage and suffering of Africans. 

Henrietta Marie plaque inscription and submerged concrete monument, now transformed into a reef.
Henrietta Marie plaque inscription and submerged concrete monument, now transformed into a reef.

To be clear however, while the Henrietta Marie's cache offered valuable insights into the plight of captive Africans and the triangular trade in general, there were no captives on board when the ship went down. Certainly, there were other known wrecks and failed passages during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade but  there were few, if any, known to have submerged with captive African cargo. The Leusden — brought to light by Dutch historian, Dr. Leo Balai — was one of those ships.

The story of the Leusden is one of conspiracy and murder. According to Dr. Balai, "It was the largest murder case in the history of the slave trade, but no one ever talked about it."

But, Balai is talking about it and, with the help of the international communities associated with the lost ship, he won’t stop until he finds it.

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