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Henrietta Marie
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Middle Passage

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By Jennifer SteinbergPhotographs by Courtney Platt
Art by Gregory Manchess



The oldest slave ship ever excavated, wrecked off Florida in 1700, is yielding a multitude of artifacts—and blood-curdling history.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

She was a British merchant ship employed in cruel commerce, her sweltering hold crammed with human chattel. It was the 18th of May, 1700, and the Henrietta Marie was nearing the coast of Jamaica, her final destination before the long ride back to England. The ship had left Africa with as many as 300 captives sold into slavery by fellow Africans—likely of rival tribes—mostly for iron and copper bars offered by the British crew. Many died along the way; slave-ship mortality averaged 20 percent.

As land appeared on the horizon, Captain Thomas Chamberlain, anxious to conduct business, ordered his crew to prepare the prisoners for arrival. Goaded onto deck, men, women, and children were fed, cleaned, shaved, and oiled, their wounds finally tended, in preparation for sale.

At Port Royal, naked and in chains, slaves went on the auction block. Potential buyers might prod their bellies, poke fingers in their mouths to check their teeth, and even taste their sweat—thought by some to be a gauge of health. By one estimate Henrietta Marie’s cargo grossed well over £3,000 (more than $400,000 today) for the ship’s investors. Most of the captives were headed for sugar plantations where they’d be worked to exhaustion, many dying within five to ten years.

Their fate was not Chamberlain’s concern. Captain and crew weighed anchor in late June and set a homeward course, their ship now packed with New World sugar, cotton, wood, indigo, and leftover trade goods. But storms plagued their exit and the ship foundered on New Ground Reef, 34 miles (55 kilometers) off Key West, Florida. All aboard perished at sea.

It was nearly 300 years before treasure hunters, employed by salvager Mel Fisher, raised the first relics from the wreck. But their passion was gold, and they soon abandoned the slaver to search for richer ships. In the 1980s and ’90s other divers continued the salvage as scientists began conserving the rescued items. Today those scientists are in the water, examining the ship’s fragile hull and coaxing the last artifacts from the sand. Their work is key: Henrietta Marie is the oldest slaver ever excavated and one of only a handful from American waters. Says marine archaeologist David Moore, “She’s a vital piece of history.”

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
There was little protest against slavery during the days Henrietta Marie sailed the infamous Middle Passage, one leg of a triangular route between Europe, Africa, and the West Indies or Americas. Quakers had begun preaching against the institution for its un-Christian qualities in the 1600s and had banned the importation of slaves by members of their religion in Pennsylvania in 1696. But with the exception of a few other Protestant groups, no one else was questioning the morality of slavery in 1700. It was another 75 years before the founding of the first American antislavery group, one that was created by the Quakers.

—Cate Lineberry

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Related Links
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
www.melfisher.org/henriettamarie.htm
Learn more about the Henrietta Marie’s history and excavation.

Africans in America
www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p269.html
Discover why England’s view on slavery changed from one of contempt in the early 1600s to one of great support by the end of the 17th century.

Journey From Slavery to Freedom
www.cwpost.liunet.edu/cwis/cwp/library/aaslavry.htm#middle
Explore the history of the slave trade at this comprehensive site from the B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library of Long Island University.

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Bibliography
Burnside, Madeleine, and Rosemarie Robotham. Spirits of the Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century. Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade. W. W. Norton and Company, 1981.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. Simon and Schuster, 1997.

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NGS Resources
“Against All Odds: The Incredible Journey of the Amistad Captives,” National Geographic World (April 1998), 10-14.

Palmer, Colin. “The Cruelest Commerce: African Slave Trade,” National Geographic (September 1992), 62-91.

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