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Memphis Flyer Voices From the Past

By Lauren Mutter

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  Maybe the Ku Klux Klan anti-rally was too boisterous for you, or maybe you don’t have the attention span for the three-hour Amistad movie. If so, “A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie” may be a more palatable means of consuming the messages of these events that demonstate the difficult history of African Americans. “The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie,” opening at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum on Saturday, January 31st, is one of many events planned over the next three months for the 30-year commemoration of the April assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month in February.

The 3,000-square-foot exhibit examines intricate details of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship traveling the Middle Passage in the 17th century. The English ship sank less than 35 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, and is the only slave shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere ever identified by name. As such, the ship is a treasure trove of information about this vital period in African-American history, a history still alive today, says Doug Noble, director of museums.

Noble says the “Wreck of the Henrietta Marie” speaks personally to the city of Memphis, where racial tensions seem a part of the natural topography. “Without slavery in the Americas,” he says, “there wouldn’t have been a civil-rights movement, the story ... of Dr. King. To me, this [West African slavery] is the birthplace of racism.”

The Henrietta Marie was typical of small merchant ships involved in the slave trade following the Triangular Trade Route, from London to West Africa to the Caribbean and back to London. According to records, the ships left European ports loaded with pewter, iron, and trade goods and sailed to the west coast of Africa, where they bartered for ivory, gold, spices, and slaves. They then headed to the New World, where they exchanged the slaves for sugar, tobacco, cotton, and hardwoods to trade upon their return to Europe.

The interactive exhibit is designed to follow the ship’s voyage along this Triangular Trade Route. Upon entering the exhibit, visitors will see the ship’s coral-encrusted bronze bell bearing the inscription “The Henrietta Marie 1699.” This artifact was pivotal to determining what ship archaeologists had found.

After an introduction to the Henrietta Marie, visitors can walk into an export and slave trader’s office in the Port of London, a pewterer’s shop, and a supply store, all decorated with artifacts recovered from the shipwreck.

The brass ship’s bell from the Henrietta Marie is included in the exhibit at the Pink Palace.
Then the Henrietta Marie departs for Africa. Visitors walk into a re-created hull and cannon meant to convey the size and scale of the ship. The ships of the 17th century were cramped, by no means the luxury liners of today. “Life was obviously hell for the slaves,” Noble says, “but it was also very unpleasant for the crew.” The ship’s compass, cook stove, and cannon and cannonballs recovered from the wreck, and examples of sailors’ clothing enhance recordings describing the duties and life of the ship’s crew.

The exhibit then lands visitors at the ship’s first destination, New Calabar in West Africa. The Pink Palace has added works of art from local collections, to fully convey that taking Africans to the New World was not “enlightenment” for them. “The peoples who were enslaved,” Noble explains, “the peoples who were either captured in warfare or kidnapped lived in viable, important cultures.”

Most of the art is from the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is all done in the tradition of West African art of the 10th century, explains Margaret Witt, who is working closely with the African culture portion of the exhibit. Many of the objects are wooden masks that were thought to embody a spirit, and when the people wore the masks, they, too, embodied the spirit. “Masks were part of their basic spiritual foundation,” Witt says. There will also be African music playing in this porition of the exhibit, ending with spiritual chants.

The third leg of the exhibit and the second of the journey is the infamous Middle Passage. A re-created cargo hold focuses on the treacherous conditions of slave life aboard the ship. Seven mannequins represent the “‘human cargo,’ stacked below deck like corkwood,” as Noble describes them. Some are curled into the fetal position, while others hold their heads in their hands. The lighting is poor, with only a few beams of light streaming through the grate between the cargo hold and upper deck. Visitors can try on replicas of shackles of found in the wreck. The shackles are of different sizes and include those used for children.

The Henrietta Marie sank during its return to London, after unloading 190 slaves in Jamaica. Visitors learn about the sinking of the ship and the methods archaeologists used to recover the artifacts.

The exhibit concludes with an empowering look at historic black Memphians, including Robert Church, the first black millionaire, and Ida B. Wells. Noble explains, “We thought it was important to point out that following slavery, and even in an environment of segregation in this country, there were many Africa Americans who made major achievements in their lives.”

The point of ending with this section, according to Noble, is to leave people feeling not bitter, but strong, and the exhibit as a whole, he hopes, will implement healing in the still-open wounds from racism.

The Pink Palace also plans a speaker series in conjunction with “A Slave Ship Speaks.” Presenters include the Memphis United Scuba Team, an affiliate of the national Association of Black Scuba divers, and archaeologist David Moore, who helped recover the artifacts from the ship and design the exhibit with the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.

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