Sunken past

Feb 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

When Michael H. Cottman embarked on an expedition to the site of the only confirmed wreck of a slave ship, the Henrietta Marie, he began a historical and spiritual quest.

Originally motivated by a passion for African-American history and scuba diving, Cottman soon found himself on an odyssey that uncovered not only the wide history of the slave era, but also his own emotions.

The wreck, 37 miles off the coast of Key West, was discovered in 1993. It led Cottman and a team of researchers on an around-the-world journey chronicled in his just-released book, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African-American’s Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship’s Past (Harmony Books, $23, 242 pp.).

Cottman was born in Detroit, graduated from Southfield High School, and is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning political writer at the Washington Post. He is also the author of Million Man March and The Family of Black America.


Metro Times: Did you have any idea what the impact of this discovery would have on you as a person?

Michael H. Cottman: I was originally going to write a newspaper article about the ship’s history and the African-American scuba divers who subsequently laid the only underwater monument to commemorate our ancestors who traveled the Middle Passage on the route from Africa to the Americas.

Fortunately (the publishers) had a larger vision for a book, so I went on the road. (We started) in London, where we did a great deal of research looking through the records and books of slave ship captains. That led us to the West Indies, and to West Africa. It was a very emotional and in some ways painful catharsis over the three years I spent on the story.


MT: How was it painful?

Cottman: As African-Americans, we rarely get the opportunity to locate the evil aboard the Henrietta Marie and call it by name. I wanted to know more about this ship. I wanted to know more about the crew, more about the slave ship captains and the captain of this particular vessel. We were able to name three of those captains and almost 20 crew members.

I wanted to locate the site of where some of those shackles we found were manufactured. I wanted to find where the cannons were manufactured and who the investors were for this global enterprise.

It was very painful to flip through the pages and look at the documentation of a slave ship where the Africans aboard were never referred to as human beings, but always called “merchandise” or “cargo.” The institution of slavery lasted 300 years and was the first global commerce and hundreds of millions of dollars were earned from it by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British.


MT: Besides the ships themselves, other industries benefited from the slave trade, for instance, those that produced the shackles. Can you tell us about that?

Cottman: The shackles I found were probably the most numbing and gut-wrenching of the artifacts that were discovered on the ship. I say that because the ship’s bell was probably the most historically significant item found, but the most painful reminder of the brutality and the lack of humanity were those very tiny shackles that weighed no more than a pound and ... fit in the palm of your hand. These were the shackles used to bind children and we know there were children aboard the Henrietta Marie during its runs from Africa to Jamaica.


MT: Did you discover who made the shackles in England?

Cottman: Yes. One of the manufacturers was Anthony Tournay, a wealthy London ironmonger in the 1700s who profited greatly from the slave trade. Tournay gave away a great amount of money to orphanages when he died. I found that to be in stark contrast to the way he participated in the slave trade knowing that the shackles he manufactured were going to be placed around wrists, ankles and necks of African men, women and children. The captives were chained together and stacked on the lower decks for the voyage, where they had to sleep in their own feces.


MT: Couldn’t you have written the book with the available research and saved yourself the travel?

Cottman: I wanted to make this journey and do the research, not just on paper, but to be there physically. Traveling along the Thames River, for instance, where the Henrietta Marie docked in 1700, walking into the pub along the Wapping Pier where the slave ship captains drank ale and waited for favorable winds to Africa, turned out to be a defining moment in my life.

Although I didn’t get slave documents in Africa like I did in London, it was very important for me to travel to Goree Island, off the coast of Dakar, around the coast of Senegal. Goree Island was a notorious holding area for millions of African people who were waiting to be taken to the West Indies. The numbers range between 10 and 20 million over 300 years.

MT: Is the memory of slavery maintained in Africa?

Cottman: Yes. On Goree Island, there is a museum in what was formerly the Slave House. (It) shows the history of this torturous prison where African men, women and children were packed into windowless, airless stone cell pits waiting to be taken to the New World, some not being fed except once a day or only several times a week. If they refused to eat, the crew propped their mouths open with iron clamps and force-fed them so they’d be strong enough to work when they reached the Americas.

Others were killed or threw themselves into the ocean rather than face a life in chains, so sharks trailed the slave ships along the West African coast because they knew bodies would be thrown in. It was a painful but illuminating visit.

When I was there, the curator was explaining to a group of French tourists about the “Door of No Return” at the Slave House. It faced the Atlantic Ocean, and it was the last time African people were able to see their families and homeland. Then they were taken in long boats out to a slave ship.

The curator was explaining in French that it could no longer be called that, because African-Americans like myself are returning to Goree Island to write about our ancestors.