Lewis museum to open with 'Slave Ship'

Sun Staff

Simple iron bars that could be used to purchase a human being. Ironshackles clearly designed for a young child's legs. A captain's log thatcomplains of the stifling African heat, but doesn't even mention the coldreality that the ship was dealing in human cargo.

Such are the sights and sounds of A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of theHenrietta Marie, a traveling exhibit of artifacts from a sunken slave shipthat will welcome visitors to Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of MarylandAfrican American History and Culture when it opens at Pratt and Presidentstreets on June 25.

At first blush, the Henrietta Marie seems an unlikely centerpiece for theopening of a museum dedicated to Maryland history. There's no evidence it everreached the state's shores during its two trans-Atlantic voyages, in 1697-1698and 1699-1700. But the hardships endured by the enslaved men and women tell auniversal story, one museum officials believe dovetails nicely into the storyof African-Americans in a former British colony that would, perhapsironically, come to be known as the Free State.

"We wanted to give people an understanding of what went on prior tobecoming an enslaved person here in Maryland," says Margaret Hutto, themuseum's exhibits manager.

Judging by the silent testimony of the Henrietta Marie, a wreck discoveredoff the Florida coast about 30 years ago by divers in search of Spanishtreasure, what happened was both horrific and, according to the tenor of thetimes, unremarkable. There was nothing especially sordid about the ship; itwas like hundreds of vessels plying the seas at the time, their crewsstruggling to earn a profit for investors in England.

That's one aspect of the slave trade the visitors need to understand, saysSandy Bellamy, the museum's executive director. It was just a business, not asocial tool or a way to wage war or attempt to enact vengeance on a conqueredpeople.

"Slavery was an economic construction," she says, "out of which grewracism. African-Americans are not inherently inferior, but are a resilientpeople, who've overcome insurmountable odds."

The exhibit, which has been traveling the United States for about eightyears, paints slavery as a simple matter of economics. British consumerswanted produce from the New World - sugar, molasses, spices - and landownersin America needed able bodies to work the land.

Bars of iron ore, each about the size of a 12-inch ruler, would be tradedwith African tribal leaders, who would offer in return men, women and childrenfrom conquered tribes. A case at the museum contains 11 of these simple,unadorned black bars. They alone would have been enough to purchase anenslaved female; for a male, you'd have to come up with another bar or two.

The Henrietta Marie exhibit is filled with such mute testimony to thecasual banality of slavery; its existence, at least to the 18th-century mind,was no big moral deal.

The exhibit includes a replica of the ship's hold - the actual wreckremains on the sea bottom, too fragile to be brought to the surface - thatgives an idea of what life was like for its human cargo. A group ofmannequins, crowding each other on the floor, offers some perspective on whatthe awful journey from Africa to America must have been like.

"It was an eerie feeling," Hutto says, "putting those mannequins in."

But nothing in the exhibit smacks the visitor harder than the shackles.Hung on a wall across from the mannequins are eight pairs of varying sizes,including a pair no more than a few inches in diameter - clearly designed foryoung children.

"It brings home the fact that there were more than just adult males andfemales that were enslaved," says Hutto. "Those shackles really got to me."

The wreck of the Henrietta Marie was discovered in 1972 by salvager MelFisher, who was looking for the 17th-century Spanish treasure galleon NuestraSenora de Atocha. After establishing that the Henrietta wasn't it, Fishermoved on, leaving the wreck undisturbed for the better part of two decades. Bythen, the historic significance of the wreck had been established; it's theoldest slave ship ever found, according to a 2002 article in the NationalGeographic, and one of only a handful discovered in American waters.

"When I got here, I thought we could do something with it," says MadeleineBurnside, executive director of the nonprofit research arm of Fisher'soperation, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, who in 1992 persuaded himto let the society take control of the site. "I didn't know much about theslave trade, but I was pretty sure I hadn't heard of a lot of slave shipsbeing found, anywhere."

Much of what has been brought up from the Henrietta Marie is on display atFisher's Key West, Fla., museum. But the touring exhibit, sponsored by General Motors, has been spreading the ship's story throughout the United States since1995.

Like just about everyone else, Burnside has been most affected by theshackles salvaged from the wreck. In all, she says, almost 200 pairs have beenrecovered. Each one, she says, offers testimony to the human spirit.

"I think of the human ability to resist captivity and always struggle forfreedom," she says. "It tells you something about the character of thesepeople, that they were in this horrible situation - they were sick and theyhad dysentery, they were starved, they were severely dehydrated at all times -and yet they had to be shackled to be kept down. That tells you somethingright there."

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