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Artifacts from Sunken Slave Ship on Display in New York - 2002-06-21


Artifacts recovered from the Henrietta Marie, an English slave ship, which sank near the U.S. state of Florida more than three centuries ago, are on display in New York City for the first time. Organizers say the travelling exhibit gives audiences a greater understanding of a painful part of U.S. history.

A large bronze bell encrusted with coral and green from decaying copper is displayed at the entrance of the exhibit. Although it is old and damaged, the words written across the bell are easy to decipher. They read "Henrietta Marie 1699."

Charles Kahlstrom is a U.S. National Parks Ranger, who works as an interpreter of the exhibition, "A Slave Ship Speaks," now on view at New York's Federal Hall National Memorial. Mr. Kahlstrom explained that the bell enabled researchers to identify what is believed to be the only ship-wrecked vessel from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade ever discovered.

"The bell would have been on the ship and it would have been used to toll the hours, but it also is an identifier, and any time you have a marine archaeologist find a bell, it's really a key to identifying the ship," Mr. Kahlstrom said. "So by finding this bell and the year that it was cast they were able to go back into the shipping records in London and totally identify the wreck." The Henrietta Marie sank in the year 1700, killing its British crew after dropping off nearly 200 Africans from the Gulf of Guinea to work in sugar plantations in the West Indies.

The sunken vessel was found 30 years ago by marine archaeologist Mel Fisher, who was looking for remnants of pirate ships in a rough section of the Atlantic Ocean in the Florida Keys. Although the wooden ship remains embedded in a coral reef, the search of its contents continues. Earlier this year, artifacts, including elephant tusks and glass beads were found both inside and around the ship and were later brought to shore.

The discovery of those objects, along with iron slabs for tool-making and fine European pewter bowls, reveal some of the items bartered for human labor. And the thick metal shackles now broken along the edges illustrate the hardships endured by enslaved Africans.

Federal Hall Memorial spokesman Steve Laise said the exhibition is comprehensive in its focus on both the human story and the economics of the slave trade. "I think that the first thing that a modern visitor thinks about when they think about the slave trade is the human tragedy...how awful it must have been to be captured to be confined, to be forced to labor in a very difficult environment," he said. "But beyond that, what's unusual about this exhibit is it also explores the underlying economics that made the slave trade so profitable for some and perpetuated it for such a long time."

A second room of the exhibition provides a sample of African culture, displaying colorful masks and musical instruments. The contributions made by African-Americans to the culture and society of the United States are explored too. In a video, African rhythms, which can be heard in both jazz and salsa music, are demonstrated.

But one of the most moving sections is a reproduction of the cargo hold of slave-ships, such as the Henrietta Marie, where Africans were held captive, confined in chains for weeks at a time. Park Ranger Kahlstrom said that while the exhibition is painful, it is necessary for confronting the past and for learning how the nation was built.

"It is difficult," Mr. Kahlstrom said, "but I think it is an absolutely necessary display for people to understand that these were estimated 11 to 15 million people who were wrenched out of Africa, who, they estimate three to five million were killed or died in the 'Middle Passage' that it was involuntary migration to this country. But it also shows you how much of an integral part of our nation these people actually were.

Mr. Kahlstrom said he welcomes the exhibition to New York City because it can help teach visitors about their own history. He said few New Yorkers know that slaves were brought to the city when it was a Dutch colony in 1626. The institution was not abolished there until 1827, less than 40 years before the Civil War, which formally ended the practice nationwide.

The exhibition, which has traveled throughout the country, will be displayed in the National Federal Hall Memorial through October.

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