The Henrietta Marie was likely built in France in the 1600s, and was transferred to English hands in the later part of the century. It set out from England in 1699 with a load of goods including copper and pewter items, glass beads, cloth and brandy. At the Guinea coast, it traded these goods for slaves, and then headed on to Port Royal, Jamaica to sell its nearly 200 captives. (Read more about the history of Port Royal.) The ship was then loaded up with sugar, cotton, dyewoods and ginger to transport back home to England. It soon wrecked and sank off the coast of Key West, Florida, and the ship and its crew were lost to history for the next four centuries.
The wreck was discovered in 1972 by salvagers working for Mel Fisher, who were out searching for the more famous Nuestra Señora de Atocha treasure ship. They left it alone once they realized it was not a treasure ship, and it was not until the early 1980s that salvagers and archeologists returned to excavate the ship for historical purposes. It would prove to be an amazing find for historians.
A diver uncovered the ship’s bell, etched with the words “Henrietta Marie 1699.” This confirmed it to be a known slave ship, and in fact it was the earliest slave shipwreck identified by name. It gave new information about practices during the slave trade, and the infamous triangular trade route favored by the slavers - from England to the Guinea coast, to the Americas, and back to England.
(Learn more about the Transatlantic slave trade.)
Artifacts that were found include more than 80 sets of shackles, two cast-iron cannon, Venetian glass trade beads, stock iron trade bars, ivory "elephant’s teeth," English-made pewter tankards, basins, spoons and bottles. In fact, it is likely the world’s largest source of tangible objects from the early years of the slave trade.
With the finds from this ship, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society unveiled "A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie" in May of 1995. This was the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. devoted to the transatlantic slave trade. This exhibit is currently on a tour of museums across the country.
Today, you can learn more about this ship, and see the artifacts retrieved from it, by visiting the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society & Museum in Key West, Florida. There, you can also see the treasures and artifacts from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha treasure ship, and the mysterious St. John’s Wreck. Approximately 200,000 people visit the museum every year to see these amazing finds.
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society & Museum
- Address: 200 Greene Street in Key West, Florida
- Phone: 305-294-2633
- Web Site: http://www.melfisher.org