Two Mississippi Museums

By MICHAEL MORRIS,

A special exhibit showcasing rare artifacts uncovered from the wreckage of a sunken slave ship is on display at the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum through August 11.

Spirits of the Passage: The Story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—a traveling exhibit of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum—explores the forced migration of millions of Africans through the wreckage of the Henrietta Marie, an English slave ship that capsized off the coast of Florida in 1700. Along with more than 125 rarely seen artifacts from West Africa and the Americas, the exhibit includes a replica of the once-crowded hull of the Henrietta Marie. Spirits of the Passage takes the story of the slave trade through Emancipation and into the modern Civil Rights Movement.

“Spirits of the Passage is an amazing look at the many voices that were never heard during the Middle Passage,” said Mississippi Civil Rights Museum director Pamela D.C. Junior. “The exhibition will home in on the pain and the people who were taken from their native lands by force. We hope that people will reflect on their own lives and ancestral heritage and honor the great people who through integrity, fortitude, and strength brought over art and culture, religion, agriculture, and a host of other phenomenal attributes that we see in our everyday lives.”

Built in France as a privateer, the Henrietta Marie was captured by England during a military skirmish and repurposed as a merchant slaver. The ship made two voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, first for Barbados where it arrived on July 9, 1698, with 250 Africans aboard. The ship sank heading home from Jamaica in 1700.

The Henrietta Marie was rediscovered by Mel Fisher and his team of divers in 1972. During a series of excavations in the 1980s and 1990s, marine archaeologists found pewter objects, silverware, and other personal items. The wreck also contained shackles, beads, tusks, and a large bell—evidence of its use as a slave ship. Artifacts found during the excavations are the basis of the Spirits of the Passage exhibit.

“We’ve worked with a distinguished group of scholars from across the country to ensure that we’re doing this vast topic justice on not only an academic level, but a human one as well,” said Mel Fisher Maritime Museum president and CEO Melissa Kendrick. “Everyone who visits this exhibition should expect to have a deeply emotional experience. In presenting these authentic objects we examine the depths of the human spirit.”

An exhibit that explores the work of master quilter the late Gwendolyn Magee accompanies Spirits of the Passage. On loan from the Mississippi Museum of Art, The Slave Series: Quilts by Gwendolyn Magee features powerful quilts that were stitched to tell the story of the history of slavery.

“The Mississippi Museum of Art is pleased to be a part of this monumental exhibition at the Two Mississippi Museums,” said Mississippi Museum of Art director Betsy Bradley. “Embedded in Gwen Magee’s beautiful, sometimes shimmering, technique is a haunting emotionality that affects the viewer with empathy and deepened understanding of the traumas of our history. Gwen would be thrilled to have her work shown at these important museums with this groundbreaking exhibition.”

This exhibit is on display in the FedEx and Medgar and Myrlie Evers Exhibition Halls at the Two Mississippi Museums and was made possible with the support of StateStreet Group, LLC and Visit Jackson.

Ticket prices for Spirits of the Passage are $10 for adults and $6 for children. Discounts are available for children under three, students, seniors, active duty and military veterans, and groups of ten or more. Tickets may be purchased for Spirits of the Passage alone, or in combination with admission to the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The Two Mississippi Museums welcome groups of up to 200 people; advance reservations are encouraged. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

 

The Fisher museum has the world’s richest collection of New World shipwreck artifacts recovered from sailing ships lost at sea from 1564 to 1865. In addition to the Spanish galleon treasure collections, the museum’s research team has located and studied six ships involved in the transatlantic slave trade. The artifacts displayed in the Spirits of the Passage were recovered from the Henrietta Marie and other ships. Some of the artifacts include:

Trade Beads: The tiny, colorful glass beads that were found on the wreck site of the Henrietta Marie were made in Europe. While readily available to the slave traders, they were rarer than gold in Africa and highly prized. Crowns and other ceremonial regalia were exquisitely decorated with beads like these.

Pewter Basin: Durable and versatile, pewter was widely used in England and her colonies from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries among the lower and middle classes. James Barbot, sailing aboard the Albion Frigate in 1699 found that 13 or 14 basins would buy a man, and 10 or 11, a woman. Of the three-pounders, it would take nineteen or twenty to buy a man and thirteen or fourteen for a woman.

Ship’s Bell from the Henrietta Marie: Then as now, the ship’s bell announced the time of day. The tolling of the bell would have been a regular, persistent sound throughout the Henrietta Marie’s voyage. To the captives carried on aboard, its sound would have been a constant reminder of the new order of their days—the times they could expect food, or be summoned on deck, or forced back below.

It was this bell that revealed the identity of the slave ship Henrietta Marie, when a diver found the bell on the site of the wreck. The shipwreck suddenly had a name and date: “The Henrietta Marie 1699.” That was all the clues that researchers would need to find the specific history of the long-lost London slaver in the archives of England’s Public Records Office.

Shackles: The iron shackles found on the Henrietta Marie illustrate the horrors of the Middle Passage. Africans were forced to wear these very devices, huddled below decks in the equatorial swelter, with the shackles indicating the beginning of a new life—one in which they would likely never be free again.

Usually, only the men were fettered, with women and children being allowed more freedom. Once the ship was out of sight of land and the prisoners had no hope of escape, all shackles were removed to prevent chafing and infection—damage to the merchandise—unless there was a serious uprising.

Possibly one such crisis occurred on the last voyage of the Henrietta Marie. Two loops from two different sets of shackles were found wrapped with cord, presumably to prevent chafing of the captives’ skin. What does this imply? Possibly that some of the Africans—men, to judge by the size of the loops—refused to be subdued and had to be restrained for the entire voyage. Additionally, there are a number of very small shackles, suggesting a high level of paranoia or cruelty among the crew, as well as the presence of people of all ages who at least momentarily resisted their captors.

Iron Bars: The cargo carried by the slave ship Henrietta Marie reveals the voyage’s purpose. Perhaps the most telling single item is the 33 tons of iron.

The bars represented a currency that the Africans accepted. English slave trader, James Barbot describes haggling over terms with the king of Great Bandy. Finally, they agreed on a rate of “...thirteen bars for men and nine for women, and proportionally for boys and girls according to their ages.”

Wooden Spoon from the slave ship “Brothers” 1858 The U.S. outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. Nevertheless, some Americans persisted in plying the trade illegally. From 1819 to 1861, the U.S. Navy maintained a squadron that patrolled the West African coast to arrest American slavers.

During the Middle Passage, Africans were fed soup-like meals of beans, rice, or mashed yams, sometimes flavored with pork. Wooden spoons, along with wooden bowls, would have been provided to them at mealtimes. Slave mutinies were common and the crew took pains to ensure that their prisoners did not have anything that could be used as a weapon—although there are accounts of careless sailors being beaten to death with wooden bowls.

The Brothers was captured on September 8, 1858. In the bowl of this spoon is written “Ketch Brothers. Taken by the USS Marion, Mayumba Point, West Coast of Africa. September 8th, 1858. E.E. Stone, December 7th, 1858.” Lieutenant Stone apparently took some of the Brothers’ spoons as souvenirs of a victory against the slave trade, signed them, and gave them to friends.

 

 

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