Arts and Humanities
5:03 pm
Thu January 31, 2013

Frazier Exhibit Shows Horrors of Slave Trade

The Frazier History Museum opens the first exhibit to examine the entire history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade with artifacts from an excavated slave ship. “Spirits of the Passage” is produced in partnership with the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which performed the underwater excavation. The 4,000 square foot exhibit contains 150 historical artifacts retrieved from the wreck, as well as African art objects on loan from the Speed Art Museum and historical documents, paintings and illustrations related to the slave trade. 

The ship’s name was the Henrietta Marie, and it set sail in 1699 from London, carrying European goods to the West Coast of Africa to trade for human slaves. The ship made the grueling Middle Passage journey across the Atlantic and docked in Jamaica, where the slaves were sold and New World goods were purchased and loaded for return to England. On its way home, the Henrietta Marie hit the dangerous reefs 25 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, and sank.

"Key West’s location is prime for shipwrecks," says Melissa Kendrick, executive director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. "The combination of the reef structure that surrounds the Florida Keys and its proximity to the Jet Stream means ships sailing in that time period would try to skirt right around the outside of the reef structure of the keys and get into the Jet Stream and catch that wind in their sails and head back to Europe."

The Henrietta Marie was discovered in the mid-1970s during a search for a Spanish galleon. The search team tested the first few objects found, including a cannon, and identified them as British, so they marked the site, recorded their findings and pushed on to different locations. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that the maritime museum performed a full underwater excavation, recovering artifacts ranging from remaindered trade objects to damning evidence of the ship's role in the slave trade. 

"The opportunity to study the Transatlantic slave trade from all three legs of the trip is presented in this trip like no other," says Kendrick. 

Frazier History Museum executive director Madeleine Burnside, a slave trade historian, says physical evidence of the Middle Passage is rare, because equipment like metal shackles tended to be recycled rather than stored, so the artifacts from the Henrietta Marie form some of the only physical evidence of the Middle Passage on exhibit in the Americas. But shipwrecks, she says, form instant – and painfully accurate – time capsules.

“The thing that defines the collection are the shackles that were found on the ship," says Burnside. "All ships from the great age of sail had maybe two or three pairs of shackles, because really it’s about drunken sailors and petty theft, but when you start finding more than five, you know there’s something wrong. When you find closer to 100, you know you’ve found a slave ship.”

The shackles excavated from the Henrietta Marie are the kind of artifact that can humanize a long and horrible period in history for museum visitors. 

“The problem with vast tragedies, like the slave trade or the Holocaust or the Chinese Pacific Passage, is that they’re just too big for people to wrap their heads around," says Burnside. "It’s too overwhelming, there are millions of people, you can’t even picture a million people.”  

The shackles betrayed the ship's purpose, but ornamental details on the ship's bell provided the rest of the clues necessary to research the ship and its journey. Every ship had a bell to mark the time and shift changes, and some ship owners had their bells inscribed. The Henrietta Marie's bell bore not only her name, but the date -- all of the information the research team needed to access shipping records in London. They discovered the ship was owned by a consortium of investors, not a single company or man. Some investors were major players in the Transatlantic trade, but others were tradesmen experimenting with small investments in the industry.

"It would be like dabbling in Internet stock. It would be something that you didn't know much about, you threw a couple thousand dollars into it and if you lost it you didn’t care," says Burnside. "And what’s conveyed by that is how much people just didn’t care about the slave trade. They didn’t stop and say to themselves I don’t even want to make a two thousand dollar profit on this disgusting business."  

"Spirits of the Passage" opens Saturday and runs through June 16. During February, the museum will participate in the Museum Row on Main's $5 February promotion, so residents of Kentucky and Indiana will receive discounted $5 admission to the museum with ID or proof of residency.