Relics of slavery, brought up from sea

History: Controversial artifacts from the Henrietta Marie, a 17th-century English slave ship that sank during a storm in the Florida Straits in 1700, are on display at the New York State Museum in Albany.

January 20, 2002|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The iron shackles still make him uneasy, but they no longer stir up a maelstrom of hate and fury inside him. Oswald Sykes has come to tolerate the shackles because they serve his purpose: To tell the story of the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade.

For the last decade, Sykes has doggedly called attention to the shackles and other excavated remains of the Henrietta Marie, a 17th-century English slave ship that sank during a storm in the Florida Straits in 1700.

Sykes designed an underwater memorial to honor those long-forgotten slaves, and was one of a group of black scuba divers who placed it at the site of the shipwreck in 1993.

"I turned my anger into commitment," said Sykes, 66, a retired New York State health administrator. "We need a more complete history, and we're going to add to it. That's different from saying, `I hate what they did, and I'm going to go out and blow up something.'"

Now Sykes and his wife, Marion, have helped take 200 artifacts from the Henrietta Marie to the New York State Museum in Albany.

The exhibit, A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie, continues through March 15 and includes a slide show by the Sykeses, a symposium on slavery, and cultural programs about African dances and folk tales.

16 iron shackles

The exhibit, which features 16 iron shackles and a replica of the slave hold, has never been shown in the Northeast, in part because of concerns raised by some museum officials and archaeologists over the origins of the artifacts. They say that the artifacts come from the late Mel Fisher, a treasure hunter, and that displaying them would violate ethical and professional guidelines for some museums and archaeology associations.

"That is a very big problem," said Toni L. Carrell, chairwoman of the advisory council on underwater archaeology for the Society for Historical Archaeology. "No reputable museum will display objects from a site that has been treasure- hunted. It would be like buying something that was looted from Mexico or Egypt."

But the Sykeses and other supporters of the exhibit say the Henrietta Marie was excavated independently of Fisher's commercial ventures.

Though Fisher's crew found the slave ship and brought up the earliest artifacts, he later turned over most of those artifacts and the excavation rights to the ship to the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, a nonprofit research institution and museum that he founded in Key West, Fla.

Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum, said the museum initially rejected the Henrietta Marie exhibit on the basis of Fisher's reputation. After the Sykeses and others lobbied for it, he decided to learn more about the excavation. "We've satisfied ourselves," he said. "The truth is, the scientific side of Mel Fisher is separate."

Historians say they think the Henrietta Marie went down with a handful of sailors shortly after carrying 190 slaves from Africa to Jamaica to trade for cargo.

In 1972, Fisher's crew came across a piece of the wooden slave ship near Key West while searching for a treasure-packed Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The slave ship contained neither gold baubles nor jewels, and they quickly moved on.

Fisher did not return to the Henrietta Marie until 1983. His crew brought up numerous iron shackles and a bell emblazoned with the ship's name, which are featured in the current exhibit, and some less important objects that were eventually sold. Then, in 1991, his maritime society took over the site.

Madeleine Burnside, executive director of Fisher's maritime society, said her archaeologists and researchers had excavated about half of the 500 or so artifacts from the ship and made extensive studies of the wreck site.

In 1995, the society raised $400,000 to assemble the Henrietta Marie exhibit.

`A blockbuster'

The Henrietta Marie's artifacts have traveled to 20 cities and drawn an estimated 2 million viewers. The exhibit, which was supposed to close last year, has been extended to 2003 because of the demand. "It's been a blockbuster," Burnside said. "Every site it's gone to has said it's drawn the highest attendance for a special exhibition."

Even so, Burnside said that many museums and cultural institutions in New York City, Washington and elsewhere had decided not to take the exhibit. She said they had typically cited practical reasons, like full exhibition schedules, tight budgets, or simply not enough space for an exhibit that takes up at least 3,000 square feet.

But the question of Fisher's involvement has also been a factor for some museums.

Paul F. Johnston, a curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, said his museum considered showing the Henrietta Marie exhibit but decided to follow ethical guidelines that prohibit acquiring or displaying artifacts from what he called "commercially exploited archaeology sites."

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