Shackles From the Deep: Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy

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Although Black history is important, this importance does not make certain details any easier to digest. Case-in-point: Publitzer prize-winning author and Journalist, Michael H. Cottman has written a riveting book called Shackles From the Deep:Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy that definitely deserves a place on the African American bookshelf. And yet this story of how a group of nameless African Americans ended up at the bottom of the sea is extremely hard to fathom.

Mr. Cottman is a Pulitzer prize-winning author who also happens to be an African American scuba diver, and his book is the story of how he works with archeaologist David Moore to trace the heart-wrenching legacy of a sunken slave ship. The book opens with a shocking discovery. Treasure-hunter Desmostenes “Moe” Molinar and crew are searching for Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha and its treasure trove of gold, silver and precious stones aboard, reported to have been lost in 1622. But instead of a treasure ship, they find “a pair of hardened, ancient shackles” that were used some three hundred years before to handcuff the wrists of Africans to keep them from escaping. More digging unearths more shackles, and the most heart-wrenching find of all is a tiny pair of shackles made for handcuffing the wrists of very small children.

Instead of a treasure ship, they find a death ship.

Ten years pass before any progress is made on discovering the ship’s name and the date of its final voyage. Then archaeologist David Moore finds the ship’s “watch bell” and its name: The Henrietta Marie, 1699. Mr. Moore pairs with author/journalist Michael Cottman to find out as much as they can about the nameless African people enslaved on the ship.

These two very different men’s separate journeys to find out about the ship are equally amazing, but Mr. Cottman’s research is more riveting because he writes his account as an African American man who wonders if any of his ancestors lived and died on the Henrietta Marie. He even admits to a near-hatred of the men who forged the iron shackles that bound the African slaves.

This is a quiet but powerful book that is brimming with amazing, almost nail-biting detail, yet it is written with a pace and vocabulary that even middle grade students can digest. There are color photos, maps, and even a time line to enhance Mr. Cottman’s account of unraveling the mystery of the Henrietta Marie. Therefore, the book would do well as supplemental reading in a Social Studies or American History class, and might also be used during discussions about oceanography, treasure hunts, raising shipwrecks, slave trading, or even American citizenship.

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