SHACKLES FROM THE DEEP:
Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship,
a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy
by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael H. Cottman
(National Geographic Kids; $17.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred review – Booklist
A fascinating and fast read, Michael H. Cottman’s compelling Shackles From The Deep will open middle grade readers’ eyes and minds to the abhorrent “international business” that was the slave trade. In 22 brief but gripping chapters, Cottman, an avid scuba diver, goes in search of the dark history behind the 17th century slave ship called the Henrietta Marie. Through diving below the surface and delving above the surface with the help of a dedicated team of professionals, Cottman learns not only about “the bitter past” that shrouded the ship, but about himself and the African people forced into slavery who could very well have been his ancestors.
Possibly the world’s oldest slave ship discovery, and certainly the oldest in North America, the Henrietta Marie and its bounty of watch bell, iron cannon, and iron shackles helped shed light on the inhumane industry that ripped West Africans from their homes, separated families, and brought them against their will to places such as Barbados and Jamaica to work on plantations. This slave ship, found accidentally while looking for a different wreck, had been torn apart during a hurricane off Key West in Florida in the 1700s.
Cottman’s journey to find answers about the individuals who captained the ship, commissioned the ship’s slave cargo, and made the shackles and weapons on board led him to three continents over four years. And though he was never able to find definitive proof of who exactly might have been carried below deck in wretched conditions for months on end, Cottman did meet a family in Jamaica whose roots likely could be traced back to the Henrietta Marie if those records were available. One of the most moving parts of Shackles From The Deep was when Cottman travelled to Senegal and toured Gorée Island. There he visited the House of Slaves, built in 1526, and home to the infamous Door of No Return named as such because those enslaved Africans leaving through it never ever came back.
Cottman felt it was important to retrace the route the Henrietta Marie would have taken and, by taking us along with him as engaged readers, we quickly learn why. Tearing families apart and treating them like animals made no sense as one missionary’s account detailed:
The English take very little care of their slaves and feed them very badly …The overseers make them work
beyond measure and beat them mercilessly…and they seem to care less for the life of a Negro than a horse.
Ending his journey in Africa where it all began after those earlier visits to Barbardos, Jamaica and England, provided a way for Cottman to return through that Door of No Return on behalf of all the unfortunate souls who never had the chance. The story ends, having come full circle from the initial discovery, with the author’s visit to an underwater memorial at the wreckage site of the Henrietta Marie.
“I had learned that the site of the wreck is a place where I am never really alone,
a place where I feel connected to my past and ancestors. I had learned that lasting
friendships can be forged––regardless of racial backgrounds––even while exploring a sunken slave ship.”
There are several ways for readers to approach this well-written narrative nonfiction novel. From the sheer storytelling perspective, it is completely absorbing and satisfying, in fact I read it in one sitting. As a page turning detective novel, it’s rich in detail with Cottman’s journalistic abilities highlighted as he asks the right questions and tracks down individuals around the globe to piece together the puzzle that is the Henrietta Marie. When children read Shackles From the Deep they will gain a better understanding of slavery and the dehumanization of people that was perpetrated for 300 years, and hopefully be the force to prevent such cruelty from ever happening again.
Click here to visit Michael H. Cottman’s website.
National Poetry Month
April is National Poetry Month so throughout the month we’ll be reviewing different poetry books we think you will enjoy.
I chose this particular biography to kick off National Poetry Month because I was drawn to it by the title and then moved by this remarkable and intelligent woman’s story. A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet (Candlewick, $14.99, hardcover, ages 8-12; also available in paperback) by Kathryn Lasky with illustrations by Paul Lee is certain to enlighten curious young readers.
“At first there was just blackness. Complete blackness. Then the blackness dissolved into darkness …”
The year is 1761 when Phillis Wheatley’s story begins with these short yet powerful sentences. I felt compelled to read on about this young girl stolen from her family in Africa. I tried to imagine her fears and sorrow as she was thrown on board a slave ship bound for America and treated more like cargo than a human being. I could not imagine at seven years old being separated from my mother, my life and my country and then enduring a grueling ten-week journey across the sea only to find myself being purchased for a few dollars upon arrival. Phillis’s only good fortune, if it can be called fortune, was that her new owners, John and Susannah Wheatley, were kind Bostonians and the laws for slaves in New England were far more lax than in the South.
Phillis was a quick study and not only learned English but Latin and Greek as well. She taught herself from books Mrs. Wheatley gave her and copied Bible passages by the light of a candle. Her passion for poetry soon emerged and her first published poem was in 1767 in the Newport Mercury newspaper. How many of your children know about this extraordinary black woman who at fourteen years old was visiting the “finest families in Boston” alongside Mrs. Wheatley, to read her poems? I think her story should be shared in every classroom.
Phillis’s earliest poems were written prior to the Revolution, and one particular poem, a tribute to Reverend George Whitefield upon his death, made her famous both “in the colonies and in England.” This English preacher who found slavery sinful, had made a profound and lasting impression upon young Phillis who had found a new kind of freedom through her words. Mrs. Wheatley, who considered Phillis more like a daughter than a slave, was determined to have Phillis’s collection of poetry published but printers in Boston refused to publish “the work of a Negro.” The only choice Mrs. Wheatley had then was to send Phillis to England where the collection was published in 1773.
The book is broken down into nine vividly illustrated chapters, plus an epilogue, notes from the author and illustrator, selected sources, an index and author and illustrator biographies. It’s an inspirational read for anyone interested in learning how individuals can overcome some of life’s harshest obstacles. Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped as a diamond in the rough from Africa and grew to become a polished poet who could shine on even the dullest New England day. Her outstanding contribution to poetry has truly earned her a place in American history.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Once I started reading Frederick Douglas for Kids: The Life and Times with 21 Activities, ($16.95, Chicago Review Press, Ages 9 and up) I couldn’t put the book down. (Even the Olympic Games could not distract me!) Douglas’ life story, as brilliantly and thoroughly told by author Nancy I. Sanders, is one of great risk and reward, despair and triumph.
Born as Frederick Augustine Washington Baily, the young slave boy from Baltimore, Maryland was taken from his mother, lived with his grandmother and then was sent into slavery at a young age. Throughout the book we learn how he spoke out against the atrocities of slavery and took the most courageous risks through the Underground Railroad to become a free man. We also discover that his name was changed to protect his true identity. His life was one of many hardships and tragedies, yet he rose above it all to become a revered speaker against slavery, an author and a leader in the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
I really enjoyed every aspect of this book. In addition to the astounding life story of Douglas, there many excellent photographs and feature boxes with fascinating facts about other abolitionists and key figures of the era. The 21 activities in the book, such as forming a debate club, taking action in the current world slave market and making a carpet bag, are among the best I’ve seen in any of the Chicago Review Press books I’ve read. In the back of the book are resources and a detailed index I found myself using often to cross-reference information.
Now that I’ve read this book, I am so much more knowledgeable about not only Douglas, but also slavery, the Civil War, civil rights and the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglas will live on as one of the bravest and brightest Americans in history, and reading this book will inspire children to think about what they should stand up for – or against. Simply put, Frederick Douglas for Kids: The Life and Times with 21 Activities an invaluable resource and a spectacular book that should be read by every American child (and parent too).