Found on the wreck site of the Henrietta Marie, sank 1700
For centuries, no European or American ship has sailed without a bell. Navigation, manning the helm, trimming the sails, and keeping a lookout for dangers were tasks that continued around the clock. These duties were divided among the sailors in order to make sure that the ship functioned properly at all times. Then as now, the ship’s bell announced the time of day, measured in half-hour increments through four-hour cycles, known as watches. The bell was at the center of a ship’s operation, commanding alike the captain and the lowest seaman. It was rung once to mark the first half-hour of the watch; “eight bells” marked the completion of the fourth hour of the watch—usually the end of a team’s period of responsibility.
The bell not only ordered the day but also could also be used to sound a general alarm, or rung in low visibility to signal the ship’s location. Made of bronze, a ship’s bell is a source of pride. Sometimes the ship’s name or the date when she first sailed was cast into its shell.
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.
When the slave ship Henrietta Marie was first located in 1972, it was dubbed the “The English Wreck” based on the large amount of English pewter it contained. But that name changed in 1983, when diver Duke Long, working on the site with shipwreck explorer Henry Taylor, dove to check the status of a newly-set anchor on their research vessel. There, sitting on the bottom next to the anchor, he saw a bell encrusted with sediment. In his excitement, Long carried it to the surface. Once they hauled the bell onboard, the crew could see there were letters concealed beneath the encrustation. Carefully, they picked away at the covering to see what words they might find. When they were finished, they had made a momentous discovery. 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.
The Henrietta Marie bell is 36cm tall, with a mouth 41cm dia.; it weighs 24kg (53 lbs.). Though the original clapper is missing, striking the bell sounds a D5 note but, because there is a crack in the rim, this tone is surely not quite the original ring.