Mary Sunk, Mary Rose
It was sheer bad seamanship that sunk Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose. And Henry himself watched it happen.
It was a fine calm day in 1545 when King Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, sailed from Southampton after an extensive refit to engage the French navy in the Battle of the Solent. As she turned on a tack, she heeled. All quite normal, but someone had left the gun ports open. Water rushed in, making her heel even more. She'd been equipped with new and improved bronze cannons, and the extra weight destabilized her further. The heavy cannons slid to the starboard side: gravity did what gravity does, and in minutes the four-masted, 91-gun, 400-ton battleship rolled over and sank.
And King Henry VIII stood helpless on the bluffs, watching it all happen.
The ship, of course, was valuable, but what really concerned Henry's Treasurer for Marine Causes were the new guns. They were valued at £1723, about £2 million ($2,700,000) today. Far too much money to leave on the ocean floor.
A Southampton salvage specialist, Peter Paulo Corsi, assembled a team of eight to retrieve the guns. Three of the team were Africans: Jacques Francis, John Iko, and George Blacke. The 20-year-old Francis had lived in England for many years and was the senior of the three. He had been born on an island off the West African coast, where he had learned deep water diving for fish, developing the necessary lung capacity, mental strength and, most important, the ability to equalize the pressure in his ears with the pressure of the water. He could dive and work as deep as 90 feet.
Corsi provided his team with a diving bell (recently invented by Leonardo da Vinci) that could take a pocket of air deep enough so that the divers did not have to return all the way to the surface to recharge their lungs. The divers tied stones around their waists to help them work at depth and cut them free when they needed to return to the surface. They did retrieve a few of the guns, but had to leave most on the bed of the Solent.
There's an interesting post script to this story: the Africans were free wage earners, not slaves. Tudor England had a law banning slavery, and a number of Africans immigrated to earn their livings as weavers, musicians, laborers and servants. Some came to England with English merchants trading in West Africa to learn English so that they could become interpreters, and some were escaped slaves from Portugal and Spain (where slavery was legal).
PS: The Mary Rose was raised in 1982 and her remains can be seen at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, together with many of the 26,000 objects that were found inside her.
Images courtesy Mary Rose Trust