[intro]A painful slavery story that started in Lisbon two centuries ago, closed with a moving ceremony on a wintry Cape Town beach this week. A ritual that happened most appropriately just below the home of a man who lost a limb and almost his life fighting for freedom, Justice Albie Sachs.[/intro]

On 27 April 1794, the Portuguese slave ship São José set sail from Lisbon. The main cargo was 1 400 iron ballast bars. The bars were an ominous pointer to the human cargo that they forced on board in Mozambique. Then months later the ship set sail for the sugar plantations of Brazil.

Below deck were between 400 and 500 slaves, shackled and packed claustrophobically close to each other. Perhaps there were daily breaks to exercise but most of these journeys were spent in the dark, damp hold where rats and disease were rampant.

Buffeted by the notorious South Easter, the São José Paquete Africa came apart violently on the rocks off the Cape coast, only 100 metres from shore in rough seas. The Portuguese captain and the crew saved themselves first. Only half of the Mozambicans survived. An estimated 212 drowned.

And that’s where the story ended until this week when the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) announced their important find. It is the first time, researchers involved in the project say, that the wreckage of a slaving ship that went down with people aboard has been recovered.

On Monday evening the CEO of Iziko Museums, Rooksana Omar, and the United States Consul General Teddy B Taylor hosted an event at the consulate to honour the partnership that has developed around what is now known as the SWP.

The next morning the aim of the ceremony on the rainy Cape Town beach was to deposit soil brought from Mozambique Island, the site of the Saõ José’s embarkation, on the wreck site. A team of divers from Mozambique, South Africa and the United States took the soil out to sea, symbolically honouring the Mozambicans who lost their lives or were sold into slavery.

The memorial service was somehow made more solemn by the winter gloom. It was held near to the home of former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. It was in Maputo that an apartheid car bomb almost killed Justice Sachs in 1988.

Iron ballasts recovered from the wreck of the São José. Used to offset the weight of the human cargo

Iron ballasts recovered from the wreck of the São José. Used to offset the weight of the human cargo

Transcending time, place & identity

“The story of the São José is more than an African story. It is a story that transcends time, space, place and identity. It is a global story of our inter-connectedness as a human race. It is a story of migration and of untold human wrongs.

“The São José slave shipwreck site reverberates with historical significance and represents an addition to our underwater heritage that has the potential to advance knowledge and understanding of slavery, not only at the Cape but on a global level. The São José narrative, while linking with sites such as the Iziko Slave Lodge, where many enslaved Mozambicans were incarcerated, simultaneously opens up opportunities for links with sites of enslavement in Mozambique and Brazil. At the same time, it raises important questions, such as the location of the burial site of the Mozambican casualties of the wreck, therefore providing opportunities for further research and investigation,” said Rooksana Omar, Chief Executive Officer of Iziko Museums.

The São José possibly represents the first known shipwreck to be identified, studied and excavated that foundered with enslaved Africans on board.

Also joining in this week’s landmark announcement of the shipwreck’s discovery was Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC):

“Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the transatlantic slave trade is the ships that carried millions of captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return,” said Lonnie Bunch. “This discovery is significant because there has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons. The São José is all the more significant because it represents one of the earliest attempts to bring East Africans into the trans-Atlantic slave trade—a shift that played a major role in prolonging that tragic trade for decades. Locating, documenting, and preserving this cultural heritage through the São José has the potential to reshape our understandings of a part of history that has been considered unknowable.”

The NMAAHC is a Smithsonian Institution and is based in Washington DC.

Relics from the first slave ship to be found that went down with people on board

Relics from the first slave ship to be found that went down with people on board

A Local Remembers

At the consulate event and contemplating the circumstances that led to a group of Mozambicans being sold into slavery here, a local man says:

“I remember as a kid being told, because of my dark skin… ‘jy’s so swart soos ‘n Mosambieker’ and that’s something you don’t hear anymore.”

A friend, standing close by, lights up with recognition. She also remembers this bit of Cape Town racism that points at specific events in history, possibly linked to the sinking of the Saõ José .

The discovery of this 1794 slave shipwreck marks a milestone in the study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and showcases the results of the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), a unique global partnership among museums and research institutions in the United States and Africa.

Objects from the shipwreck were unveiled at the historic events this week, some at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum. Remnants of shackles, iron ballast to weigh down the ship and its human cargo, and a wooden pulley block, were retrieved from the wreck site of the São José Paquete de Africa.

The São José was one of the earliest voyages of the slave trade between Mozambique and Brazil. It was a massive trade in human beings that continued well into the 19th century. Over 400 000 East Africans are estimated to have made the journey between 1800 and 1865 whilst transported in inhumane conditions. Voyages often took two to three months and countless numbers died… some estimates are as high as 50%. For many years Cape Town prospered as a refreshment station for this trade before ships began their transatlantic journey.

The São José wreck site under the waves off the Cape coast

The São José wreck site under the waves off the Cape coast

International Collaboration

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), transcontinental research collaboration between Iziko Museums of South Africa; the NHMAAC; the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA); George Washington University (GWU), and a core group of international partners, uses the lens of slave shipwrecks to investigate the impact of the slave trade on world history.

The developing story of the São José wreck represents the work of researchers and scholars from Mozambique, South Africa, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. SWP has now amassed enough information in these countries to tell a story of the ship owners, captains, and the voyage of the São José. And most importantly – more light can be shed onto those enslaved Africans who perished in that shipwreck.

The identification of this shipwreck provides an unparalleled opportunity for SWP to diligently excavate, conserve and prepare authentic objects of the transatlantic slave voyage. This significant find represents one of the earliest experimental voyages that brought East Africans into the transatlantic slave trade.

The project first launched in 2008 under the name “Southern African Slave Wrecks Project” with a seed grant from the Ford Foundation. The project’s primary research emphasis was on South Africa at the time. The project began assisting developing-country partners in the advancement of cultural resource management programs that can preserve and protect irreplaceable heritage related to the historical slave trade and Africa’s global diasporas, while also fostering a unique niche for regional cultural tourism with tangible economic benefits, and promoting a new model of self-sustaining research for national educational and scientific institutions.