Researchers Say Slave Ship That Sank In 1794 With 212 Slaves Aboard Has Been Recovered

Written by Rewindingblack

On Dec. 3, 1794, a Portuguese slave ship left Mozambique, on the east coast of Africa, for what was to be a 7,000-mile voyage to Maranhão, Brazil, and the sugar plantations that awaited its cargo of black men and women.

Shackled in the ship’s hold were between 400 and 500 slaves, pressed flesh to flesh with their backs on the floor. With the exception of daily breaks to exercise, the slaves were to spend the bulk of the estimated four-month journey from the Indian Ocean across the vast South Atlantic in the dark of the hold.

In the end, their journey lasted only 24 days. Buffeted by strong winds, the ship, the São José Paquete Africa, rounded the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and came apart violently on two reefs not far from Cape Town and only 100 yards from shore, but in deep, turbulent water. The Portuguese captain, crew and half of the slaves survived. An estimated 212 slaves did not and perished in the sea.

On Tuesday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, along with the Iziko Museums of South Africa, the Slave Wrecks Project, and other partners, will announce in Cape Town that the remnants of the São José have been found, right where the ship went down, in full view of Lion’s Head Mountain. It is the first time, researchers involved in the project say, that the wreckage of a slaving ship that went down with slaves aboard has been recovered.

The story of the São José, like the slave trade itself, spanned continents and oceans, from fishing villages in Africa to sheikhdoms where powerful chiefs plotted with European traders to traffic in human beings to work on plantations in the New World. Fittingly, the discovery of the São José also encompassed continents and oceans. Divers from the United States joined divers in South Africa, while museum curators in Africa, Europe and the Americas pored through old ship manifests looking for clues.

In the end, the breakthrough that the shipwreck was of a vessel that had been carrying slaves came from something unexpected, the iron blocks of ballasts that were used to offset the weight of slaves in the hold.

“The more cargo that you have that is living, the more ballast you need, because live cargo moves and is not as heavy as, say, tubs of molasses,” said Paul Gardullo, historian and curator at the Smithsonian African-American museum. “Ballast becomes a signature for slaving, and a direct corollary to human beings.”

For the museum – set to open on the National Mall in Washington next year – the find represents the culmination of more than a decade of work searching for the remains of a slave ship, any slave ship, that could help tell the story of the 12 million people who were sold into bondage and forcibly moved, over some 60,000 voyages, from Africa to North America, the West Indies, South America and Europe.

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum, had been looking for such a wreck when he took the job in 2005. “I really wanted something from a slave ship,” he said in an interview. “How hard could that be?”

Exceptionally hard, it turned out, because the museum wanted something original to showcase, and ideally a slave shipwreck that was connected to the United States. Visits to maritime museums in Liverpool and Lisbon for leads on slave ships yielded little. Bunch heard of a ship that had left Bristol, Rhode Island, in the late 1790s, sailed to Ghana to pick up 144 Africans, then sailed across the Atlantic and sank off the coast of Cuba. But trying to find and excavate that ship proved “too complicated,” he said. Gardullo, the museum curator, was also chasing leads that went nowhere.

But around 2010, Gardullo met Stephen C. Lubkemann, a George Washington University anthropologist and maritime archaeologist, who had heard from Jaco Boshoff, a maritime archaeologist with the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, that a shipwreck off the coast thought to be a Dutch merchant ship might be something else. Treasure hunters diving near Camps Bay had identified the ship as the Schuylenburg, which had sunk in 1756.

Boshoff was coming to another conclusion after multiple dives he and his colleagues had begun in 2010 into waters surging so furiously that they likened them to swimming in a washing machine. Pieces emerged pointing to a different ship altogether.


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