For some time, researchers suspected that the São José-Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese slave ship, had crashed in 1794 off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. But only now, after years of painstaking work, have they finally confirmed it.
Drawing on archival records from Portugal, diagnostic tests from material gathered during dives at the wreck site and even the captain's account of the ship, a team of researchers from a group called the Slave Wrecks Project has verified the São José's deadly end. Remnants from that ship, which picked up slaves in Mozambique and transported them to Brazil, will be loaned to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, or NMAAHC, for an exhibition called "Slavery and Freedom," set to open next year.
In a statement, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of NMAAHC, said, "Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is the ships that carried millions of captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return."
The discovery is significant, he said, "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."
The NMAAHC was not alone in the investigation, though. The research effort was spearheaded by the Slave Wrecks Project — a wide-ranging collaboration between the museum, George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resource Agency, the U.S. National Park Service, Diving With a Purpose, and the African Center for Heritage Activities.
A memorial service is planned for this Tuesday — including divers from Mozambique, South Africa and the U.S., as well as officials and dignitaries from a number of countries. As part of the ceremony, participants will deposit soil from Mozambique Island, a past Portuguese port, on the wreck site.
In the 1980s, treasure hunters mistakenly identified the São José as an earlier Dutch vessel, according to the Smithsonian. But in 2011, researchers found the São José captain's account, which sparked new interest in the ship.
Since then, the discovery of artifacts, including the remains of shackles and iron ballast, which was often used to stabilize slave ships, lent credence to the theory that the wreck near Cape Town was in fact the São José.
The Smithsonian says the ship was carrying more than 400 slaves from Mozambique to Brazil when it struck a rock and began to sink. More than 200 of those slaves died; the rest were likely sold back into slavery just days after being rescued from the sinking ship.
The NMAAHC says that more than 400,000 East Africans are believed to have been transported from Mozambique to Brazil between 1800 and 1865, with slaves from East Africa serving as a significant source of labor on Brazilian sugar plantations.