An 18th Century Portuguese Slave Ship Rediscovered off Cape Town Sheds Light on the Middle Passage of the African Slave Trade

by Owen James Burke

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“To our knowledge, this is the first full scale effort to document a shipwreck that was carrying slaves”, reports The Smithsonian. Art: “Table Bay Cape Town”. Table Bay in the 1790’s by Thomas Luny (1759-1837)/Iziko Museums.

On December 27th, 1794, a Portuguese slave ship named the São José was full of human cargo and on its way to Brazil when it rounded Cape Point, South Africa and blew onto the rocks about 100 yards from shore.

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Screenshot from The Smithsonian’s video.

The captain and crew raced to recover whomever and whatever they could, but the ship broke up in the storm and roughly half of the cargo–212 Mozambican slaves–perished in the waves.

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A schematic of how the enslaved would have been held in the belly of the ship. Screenshot from The Smithsonian Institute’s video.

The wreck was largely forgotten as the ship’s owners continued their exploits in the East African slave trade which carried on well into the 19th century.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and a team of treasure hunters encounters the wreck, only they mistook it for an older Dutch vessel. Because there isn’t much to recover, the wreck fell out of attention again, until 2010 when The ShipWrecks Project (SWP) came across the captain’s log of the São José.

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Conducting an archaeological survey was no easy feat; those on the expedition likened the waters in the bay to a washing machine. Screenshot from The Smithsonian Institute’s video.

“The ship broke up completely”, says Jaco Boshoff of the Iziko Museums of South Africa, “so there’s very little that actually tells you it’s a shipwreck, so you’ve got to look very carefully. There’s one or two bits of timber, and then the ballast blocks that we’ve recovered most of, and mostly sand.”

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A wooden block is carefully hauled through the kelp and to the surface. Screenshot from The Smithsonian Institute’s video (below).

Over the course of the past several years, artifacts were brought to the surface and the remains of heavily oxidized iron shackles were identified.

Yesterday, a memorial was held in South Africa with soil brought from Mozambique, not only to honor those 212 that perished, but the 400,000 East Africans estimated to have made the journey between Africa and South America.

An exhibit will be put on display in the new African American History Museum in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which opens in the fall of 2016.

Read more at The Smithsonian. -OJB

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