Lying in a dangerous stretch of ocean floor off the coast of South Africa, right between two reefs, the wreck of slave ship lay for 200 years undiscovered.
In 1794, the Portugeuse ship, São José-Paquete de Africa, was carrying 500 slaves from Mozambique to Brazil, when it reached a spot 60 yards off the Cape, which modern-day divers liken to a churning washing machine.
The São José hit the rocks and sunk so close to shore that the desperate passengers shot a cannon to signal for help, the Smithsonian reported. The captain and crew survived but half the enslaved drowned. Those who survived were sold in the Western Cape, CNN added.
The São José was a slave ship in the early days, traveling the seas at a pivotal time in history – just as the trans-Atlantic slave trade got started. For this reason, the wreck will provide a “better understanding of the slave trade.”
An estimated 400,000 slaves from East Africa may have made the same journey as the São José from 1800 to 1865.
The discovery comes after a few years of quiet excavation – both to hide the site from treasure hunters and ensure that the finding was legit. The wreck is very significant – it marks the very first time historians have unearthed a slave ship that sunk with slaves aboard, said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founder of a new Smithsonian museum that will display artifacts found in the wreck.
“They have found ships that were once slave ships but didn’t sink on the voyage. This is the first … that we know of that actually sank with enslaved people on it.”
There were a few clues along the way: archival records, diagnostic tests, the captain’s testimony, and a couple artifacts. When the ship sank, it broke apart against the rocks, its contents scattering across the ocean. But buried under feet of sand – which likely protected the relics over the centuries – a team of divers and researchers found an iron ballast, used to balance the weight of human cargo, and a wooden pulley block.
Smithsonian will have these artifacts for ten years, and display them in the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C. next year. Researchers will continue to look for more remnants and for descendants of the slaves aboard.
The exhibit will really be more of a memorial, Bunch said.
“It’s really a place where you can go and bow your head, and think about all those who experienced the middle passage, all those who were lost. So it’s both a scholarly moment, but also, for many people, it will be a highly personal moment. (The display) is almost designed as a memorial space: You go in, you’re going to see a few artifacts in darkened space, you’re going to hear some of the descriptions of the trade, maybe a few words from some of the people who experienced it.”
On Tuesday, a memorial service will be held to mark the grave discovery; divers from Mozambique, South Africa and the U.S., and a contingent of international officials and dignitaries will attend, NPR reported. As part of the ceremony, a bit of soil from Mozambique Island – a Portuguese port – will be deposited there to represent “the enslaved’s last footfall on the continent before the wreck.”
[Photo Courtesy YouTube Screengrab]