The São José—Paquete de Africa, the Portuguese slave vessel that sank off the coast of the Cape in 1794, is the first known shipwreck to be identified, studied and excavated that foundered with enslaved Africans on board.
The ship sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, in 1794, and made its way to Mozambique and back with slaves destined for Brazil. The ship was reportedly carrying more than 500 slaves when it struck a rock and began to sink near the Cape of Good Hope, today in the vicinity of Clifton in Cape Town, South Africa. The crew all survived but more than 200 slaves drowned. The site where the slave vessel has been found is currently being documented and research into this find continues. The Slave Wrecks Project, a global research partnership, is conducting ongoing research into this find.
“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,” Rooksana Omar, CEO of Iziko Museums of South Africa said.
The announcement earlier this year came as a result of efforts by the Slave Wrecks Project (first formed in 2008), a global partnership among museums and research institutions in the United States and Africa studying the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The research links narratives of slavery sites such as the Iziko Slave Lodge and sites within Mozambique and Brazil.
“This also raises questions such as the location of the burial site of Mozambican casualties of the wreck, providing opportunities for further research and investigation,” Omar continues.
The São José is also highly significant because it represents one of the earliest, experimental voyages that brought East Africans into the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
During the 1790s East Africa became a significant source of slaves for Brazilian sugar plantations. More than 400,000 East Africans are estimated to have made the journey between 1800 and 1865, transported in inhumane conditions in voyages that often took two to three months; many did not survive the trip. For many years Cape Town prospered as a way station for this trade before ships began their long trans-Atlantic journey.
“Our idea is to link the São José with the broader story of African slaves in The Cape – the people who were enslaved and brought to the Cape from Mozambique,” says Paul Tichmann, curator at Iziko Museums of South Africa’s Social History Centre.
The artefacts discovered at the site, part of the Iziko Museums of South Africa collection, are currently on loan to the Smithsonian Museum.
Table Bay in the 1790s Thomas Luny (1759-1837). Depiction of Table Bay, the port city of Cape Town. The Sao Jose slave ship was planning to stop in the port before wrecking. Copyright Iziko Museums of South Africa.
Divers on the site of the São José slave ship wreck. Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Susanna Pershern, U.S. National Parks Service.
Copper fastenings and copper sheathing recovered from the São José slave ship wreck.
Iron ballast recovered from the São José slave ship wreck undergoing treatment. © Iziko Museums.