Slaves' roiling grave yields dark secrets

A small ceremony was held on Clifton's second beach on Tuesday in remembrance of the 200 people who lost their lives when the slave ship São José sank in 1794. (David Harrison, M&G)

A small ceremony was held on Clifton's second beach on Tuesday in remembrance of the 200 people who lost their lives when the slave ship São José sank in 1794. (David Harrison, M&G)

It was called Cabo das Tormentas (the Cape of Storms) for a reason. On December 27 1794, when a Portuguese ship carrying more than 400 Mozambican slaves encountered one of the infamous storms, it foundered on submerged rocks about 100m from Clifton Beach, Cape Town, taking the lives of about half the slaves with it. Those who survived were sold in the Western Cape.

Although archaeologists have worked on slave ships before this is, to date, the only known slave ship wreck to have sunk with slaves on board.

“We have been searching the world to find a slave ship,” Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said.
“It is rare to find any slave ship that foundered with enslaved people on board. This is an important ship – it is one of the early ships to bring Africans to the New World.”

The ship, the São José, left Lisbon for Mozambique earlier that year, its final destination Brazil and its labour-hungry sugar cane fields.

This week, soil from Mozambique Island, the site of the São José‘s final embarkation, was deposited at the wreck site by a team of divers representing Mozambique, South Africa and the United States, and a memorial service was held for the slaves who died on board. Artefacts found on the ship will form part of the Smithsonian museum’s 2016 exhibition, Slavery and Freedom.

The knowledge that this is the São José is a result of the Slave Wrecks Project, a global initiative “to combine research, training and education to build new scholarship and knowledge about the study of the global slave trade, particularly through the lens of slave shipwrecks”, according to the organisation.

Its partners include the George Washington University, the Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resource Agency, the United States National Park Service, Diving with a Purpose, and the African Centre for Heritage Activities.

Treasure hunters discovered the wreck in the 1980s but mistakenly identified it as a Dutch vessel.

According to historic accounts of the voyage, the São José was carrying 1 400 iron bars as ballast and this was found at the wreck site. The account of the ship’s captain is in the Cape archives. This, combined with copper fastenings and sheathings, which point to a later period in time, tipped the Slave Wrecks Project off to the ship’s true identity.

According to the Smithsonian, the São José was one of the earliest slave voyages between Mozambique and Brazil. “More than 400 000 East Africans were 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,” it says.

For the past 200 years, the wreck has been below the roiling waves that can be seen from Camps Bay.

Bunch says: “When something is closer to the shore, it is even harder to find – the sand keeps shifting.”

Iziko Museums curator Jaco Boshoff, who was one of the co-originators of the Slave Wrecks Project and a primary investigator on the São José wreck, said: “It’s a very rough site, extremely rough – there is a lot of surge and wave action.”

He said he didn’t expect to find any human remains on the wreck because of the tumultuous conditions at its location.

The Smithsonian says: “The São José wreck site is located between two reefs, a location that creates a difficult environment to work in because it is prone to strong swells, creating challenging conditions for the archaeologists. To date, only a small percentage of the site has been excavated; fully exploring the site will take time.”

Asked how one excavates an archaeological site in such difficult conditions, Boshoff says: “We do it carefully. We take our time … chipping away at [the artifacts] and do it as scientifically as possible.”

He could not give an estimated completion date.

The South African government is the official repository for items recovered from the ship, he says, adding that the government has agreed to lend a selection of artefacts, such as a wooden pulley block and some of the iron ballast, necessary to stabilise the ship with its human cargo, to the Smithsonian museum.

“My expectation is that the Smithsonian can help stimulate a world effort to find more slave ships,” Bunch says.

“Slave ships are the last frontier of understanding slavery. [In the case of this particular wreck], just the process of slaves coming form East Africa to the New World [teaches us something] – how early that was is new [information].”

Asked why the Smithsonian wanted to display the artefacts, Bunch says: “We will treat them like religious relics, and gaze on things tied to the slave trade. It humanises a great tragedy.”

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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