Smithsonian to Receive Artifacts From Sunken 18th-Century Slave Ship

In 1794, the Portuguese slave ship São José wrecked with 400 slaves aboard; iron ballast and a wooden pulley from that ship will come to Washington, D.C.

Table Bay, Cape Town, 1790s
“Table Bay Cape Town,” Table Bay in the 1790’s by Thomas Luny (1759-1837) Iziko Museums

Long-buried artifacts from a 200-year-old slave ship recently found off the coast of South Africa will be a primary focus when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington next year. The artifacts, which will be on a 10-year loan to the museum, are thought to be the first ever recovered from a slave ship wrecked while transporting enslaved people.

Two of the objects from the wreck of the São José-Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese ship en route to Brazil while carrying more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique in December 1794, are to be unveiled in a press conference Tuesday, June 2 in Cape Town, South Africa. The iron ballast used to offset the relatively light weight of the ship's human cargo and a wooden pulley block will also go on view when the new African American History Museum opens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2016. Museum officials say they hope to find more objects from the dive site, where an international team of investigators from museums and research institutions in the United States and Africa has been quietly working on the project since 2010.

“We hope to have shackles,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the new museum, before flying to South Africa to take part in the announcement—and a memorial ceremony for the historical victims. “What I’m really hoping for, and we’re still trying to make sure that we’ve got, is a piece of wood from the hull of the ship where the enslaved people were held.”

Having the items, Bunch says, “will help people get a better understanding of the slave trade.”

But the way it will be displayed in the museum, he adds, “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."

Underwater Archaeology
Divers reported that the location of the ship wreck was like a giant washing machine; the continual churning of the water made it difficult to document the site. Iziko Museums

“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," Bunch adds. "So it’s both a scholarly moment, but also, for many people, it will be a highly personal moment.”

The fact that nothing has ever been found of a ship wreck that sunk while carrying a cargo of enslaved people makes the finding of the São José all the more significant, he says. “They have found ships that were once slave ships but didn’t sink on the voyage. This is the first ship that we know of that actually sank with enslaved people on it.” Until now, researchers have never been able to conduct an archaeological investigation on a vessel that was lost while carrying human cargo. The investigation could provide new scholarship in the study of the global slave trade. And this particular ship, according to reports, is important to historians because it dates to one of the earliest attempts to bring captured East Africans into the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a pivotal moment that prolonged the slave trade for decades.

The discovery came through the work of the Slave Wrecks Project, which was founded in 2008 by researchers from George Washington University, the 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. The African American History Museum joined in a couple of years later, recognizing that what the organization was doing—seeking scholarship on slavery and the slave trade—was a major part of its mission.

“I realized in building a national museum you needed to find certain artifacts that people had never seen, that would excite them in profound ways,” Bunch says. “And I thought finding some relic pieces of a slave ship would be something important for us to do.” The group initially looked for ships near Cuba (“that didn’t really pan out”) but the one near Cape Town was full of promise and has been investigated in secret for nearly three years.

Site location of Cape
More than 200 of the enslaved Africans were lost at the crash site, a place so close to the shore they were able to shoot a cannon after hitting the rocks to signal for help. Susanna Pershern, U.S. National Parks Service

The wreck, just 60 yards off the rocky coast of the Cape, was originally found by treasure hunters in the 1980s who misidentified it as an earlier Dutch ship. Because of South African regulations at the time, they had to file details of their dive to the government. That information, paired with newly found accounts of the wreck by the captain of the São José, led to new dives, which turned up copper fastenings and copper sheathing that indicated a wreck of a later period. Another clue was the iron ballast, often used on slave ships to stabilize the vessel.

Documentation in Portugal showed that the same kind of iron ballast had been in the São José when it left there for Africa in April 1794. The first artifacts brought to shore came only last year.

“It was a combination of old fashioned scholarship and then actually diving on the site,” Bunch says.

What made the site a dangerous place for 18th-century ships is what makes it difficult for divers today, says Paul Gardullo, a curator at the African American History Museum and its chief representative to the Ship Wrecks Project. More than 200 of the enslaved Africans were lost at the crash site, a place so close to the shore the crew was able to shoot a cannon after hitting the rocks to signal for help. “The captain and all the crew were rescued, as well as about half of those who were enslaved on board,” Gardullo says. “And the other half of whom tried to save themselves” but drowned. The Mozambique people rescued were likely re-enslaved on a subsequent voyage to Brazil, he says.

Iron Ballast
Iron ballast recovered from the São José slave ship wreck undergoing treatment. The ballast was used to weigh down the slave ship and its human cargo. Iziko Museums

“It’s a pretty intense site,” Gardullo says. “The divers talk about it as like being in a giant washing machine. Because of the tides there and the surge, there’s a continual churning of the water.” That made it difficult to document the site—necessary before any objects are removed—and it makes it hard to recover objects as well.

Despite those difficulties, Gardullo adds, “that constant churning of the sand that broke apart the ship also may have helped to protect some of the pieces of it, because the divers are finding a site that is continually overburdened by sand.” Some pieces are covered by as much as six to eight feet of sand, he says, and even after that’s carefully vacuumed off, “within a few hours, the sand has re-covered the site, and within a day or so, there’ll be two to three feet of sand back over the site.”

He emphasizes that the sand protected the artifacts “that would have otherwise been lost to history.”

Nobody knows quite what the treasure hunters from 30 years ago plundered from the site. But divers from the Slave Wrecks Project knew they had to keep their work under wraps these past few years in order to keep more treasure hunters away. “Typically, treasure hunters aren’t looking for history and slave ships,” Gardullo says. “But they’ll look at anything they may be able to see some monetary value in. And in so doing they are often careless with the history.”

Copper ship fastenings
Copper fastenings and copper sheathing recovered from the São José slave ship wreck. The copper fastenings held the structure of the ship together and the sheathing provided exterior protection for the vessel. Iziko Museums

With the Slave Wrecks Project, he says the group is working to create a model for a new kind of tourism, “so people can see a value in heritage tourism, for instance, that allows us to provide an alternative to the models that treasure hunters have given to places, especially in Africa.”

The discovery of the wreck was kept quiet all this time not only to preserve and protect the site, Bunch says, but also because, “I wanted to make sure we had what we said we had. We didn’t want to announce something and then find out it’s not. So I wanted to make sure we did all the research, we did all the dives, that we had the best sense that this was the ship that we were looking for.” Thorough archival investigation, which included the discovery of the captain's accounting of the wreckage, was conducted across Europe, Brazil and Mozambique to fully document the ship's journey and its ultimate demise (see timeline below).

Other potential wreck sites are being investigated near St. Croix, Cuba and Senegal, and work will continue in Cape Town to find more of the São José. In all of them, there is a special attention to the human cost of what they are investigating and a reverence for those lost. Hence, a memorial ceremony was planned before the press conference Tuesday with soil brought from Mozambique Island, a major Portuguese port that would have represented “the enslaved’s last footfall on the continent before the wreck,” Gardullo says.

“We’ll have a moment of silence and a small ceremony marking this solemn occasion. . . .We hope to bring the memory of those enslaved Africans back into consciousness,” he says.

Underwater Archaeology
The location of the dive site was kept under wraps to keep treasure hunters from pillaging the findings. Iziko Museums

The story of the São José is one that gives insight into the early days of shipping East Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a practice that would continue well into the 19th century. More than 400,000 East Africans are estimated to have made the months-long journey from Mozambique to Brazil between 1800 and 1865. This week’s announcement comes just before a day-long symposium, “Bringing the São José Into Memory” at the Iziko Museum in South Africa Wednesday June 3, and a conservation workshop on recovered marine materials for archeologists, researchers and museum professionals.

Bunch says there is a lot more to find.

“The ship hit rocks and really scattered,” he says. “So there’s probably a lot of artifacts, but it’s probably over a much larger range and we obviously haven’t excavated everything.” But there were other problems. Because of extreme iron corrosion, the remains of the highly fragile shackles could only be identified using CT scans, for example.

“The search will continue, the divers will continue diving,” Bunch says. “For me, it was important just to get a few pieces; relics, icons if you will, that will be in the museum when it opens."

São José Video- Long Version

The Timeline of the São José Shipwreck Project

April 27, 1794—The São José, a ship owned by Antonio Perreira and captained by his brother, Manuel Joao Perreira, left Lisbon for Mozambique with more than 1,400 iron ballast bars in its cargo. Seeking new markets, it is one of the first attempts by European slave traders to bring East Africa into the broader trans-Atlantic West African trade.

Dec. 3, 1794São José, laden with more than 400 captive Mozambicans likely from the interior of the country, set out for its destination: Maranhao, Brazil.

Dec. 27, 1794—Caught in variable winds and swells off the coast of Cape Town, the São José ran into submerged rocks in Camps Bay about 100 meters (328 feet) from shore. A rescue was attempted, and the captain, crew and approximately half of those enslaved were saved. The remaining Mozambican captives perished in the waves.

Dec. 29, 1794—The captain submitted his official testimony before court, describing the wrecking incident and accounting for the loss of property, including humans. Surviving Mozambicans were resold into slavery in the Western Cape. Apart from the court documents and scant reports throughout the years, the incident of the São José and the fate of those 200 enslaved Mozambicans passes out of public memory.

After 1794—The Portuguese family who owned and operated the São José continued their international slave trade and make several complete voyages bringing captive Mozambicans to Northeast Brazil, where they were sold into slavery on plantations in and near Maranhao.

1980s—Treasure hunters discovered the wreck of the São José and mistakenly identified it as the wreck of an earlier Dutch vessel.

2010–11—The Ship Wrecks Project (SWP) discovered the captain’s account of the wrecking of the São José in the Cape archives. Combined with the treasure hunters’ report from the 1980s, new interest developed in the site. Copper fastenings and copper sheathing indicated a wreck of a later period, and iron ballast—often found on slave ships and other ships as a means of stabilizing the vessel—was found on the wreck.

2012–13—SWP uncovered an archival document in Portugal stating that the São José had loaded iron ballast before she departed for Mozambique, further confirming the site as the São José wreck. The SWP later uncovered a second document in Mozambique confirming the sale of a Mozambican on to the São José. Full documentation of the wreck site begins in 2013. Complementary archival work continued at an advanced stage and was supplemented by additional work in Europe, Brazil and Mozambique.

2014–15—Some of the first artifacts were brought above water through a targeted retrieval process according to the best archaeological and preservation practices. Using CT scan technology because of the fragility of the artifacts, SWP identified the remains of shackles on the wreck site, a difficult undertaking, as extreme iron corrosion had occurred.

June 2, 2015—Soil from Mozambique will be deposited at the São José wreck site during a memorial ceremony honoring those who lost their lives or were sold into slavery and bringing their story back into public memory.

2015 and beyond—Full archaeological documentation of the shipwreck site will continue. Initial archaeological surveys and continued archival and community-based research will be used to track the origins of the slaves and the sites in Mozambique, as well as the possible fate of the survivors in Cape Town.

Site Image 1 São José slave ship
Underwater archaeology researchers on the site of the São José slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Susanna Pershern, U.S. National Parks Service

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.