Shipwreck Discovery Provides Insight on Transatlantic Slave Trade

  • Posted: Jun 1, 2015

Iziko Museums of South Africa, 2 June 2015


Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko), in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and George Washington University will announce the findings of an international research partnership this evening at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum.  The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP,) first formed in 2008, provides new knowledge on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, focusing on the São José slave wreck ship, discovered off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

The discovery of this 1794 slave ship wreck marks a milestone in the study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and showcases the results of the Slave Wrecks Project, a unique global partnership among museums and research institutions in the United States and Africa.

Objects from the ship wreck will be unveiled at this historic event this evening at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum. Remnants of shackles, iron ballast to weigh down the ship and its human cargo, and a wooden pulley block, were retrieved this year from the wreck site of the São José—Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese slave ship which sank off the coast of Cape Town on its way to Brazil while carrying hundreds of enslaved Africans from Mozambique.

“The story of the Saõ José’sis more than an African story. It is a story that transcends time, space, place and identity. It is a global story of our inter-connectedness as a human race. It is a story of migration and of untold human wrongs.

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. The São José narrative, while linking with sites such as the Iziko Slave Lodge, where many enslaved Mozambicans were incarcerated, simultaneously opens up opportunities for links with sites of enslavement in Mozambique and Brazil. At the same time, it raises important questions, such as the location of the burial site of the Mozambican casualties of the wreck, therefore providing opportunities for further research and investigation.

,” said Rooksana Omar, CEO, Iziko.

Also joiningin today’s landmark announcement of the shipwreck’s discovery Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC): “Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the transatlantic slave trade is the ships that carried millions of captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return,” said Lonnie Bunch.  “This discovery is significant because there has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons. The São José is all the more significant because it represents one of the earliest attempts to bring East Africans into the trans-Atlanticslave trade—a shift that played a major role in prolonging that tragic trade for decades. Locating, documenting, and preserving this cultural heritage through the São José has the potential to reshape our understandings of a part of history that has been considered unknowable.”

Also in attendance will be the Minister of Art and Culture, Judge Albie Sachs, a long time advocate for justice and dignity throughout southern Africa—both of whom provided comments at the memorial event held at the wreck site earlier today. They were joined by numerous diplomatic dignitaries, including the US ambassadors to South Africa and Mozambique, as well as prominent South African community leaders and activists.

Memorial Service

Earlier today, soil brought from Mozambique Island, the site of the Saõ José’s embarkation, was deposited by a team represented by divers from Mozambique, South Africa and the United States, on the wreck site.  A solemn memorial service was also held close by on shore honoring the 500 enslaved Mozambicans who lost their lives or were sold into slavery. SWP researchers, Cape Town dignitaries, and delegations from the American Consulate and Government of South Africa attended the private ceremony.

Public Symposium

In addition to today’s ceremony, a day-long public symposium, “Bringing The  São José  Into Memory,” will be held tomorrow (June 3) featuring a series of panel discussions focusing on the wreck, the slave trade,  slavery, history and memory. The panels will take place at the Iziko South African Museum’s TH Barry Lecture Theatre and will feature discussions by scholars, curators, heritage activists, artists, and slave descendants from various academic, heritage and religious institutions including: Iziko, St. George’s Cathedral, NMAAHC, The George Washington University, Syracuse University, Brown University, University of Western Cape and Cape Family Research Forum, among others.

Maritime Archaeology and Conservation Workshop

The week’s activities will also include a conservation workshop for archaeologists, researchers and museum professionals from Mozambique, Senegal and South Africa to learn techniques in conservation and care for marine materials.  This workshop, co-taught by Boshoff and Dr. George Schwarz of the US Naval Heritage Command, is an opportunity to advance professional training and capacity for individuals and institutions, a core component of the SWP’s mission.  Representatives from Eduardo Modlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, and Cheik Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal will join with Smithsonian and Iziko professionals in learning and discourse regarding current and future research and searches in their respective regions.


For media-related queries contact Lee-Shay Collison on Tel. 021 481 3891 or email


Issued by:Melissa Scheepers
Communications Coordinator: Institutional Advancement, Iziko Museums of South Africa
Telephone:+27 (0) 21 481 3874                 Facsimile: +27 (0) 21 461 9620             Website                                                           
On behalf of: Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa

Notes to editor:

About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)

Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko) is a declared national heritage institution established as a flagship museum bringing together 11 museums under a single governance and leadership structure. Iziko is governed by a Council appointed by the Minister of Arts and Culture. The core mission of the institution is to manage and promote Iziko’s unique combination of South Africa’s heritage collections, sites and services for the benefit of present and future generations.

Jaco Jacqes Boshoff is a Maritime Archaeologist at Iziko, is the co-originator of the Slave Wrecks Project and Principal Archaeological Investigator on the Sao Jose shipwreck excavation.

Additional Notes Pertaining to the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP)

The SWP brings together partners who have been investigating the impact of the slave trade on world history for nearly a decade and spearheaded the recent discovery of the São José wreck and the ongoing documentation and retrieval of select artifacts. In addition extensive archival research conducted on four continents in six countries that ultimately uncovered the ship Captain’s account of the wrecking in the Cape Archives as well as the ship’s manifest in Portuguese Archives. Core SWP partners include: The George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resource Agency, the US National Park Service, National Association of Black Scuba Divers (Diving With A Purpose), and the African Center for Heritage Activities.

Bringing the still developing story of this one ship – and the stories of those who were enslaved on board – into the collective memory of people across the globe represents a the collective effort by SWP researchers and scholars from Mozambique, South Africa, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. As Jaco Boshoff--lead archaeologist for Iziko and primary investigator for the Sao Jose project noted: “This work demonstrates how we build global networks. That’s how we advance science, that’s how we generate new knowledge, and I think it is a model that we could develop to use elsewhere.”

Launched in 2008 with a seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the SWP has established a new model for international collaboration among museums and research institutions. It has been combining groundbreaking slave ship wreck investigation, maritime and historical archeological training, capacity building, heritage tourism and protection, and education to build new scholarship and knowledge about the study of the global slave trade. 

SWP initially focused its research efforts in South Africa and Mozambique. Now in its second phase, SWP has expanded the geographic scope of the project to reflect the global reach and impact of the African slave trade. Work is also in progress and partnerships are under development in North and South America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and in the East Africa/Indian Ocean regions. 

“The Slave trade has always been a global story, perhaps the first and foundational story of globalization. That history not only links disparate parts of the globe but requires international partnerships in order to investigate. This heritage and its protection is a shared responsibility,” said Dr. Stephen Lubkemann, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies and International Affairs, George Washington University, and International Coordinator, Slave Wrecks Project.

São José Wreck

The São José was one of the earliest voyages of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from East Africa to the Americas, which continued well into the 19th century. Over 400,000 East Africans are estimated to have made the Mozambique to Brazil journey between 1800 and 1865. The ship’s crew and some of the over 500 enslaved on board were rescued after the ship wrecked upon submerged rocks 100 meters from shore. Tragically, almost half of the enslaved people perished in the violent waves. The remainder were resold into slavery in the Western Cape.

The process of discovering theSão José wreck is as fascinating as the humble objects painstakingly retrieved and conserved from the site.  The site is located between two reefs as stated in the archival account.  This location creates a difficult environment to work in as it’s prone to strong swells creating challenging conditions for the archaeologists.  So far only a small percentage of the site has been excavated.  To fully explore the site will take some time.

Even the smallest artifact gives a clue into the story of the shipwreck:

  • 1980’s: Local amateur treasure hunters discover a wreck near Cape Town and mistakenly identify it as the wreck of an earlier Dutch vessel. They applied for a permit under the legislation of the time and had to report their findings.
  • 2008-2009: SWP identified the Sao Jose as a target for location in its Pilot project
  • 2010-2011: IZIKO archaeologist and SWP representative Jaco Boshoff discovers the Captain’s account of the wrecking of the São José in the Cape Archives. New interest is developed on 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.
  • 2012-2013: SWP uncovers an archival document in Portugal stating that the Saõ José had loaded iron ballast before she departed for Mozambique, further confirming the site as the Saõ José wreck.  Archaeological documentation of the wreck site begins in 2013.
  • 2014-2015: Some of the first artifacts are brought above water through a targeted retrieval process according to the best archaeological and preservation practices. Archival research locates a document in which a slave is noted as sold by a local sheikh to the Captain of the Sao Jose prior to its departure, definitively identifying Mozambique Island as the port of departure for the slaving voyage. Archival and archaeological prospecting work is launched in Mozambique and Brazil in order to identify sites related to the Sao Jose story for future research.
  • 2015-Ongoing: Full archaeological documentation and retrieval of select items to help to tell of the São Joséwrecking site continues.Continued search for descendant communities of Mozambicans from wreck.

A selection of artifacts retrieved from the São José wreck will be loaned by Iziko Museums and the government of South Africa for display in an inaugural exhibition entitled “Slavery and Freedom” at the NMAAHC, opening fall 2016. The exhibition will provide an unprecedented opportunity for a world-wide public to experience and come face to face with authentic pieces and symbols of the transatlantic slave trade that played such a foundational role in shaping world history,” added Bunch “These relics will allow people to now imagine the slave trade in a very personal way.” Iziko Museums plans also include mounting an exhibition.

About George Washington University(GWU)

The George Washington University (GWU) is private research university located in Washington, D.C. It is the largest institution of higher education in the District of Columbia.   Based at GWU, The Capitol Archaeological Institute aims to protect and preserve cultural heritage through advocacy programs and initiatives by utilizing the multitude of diplomatic and governmental resources in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Stephen Lubkemann, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies and International Affairs at The George Washington University, is co-founder of the Slave Wrecks Project and serves as its international coordinator.

About National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Scheduled for completion in 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture broke ground in February 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 400,000-square-foot building is being built on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument at a cost of $500 million. While construction is moving forward, the museum is hosting public programs, organizing traveling exhibitions and producing books and recordings. Lonnie Bunch is the Museum’s Founding Director and Dr. Paul Gardullo, Museum Curator, serves as the NMAAHC’s chief representative to the Slave Wrecks Project.

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