The Slave Wrecks Project

Fact Sheet: The Slave Wrecks Project

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), transcontinental research collaboration between Iziko Museums of South Africa; the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NHMAAC); the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA); George Washington University (GWU), and a core group of international partners, uses the lens of slave shipwrecks to investigate the impact of the slave trade on world history.

The developing story of the São Joséwreck represents the work of researchers and scholars from Mozambique, South Africa, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. SWP has now amassed enough information in these countries to tell a story of the ship owners, captains, and the voyage of the São José. And most importantly - more light can be shed onto those enslaved Africans who perished in that shipwreck. The São José possibly represents thefirst known shipwreck to be identified, studied and excavated that foundered with enslaved Africans on board.

The identification of this shipwreck provides an unparalleled opportunity for SWP to diligently excavate, conserve and prepare authentic objects of the transatlantic slave voyage. This significant find represents one of the earliest experimental voyages that brought East Africans into the transatlantic slave trade. 

The project first launched in 2008 under the name “Southern African Slave Wrecks Project” with a seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the project’s primary research emphasis was on South Africa at the time. The project began assisting developing-country partners in the advancement of cultural resource management programs that can preserve and protect irreplaceable heritage related to the historical slave trade and Africa’s global diasporas, while also fostering a unique niche for regional cultural tourism with tangible economic benefits, and promoting a new model of self-sustaining research for national educational and scientific institutions.

Now in the projects second phase (2012-2017), SWP has expanded the geographic scope of the project to reflect the global reach and impact of the African slave trade. While the project continues to pursue and expand its activities in southern Africa, the current phase will also feature development of activities in other regions as well, with a first added focus on sites in the Americas. Work will include the Americas and West Africa, while also planning for a possible major project that would focus on the slave trade in both the pre-colonial and colonial–era Indian Ocean.

History of the Sao Jose Slave Ship

Portuguese slave ship, the São José, wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa in 1794. Destined for Brazil, the ship was carrying more than 400 slaves from Mozambique when it struck rock and began to sink. The crew and some of those enslaved were able to make it safely to shore. Tragically, more than two hundred enslaved people perished in the violent waves.

The São José left Lisbon on April 27, 1794, to purchase slaves in Mozambique, with the intent to continue to Brazil. The Cape of Good Hope in South Africa had long been supplied with enslaved people from parts of East Africa, but beginning in the 1790’s, East Africa also became a significant source of labour for the Brazilian sugar plantations.

The São José was one of the earliest voyages of the slave trade between Mozambique and Brazil, a massive trade in human beings, which continued well into the 19th century. Over 400,000 East Africans are estimated to have made the journey between 1800 and 1865 whilst transported in inhumane conditions.  Voyages often took two to three months and death was rampant. For many years Cape Town prospered as refreshment station for this trade before ships began their transatlantic journey.


April 27, 1794:

The slave ship, São José, leaves Lisbon for Mozambique with over 1,400 iron ballast bars amongst its cargo to begin its slaving journey. Seeking new markets it is one of the first attempts by European slave traders to bring East Africa into the broader transatlantic West African trade.

December 3, 1794:

São José, laden with more than 400 captive Mozambicans likely from the interior of the country, embarks for its destination: Maranhao, Brazil.

December 27, 1794:

Caught in variable winds and swells the São José wrecks upon submerged rocks off the coast of Cape Town, approximately 100 yards from shore. A rescue is attempted and captain, crew and approximately half of the enslaved are saved.  The remaining Mozambican captives perish in the waves.

December 29, 1794:

The Captain submits his official testimony before court, describing the wrecking incident and accounting for the loss of property, including humans. Surviving Mozambicans are re-sold into slavery in Cape Town. Over centuries the incident of the São Joséand fate of those 200 enslaved Mozambicans passes out of public memory. A few court documents and scant reports remain the only evidence of this tragedy.


The Portuguese slaving family, who owned and operated the São José continue their international trade and make several complete voyages bringing captive Mozambicans to Northeast Brazil where they are sold into slavery on plantations in and near Maranhao. 


Treasure Hunters discover the wreck of the São José and mistakenly identify it as the wreck of an earlier Dutch vessel. They deposit a report of their findings with the National Monuments Council.  


The Slave Wrecks Project, through Iziko Museum’s Maritime archeologist, Jaco Boshoff, discovers 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 is 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.


An archival document stating that the Saõ José had loaded iron ballast before she departed for Mozambique was found in Portugal. The Slave wrecks Project later uncovers a second document in Mozambique confirming the sale of a Mozambican on to the Saõ José thus providing further evidence confirming the wreck site as that of the Saõ José.

Full documentation of the wreck site begins in 2013. Complimentary archival work continues at an advanced stage and is supplemented by additional work in Europe, Brazil and Mozambique.


Some of the first artifacts are brought above water through a targeted retrieval process in accordance with archaeological and preservation best practices. Due to the fragility of the site, using CT scan technology, the Slave Wrecks Project identifies the remains of shackles on the wreck site, a difficult undertaking, as extreme iron corrosion occurred over the centuries. 

June 2, 2015: 

Soil from Mozambique is deposited on São Joséwreck site during a solemn 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 wrecking site continues. Initial archaeological surveys, as well as continued archival and community based research begins tracking origins of slaves and sites in Mozambique, possible fate of survivors in Cape Town and the descendants of successive voyages in Brazil designed to trace a line between points of origin in Africa, wreck site, and subsequent points of destination in the Americas.