The São José is the first known shipwreck with enslaved Africans on board to be identified, studied and excavated. This exhibition tells the story of the São José’s identification, the innumerable processes it took to retrieve its belongings from the ocean floor, and, most importantly, of its ‘human cargo’ – the people who were violently uprooted from their homes in Mozambique.
Sailing from Mozambique in December 1794 with a cargo of more than 400 enslaved persons, the São José was en route to Brazil when she encountered rough seas near Clifton and tragically wrecked. More than 200 of the enslaved people perished in the violent waves, and the surviving 300 were sold into slavery in Cape Town.
Objects from the wreck site of this transatlantic slave voyage have been diligently excavated, conserved and prepared. The artefacts – never before seen in South Africa – form the central element of the exhibition, and a large interactive experience of the wreck site, created by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), is also on display.
Once forgotten as a footnote to history for almost two centuries, the stories of those enslaved onboard are today represented by the collaborative work of researchers and scholars from Mozambique, South Africa, Brazil, Europe and the United States. Unshackled History: The Wreck of the Slave Ship, São José, 1794 will become a permanent fixture at the Iziko Slave Lodge, with regular updates envisaged as the project progresses.