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Unshackled History: The Wreck of the Slave Ship, São José, 1794


Unshackled History: The Wreck of the Slave Ship, São José, 1794 opens at the Iziko Slave Lodge on Wednesday, 12 December 2018. The São Joséwas sailing from Mozambique with a cargo of more than 400 enslaved persons when she encountered rough seas near Clifton (“under Lion’s Head) atnight. She was prevented by a strong south-easterly wind from entering safe anchorage in Table Bay. Tragically, the sea became so rough that the ship wrecked, with more than 200 enslaved individuals perishing in the violent waves.

The São Josépossibly represents the first known shipwreck with enslaved Africans on board to be identified, studied and excavated. The exhibition, tells the story of the “human cargo” – the people who were violently uprooted from their homes in Mozambique, to suffer displacement, disaster and death on the shores of the Cape of Good Hope more than 200 years ago.

The objects of this trans-Atlantic slave voyage have been diligently excavated, conserved and prepared. The artefacts – never seen before in South Africa – recovered from the wreck site form the central element of the exhibition. They tell the story of the ship, its owners, captains, and the voyage that led to its destruction on a Cape shore. A large interactive experience of the wreck site, created by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will also be on display.

Bringing into memory, the story of the São José, within this global context is a significant and remarkable project. This is more than an African, American, Mozambican or European story. This story speaks more about our shared histories, than the constructed notions of separateness perpetuated in, and throughout history,” said Iziko Chief Executive Officer, Ms Rooksana Omar.

Iziko and its partners, who are involved in the Slave Wrecks Project, have been studying and working on the São Joséwreck site since 2012. The (Slave Wrecks) Project combines research, training and education to build new scholarship and knowledge about the study of the global slave trade, particularly through the lens of shipwrecks. Further research for this project was funded by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. The funding awarded in 2016 enabled the continued conservation and fieldwork of the slave ship and wreck site, in South Africa, and has empowered a new generation of young South Africans to work on archaeological vestiges like the slave wreck, São José.

Cultural heritage endures as a reminder of the contributions and historical experiences of humanity. By taking a leading role in efforts to preserve cultural heritage, the US shows its respect for other cultures,” said US Consul General in Cape Town, Ms Virginia Blaser. 

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) is a long-term, trans-continental research collaboration between six core partners, including Iziko Museums of South Africa, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture), George Washington University, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the US National Park Service, Diving With a Purpose, and the African Center for Heritage Activities.

The story of theSão José, once forgotten as a footnote in history for nearly two centuries, will now be brought back into collective memory. The stories of those enslaved on board are represented by the collaborative work of researchers and scholars from Mozambique, South Africa, Brazil, Europe and the United States. This exhibition Unshackled History: The Wreck of the Slave Ship, São José, 1794will become a permanent fixture at the Iziko Slave Lodge, with regular updates envisaged as the project progresses. 

The Iziko Slave Lodge is open Monday to Saturday from 09:00 until 17:00



Issued by: Melody Kleinsmith
Marketing and Communications Manager: Iziko Museums of South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 481 3861 Cellphone: 0731074955
Website http:                   
On behalf of: Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa


About the São José

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

The São José was one of the earliest voyages of the slave trade between Mozambique and Brazil, and continued well into the 19th Century – proving to be a massive trade in human beings. More than 400 000 East Africans are estimated to have made the journey between 1800 and 1865. Transported in inhumane conditions in voyages that took between two to three months, many did not survive the trip, and for many years, Cape Town prospered as a way-station for ships about to embark on their long, trans-Atlantic journey.


About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)

Iziko operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium and Digital Dome, the Social History Centre and three collection‑specific libraries in Cape Town.  The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage.  Iziko is a public entity and public benefit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure.  The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (*excluding the Castle of Good Hope, Groot Constantia and Planetarium and Digital Dome). Visit our webpage at, join our online community on Facebook ( or follow us on Twitter (@Iziko_Museums) for regular updates on events, news and new exhibitions.


About The Ambassador’s Fund

The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation supports the preservation of cultural sites, cultural objects, and forms of traditional cultural expression in more than 100 developing countries around the world. Cultural heritage endures as a reminder of the contributions and historical experiences of humanity. By taking a leading role in efforts to preserve cultural heritage, the U.S. shows its respect for other cultures.

Iziko Museums of South Africa was awarded US$500,000 in 2016 to continue its conservation and fieldwork of the São José slave shipwreck site in Cape Town.

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Dear Visitor

Please be advised that the Castle of Good Hope will be closed to the public on Thursday, 8 February 2024.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Looking forward to your future visits.


Iziko Management