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Sunken Portuguese Slave Ship Discovered off the Coast of South Africa

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212 slaves drowned; survivors were sold into slavery

Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from Global Information Network

( — São José , a Portuguese slave ship that left Mozambique in 1794 bound for Brazil had hardly rounded the treacherous Cape of Good Hope when it broke apart between two reefs 100 yards from shore, sinking in 328 feet of water.

The Portuguese captain, the ship’s entire crew and nearly half of the enslaved Africans survived. An estimated 212 of 400 Africans drowned. The black men and black women who survived were later sold into slavery.

The ship lay undisturbed in its watery grave until a chance discovery by divers searching the wreck who found iron ballasts — evidence that slaves had been the vessel’s cargo.

Slave Wrecks Project, a global partnership among museums and research institutions, including the National Museum of African History and Culture, which is based in Washington, D.C., Iziko Museums of South Africa and George Washington University discovered the wreck.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, along with the Iziko Museums of South Africa, the Slave Wrecks Project, and other partners, announced in Cape Town, South Africa, that the remnants of the São José have been found, right where the ship went down, in full view of Lion’s Head Mountain, said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of National Museum of African History and Culture.

“Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is the ships that carried millions of captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return,” Bunch said. “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-Atlantic slave trade — a shift that played a major role in prolonging the tragic trade for decades.”

Objects from the shipwreck were unveiled June 2. They included an iron ballast to weigh down the ship and its cargo of slaves and a wooden pulley block. The were retrieved this year from the wreck site of the Sao Jose de Africa.

Since the mid- and late 1400s, Portugal was a major slave trader to Brazil. The driving force for the slave trade initially was the growth of Brazil’s sugar and coffee economy and later mining of diamonds and gold.

An estimated 400,000 East Africans from Mozambique made the trip to Brazil from 1800 to 1865.

From 1812 to 1831, close to 147,000 slaves left Mozambique for Rio de Janeiro, representing  about 20 to 25% of all imports in the Brazilian port, said Pedro Machado, who researches Indian Ocean trade in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Machado is an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences.

It is the first time, researchers involved in the project say that the wreckage of a slave ship that went down with slaves aboard has been recovered.

For the National Museum of African-American History — set to open on the National Mall in Washington next year — the find represents the culmination of more than a decade of work searching for the remains of a slave ship that could help tell the story of the 12 million people who were forcibly moved in more than 60,000 voyages, from Africa to North America, the West Indies, South America and Europe.

So far, no skeletons or even partial remains have been found in the wreck.

Bunch recently joined Rooksana Omar, CEO of Iziko Museums, in Cape Town to announce the discovery of the São José.

A memorial service was held near the site where the ship went down.

Divers will place soil from Mozambique Island on the underwater site to memorialize the graves of the ship’s drowned slaves.


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