Jaco Boshoff diving, photo taken by Iziko Museums
For more than 200 years, the shipwreck of a transatlantic slave ship has lain offshore of Cape Town’s world-renowned Clifton Beaches with not even the residents knowing about it. Until now.
The São José Paquete d’Africa is the first known shipwreck of enslaved Africans to be found and studied after it went undiscovered for more than 200 years. Finding the São José was “somewhat of a detective story,” says marine archaeologist Jaco Boshoff of South Africa’s Iziko Museums. Boshoff and his partner, Dr Steve Lubkemann from George Washington University in the US, are co-principal investigators of the international Slave Wrecks Project, a global archaeological and research effort that started in 2008.
The project set out to find the São José based on archival documents stating a Portuguese slave ship with 512 Mozambican slaves destined for Brazil sank on 27 December 1794 in Camps Bay on the Cape Peninsula. Boshoff and his team started diving in the area but found nothing.
It was only after discovering another document written in Dutch in the Cape Archives that Boshoff realised they were diving in the wrong place, Boshoff told the BBC. This document references the captain seeking shelter against the wind ‘under the lion’s head’. Boshoff says while reading this “blow-by-blow account” of the wrecking he realised it was more plausible for the wreck to be off Clifton Beaches, which lie below Lion’s Head. More than 200 slaves died in the wrecking, while the rest were sold into slavery in Cape Town shortly after the tragedy.
After The Slave Wreck Project team obtained a permit they found the wreck about 50 meters offshore. Numerous artefacts confirmed it was the São José. Some of the artefacts are now on loan and exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
Most importantly, the team found slave shackles. At the moment these are being treated by Canadian-born artefact conservator, Nancy Child, through a very slow process of electrochemical and electrolytic reduction cleaning, done by placing the artefacts in an electricity-conducting solution and running a low electric current through them. Her immediate aim is to ready some of the artefacts for a permanent exhibition on the São José that will open on 12 December this year in Cape Town’s Slave Lodge history museum.
The BBC gallery feature quotes Lonnie G Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, who says 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”.
Boshoff says the South African government has decided to declare the wreck site on Clifton a national monument. Details will be announced on 12 December when the exhibition opens in the Slave Lodge.
“The story of the São José is the story of just one ship, but it is like thousands of other voyages… Ultimately, the São José compels us to confront and remember the brutal practice of the slave trade and to acknowledge its role in shaping the world in which we live,” Boshoff told the BBC.
Read the original story on BBC