• Posted: Jun 5, 2015

Iziko Slave Lodge, until 14 June 2015

Iziko Museums of South Africa, in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NHMAAC) and George Washington University (GWU), recently announced the findings of an international research partnership. The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) provides new knowledge on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, focusing on the São José slave wreck, discovered off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

Objects from the ship wreck, unveiled in a historic ceremony, will be on public display for a limited period until 14 June 2015. The artefacts require special climate controlled conditions and will be showcased at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum - a space that not only commemorates the long history of slavery in South Africa, but has at its core a mission of transformation - “from human wrongs to human rights.” Remnants of shackles, iron ballast to weigh down the ship and its human cargo, and a wooden pulley block, were retrieved this year from the wreck site of the São José—Paquete de Africa.

The historical, anthropological and archaeological work on the wreck of the Saõ José and its broader history is ongoing and will continue here in Cape Town, Mozambique, various archives and other sites around the world.  Items are still being recovered and carefully conserved in terms of museum best practices. As research and conservation activities are completed, depending on conservation requirements, additional artefacts will be made available for public view.  

Iziko Museums of South Africa, as steward of the collection, presented plans to “Bring the Saõ José into Memory,” at a public symposium on June 3. The plan proposed initial ideas for incorporating this story and objects into the exhibitions, interpretations and educational programs of the Iziko Slave Lodge.

A small number of artefacts, on loan to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will shed light on the global history of the slave trade at the inauguration of the newest Smithsonian museum in 2016.  During the loan period, the majority of archaeologically documented artefacts from this site will remain in South Africa. The few loaned items will return to South Africa after a period of ten years, when they will re-join the remainder of the collection recovered from the site.

The trajectory of the voyage of the Saõ José across Southern Africa and around the globe (due to the trade dealings of the original slaving family) in the late 18th century was one of exploitation, subjugation and slavery.  The story of the Saõ José is a story that transcends time, space and place. It is a global story of our inter-connectedness as a human race.  The Slave Wrecks Project and its partners are committed to making the process of the recovery of this tragic history in the early 21st century one of repair, openness and collaboration amongst institutions and nations. And in confronting and helping people understand this dark past so that we may both understand our world and forge a better future not limited to any one nation or culture.


Issued by: Melissa Scheepers
Communications Coordinator: Institutional Advancement, Iziko Museums of South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 481 3874                  Facsimile: +27 (0) 21 461 9620
E-mail:             Website                                                               

On behalf of:
Jaco Boshoff, Maritime Archaeologist: Iziko Museums of South Africa
Paul Gardullo, Museum Curator: National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian Institution
Stephen C. Lubkemann, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies, and International
Affairs, George Washington University


Notes to editor:

Slave Wrecks Project (SWP)

The discovery of a 1794 slave ship wreck off the coast of Cape Town marks a milestone in the study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and showcases the results of the Slave Wrecks Project, a unique global partnership among museums and research institutions in the United States and Africa.

The SWP brings together partners who have been investigating the impact of the slave trade on world history for nearly a decade and spearheaded the recent discovery of the São José wreck and the ongoing documentation and retrieval of select artefacts. In addition extensive archival research conducted on four continents and in six countries that ultimately uncovered the ship Captain’s account of the wrecking in the Cape Archives as well as the ship’s manifest in Portuguese Archives. Core SWP partners include: The George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resource Agency, the US National Park Service, National Association of Black Scuba Divers (Diving With A Purpose), and the African Center for Heritage Activities.

Bringing the developing story of this one ship – and the stories of those who were enslaved on board – into the collective memory of people across the globe represents a the collective effort by SWP researchers and scholars from Mozambique, South Africa, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. As Jaco Boshoff--lead archaeologist for Iziko and primary investigator for the Saõ José project noted: “This work demonstrates how we build global networks. That’s how we advance science, that’s how we generate new knowledge, and I think it is a model that we could develop to use elsewhere.”

Launched in 2008 with a seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the SWP has established a new model for international collaboration among museums and research institutions. It has been combining groundbreaking slave ship wreck investigation, maritime and historical archeological training, capacity building, heritage tourism and protection, and education to build new scholarship and knowledge about the study of the global slave trade. 

SWP initially focused its research efforts in South Africa and Mozambique. Now in its second phase, SWP has expanded the geographic scope of the project to reflect the global reach and impact of the African slave trade. Work is also in progress and partnerships are under development in North and South America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and in the East Africa/Indian Ocean regions. 

“The Slave trade has always been a global story, perhaps the first and foundational story of globalization. That history not only links disparate parts of the globe but requires international partnerships in order to investigate. This heritage and its protection is a shared responsibility,” said Dr. Stephen Lubkemann, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies and International Affairs, George Washington University, and International Coordinator, Slave Wrecks Project.

São José Wreck

The São José was one of the earliest voyages of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from East Africa to the Americas, which continued well into the 19th century. Over 400,000 East Africans are estimated to have made the Mozambique to Brazil journey between 1800 and 1865. The ship’s crew and some of the over 400 enslaved on board were rescued after the ship wrecked upon submerged rocks 100 meters from shore. Tragically, more than half of the enslaved people perished in the violent waves. The remainder were resold into slavery in the Western Cape.

The process of discovering theSão José wreck is as fascinating as the humble objects painstakingly retrieved and conserved from the site.  The site is located between two reefs as stated in the archival account.  This location creates a difficult environment to work in as it’s prone to strong swells creating challenging conditions for the archaeologists.  So far only a small percentage of the site has been excavated.  To fully explore the site will take some time.

Even the smallest artifact gives a clue into the story of the shipwreck:

  • 1980’s: Local amateur treasure hunters discover a wreck near Cape Town and mistakenly identify it as the wreck of an earlier Dutch vessel. They applied for a permit under the legislation of the time and had to report their findings.
  • 2008-2009: SWP identified the Saõ José as a target for location in its Pilot project
  • 2010-2011: Iziko archaeologist and SWP representative Jaco Boshoff discovers the Captain’s account of the wrecking of the São José in the Cape Archives. New interest is developed on 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.
  • 2012-2013: SWP uncovers an archival document in Portugal stating that the Saõ José had loaded iron ballast before she departed for Mozambique, further confirming the site as the Saõ José wreck.  Archaeological documentation of the wreck site begins in 2013.
  • 2014-2015: Some of the first artefacts are brought above water through a targeted retrieval process according to the best archaeological and preservation practices. Using CT scan technology due to the fragility of the site, the SWP identifies the remains of shackles on the wreck site, a difficult undertaking, as extreme iron corrosion occurred over the centuries. Archival research locates a document in which a slave is noted as sold by a local sheikh to the Captain of the Saõ José prior to its departure, definitively identifying Mozambique Island as the port of departure for the slaving voyage. Archival and archaeological prospecting work is launched in Mozambique and Brazil in order to identify sites related to the Saõ José story for future research.
  • 2015-Ongoing: Full archaeological documentation and retrieval of select items to help to tell of the São Joséwrecking site continues.Continued search for descendant communities of Mozambicans from wreck.

About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)

Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko) is a declared national heritage institution established as a flagship museum bringing together 11 museums under a single governance and leadership structure. Iziko is governed by a Council appointed by the Minister of Arts and Culture. The core mission of the institution is to manage and promote Iziko’s unique combination of South Africa’s heritage collections, sites and services for the benefit of present and future generations.

Jaco Jacqes Boshoff is a Maritime Archaeologist at Iziko, is the co-originator of the Slave Wrecks Project and Principal Archaeological Investigator on the Saõ José shipwreck excavation.

About George Washington University(GWU)

The George Washington University (GWU) is private research university located in Washington, D.C.

 It is the largest institution of higher education in the District of Columbia.   Based at GWU, The Capitol Archaeological Institute aims to protect and preserve cultural heritage through advocacy programs and initiatives by utilizing the multitude of diplomatic and governmental resources in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Stephen Lubkemann, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies and International Affairs at The George Washington University, is co-founder of the Slave Wrecks Project and serves as its international coordinator.

About National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Scheduled for completion in 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture broke ground in February 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 400,000-square-foot building is being built on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument at a cost of $500 million. While construction is moving forward, the museum is hosting public programs, organizing traveling exhibitions and producing books and recordings. Lonnie Bunch is the Museum’s Founding Director and

Dr. Paul Gardullo, Museum Curator, serves as the NMAAHC’s chief representative to the Slave Wrecks Project.

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