A Journey of Discovery

Recovering the Voices of the Enslaved Aboard the São José Paquete d'África

April 6, 2023, 11:32 a.m.

Voyage Stories

Table Bay, Cape Town, South Africa in 2015. Photo by Paul Gardullo/Slave Wrecks Project

December 27, 1794 was a stormy night on the ocean off of Cape Town, South Africa. A Portuguese slave ship, the São José Paquete d’África, plied the dangerous coast on its way to Maranhão, Brazil, carrying 512 enslaved Mozambicans. The São José’s captain, Manuel João, attempted to navigate the rocky, treacherous waters after having departed Mozambique on December 3. Despite the crew’s best efforts at navigating the storm, the São José smashed against a rocky ledge about 100 meters off shore in the small bay currently known as Clifton. While the crew and over two hundred of the enslaved managed to use a line to make it to shore, more than half of the enslaved people on board perished when the ship broke apart in the storm. Those who survived were sold into slavery in Cape Town. For over two hundred years, the location of the São José shipwreck remained a mystery, until the wreck was identified and recovered by members of the international collaboration, the Slave Wrecks Project, led by an archeological team from IZIKO-Museums of South Africa. 

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) is an international network of researchers and institutions that searches for slave shipwrecks and takes a collaborative and international approach looking at sites, histories and legacies connected by their voyages. SWP is hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, which co-coordinates the project with The George Washington University. Other International partners include: Diving With a Purpose, Iziko Museums of South Africa, and the U.S. National Park Service. SWP seeks to bring the immensity of that history to a human scale, voyage by voyage, through recovering the experiences and highlighting the humanity of those who were enslaved aboard the ships that plied the most horrific and extensive trade in people in world history. Through SWP’s efforts, previously submerged archeological remains and long-neglected histories are recovered, restored, remembered, protected, and shared.

The crew list for the last voyage of the São José. Courtesy of Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Lisbon, Portugal

The historical journey of the São José in the late 18th century was one of exploitation, subjugation, and slavery. The SWP is dedicated to remembering that history as well as charting other unfinished journeys related to the São José in our contemporary world — ones of discovery, justice, memory and identity. The São José left Lisbon, Portugal on April 27, 1794. Its owner was prominent Portuguese merchant José António Pereira, who owned a large merchant house and estate on the Lisbon river Tagus. It was captained by Manuel João and had a total of thirty-five crewmembers on board. Manuel João and his crew took the São José to the Ilha de Moçambique, then the capital of the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, where 512 enslaved Mozambicans were loaded aboard the ship, which departed Mozambique on December 3, 1794.

The São José Manifest from the 1794 Voyage. Courtesy of Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Lisbon, Portugal

The São José made its way around the Cape of Good Hope, notorious for its rough seas, stormy weather, and rocky waters. On December 27, 1794, caught in a storm off Cape Town, the São José crashed into submerged rocks 100 meters from shore. A rescue was attempted, and the captain, crew and approximately half of those enslaved were saved. The remaining Mozambican captives perished in the waves. On December 29, Manuel João submitted his official testimony before court and described the wrecking incident. He accounted for the loss of property, including enslaved humans. The surviving Mozambicans were resold into slavery in the Western Cape.

The Captain's Signed Testimony. Courtesy of The Western Cape Archives and Records Service, Document NCD 2/18, no 299 ¼

The enslaved people on the São José were treated as commodities rather than human beings. Throughout the history of the slave trade, enslavers created charts like this and listed people (Escravos) alongside other trade items, like tortoises (Tartaruga), gold (Ouro), cowry shells (Caury), ebony wood, hippopotamus teeth and large ivory tusks (Marfim). Courtesy of Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Lisbon, Portugal.

At the Cape, the term ‘Mozbieker’ or ‘Masbieker’ was often attached to enslaved people arriving from Mozambique. No distinction was made as to tribal grouping or otherwise — except for the Dutch East India Company’s so-called "Company slaves," names were not recorded on arrival and new names were given. It is significant that we know so little about the fate of those enslaved on the São José compared to what is known about the surviving crew. Documents provide the names of every single crew member. 

After the wreck, 11 captives died and the remaining one hundred were sold for 30 pieces of eight each. 

The search for the wreck of the São José by the Slave Wrecks Project began in 2010, when SWP researchers discovered the captain’s account of the wrecking in the Western Cape Archives. In 2012, SWP uncovered an archival document in Portugal stating that iron bars were loaded onto the São José before it departed for Mozambique, further confirming the site as the São José wreck. SWP later located a second document in Mozambique confirming the sale of a Mozambican onto the São José.

Principal Investigator from Iziko Museums Jaco Boshoff and archaeologist Jake Harding at the São José wreck site at Clifton Beach, South Africa. Photo by Jonathan Sharfman / Slave Wrecks Project

In late 2014 and early 2015, the first artifacts were brought above water, including iron ballast and timbers, through a targeted retrieval process according to the best archaeological and preservation practices. Using CT scan and x-ray technology, SWP identified the remains of shackles at the wreck site. Iron ballast recovered at the wreck site, along with wooden artifacts such as East African blackwood logs, helped to further confirm that this was the wreck of the São José Paquete d’África

Iron ballast bars at the wreck site helped positively identify this shipwreck as the São José Paquete d’África. Slave Wrecks Project

The physical remnants of the São José are fragile and incomplete: small pieces of timber, copper fastenings, a pulley block, several cannons and cannon balls, iron shackles and a few iron bars. Yet they carry an extraordinary power for reflection, knowledge and empathy. These objects are touchstones that offer a connection to the past and a means to a new future of personal and collective understanding and repair. 

The search for the site of the São José, and the ongoing investigation of the history surrounding it, reveals much about the global scope and enduring legacy of slavery. SWP’s investigation of this global story is still ongoing and involves an international team of researchers conducting archeological and archival research that spans four continents, extending from archeological work on sites on enslavement deep in the Mozambican interior by team members from Eduardo Mondlane University, to deep dives in the Brazilian archives by NEAFRICA researchers, as well as by researchers in Lisbon, Cape Town, and the Hague. What started on the site of a shipwreck in Cape Town has grown into a collaboration and commitment to reveal a shared past and engage with its enduring legacies that connects Mozambique, Brazil, Portugal, Goa, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United States. The artifacts, documents and sites left behind bring us closer to those who were enslaved aboard, but are also just the beginning of a new voyage of discovery into the past and of shared commitment to the future.

To learn more about the São José, visit the "From No Return" StoryMap, available in English and Portuguese.