Wreck Of 1794 Slave Ship Is Confirmed Off South Africa

Wreck Of 1794 Slave Ship Is Confirmed Off South Africa

2:24pm Jun 02, 2015
Underwater archaeology researchers explore the site of the São José slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Underwater archaeology researchers explore the site of the São José slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Susanna Pershern / Courtesy of U.S. National Parks Service

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To tell the history of America, you need to understand the history of slavery. But finding artifacts of the journey that 12 million slaves took from Africa to the New World is incredibly hard. For a decade, the founding director of the Smithsonian's African American Museum has been hunting for the remains of a slave ship to help tell the story, and now he has it. Lonnie Bunch joined us from Cape Town, where he's set to make an important announcement about this rare find. Good morning.

LONNIE BUNCH: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, first of all, tell us the story of this particular ship. And that's not far from where you are right now.

BUNCH: That's correct. This is a ship that originally left Lisbon in Portugal, went around the Cape in order to get to Mozambique and picked up nearly 500 enslaved Africans on 1794 and was on its way back to Brazil when it was caught in a bad storm and it was sank. And what happened was that about sort of the crew and half of the enslaved were taken and were rescued, but about 200 Africans perished in the shipwreck. And even those that were rescued were ultimately resold into slavery in South Africa. So until this moment, they've, in some ways, been lost to history.

MONTAGNE: Researchers or divers who were examining the wreckage had, for a long time, thought it was a Dutch trading ship. What tipped them off that it might be a slave ship?

BUNCH: First of all, you have to do the archival research, and they were able to find records in Lisbon and in Cape Town. But then when they found things like ballast, iron ballast, because slaves as cargo were light in all honesty, that they used to bring in iron ballast to balance the ship.

MONTAGNE: And these were iron blocks. Anything else? You would expect chains or something like that.

BUNCH: You find, yeah, encrusted shackles. You'll find some of that. The hardest thing to find is wood from the hull of the ship. And that's what we're hoping to continue to find because that obviously would be the sort of wood that actually the slaves touched every day.

MONTAGNE: I gather that there was some effort made to save the slaves. They only managed to save about half of them, but why?

BUNCH: Because the slaves were property, and they were very valuable. And so we think of the slave trade as what it is, millions of people, one of the greatest horrible migrations in history. But the reality is that these were people with families, with hopes, with expectations. And in some ways, part of the goal of a museum like the Smithsonian is to sort of give people their humanity back.

MONTAGNE: What actually will make it to the exhibit? I mean, how much will this resemble a ship for a museumgoer?

BUNCH: There was never any desire to try to make it look like a complete ship. And so what I really hope will happen is that we would just take a few pieces - a piece of ballast, a slave shackle, a piece of wood - and use those as iconic pieces that really would allow you to think about, to remember, to mourn, to humanize those people that were lost. So it really is more evocative than a kind of formal museum exhibition.

MONTAGNE: There has not been any remains found of the lost, enslaved people.

BUNCH: We have not found any human remains, but there's no doubt that there are human remains that will probably be uncovered as this process is ongoing. And that's why it was so important for me to travel to Mozambique before I came to Cape Town. And I had a ceremony with several chiefdoms from the Makua people. And so the chief actually gave me dirt from Mozambique that we will sprinkle over the remains of the ship. And for now, bringing a piece of Mozambique to them is the way we hope to let the souls rest.

MONTAGNE: Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open in Washington next year. He joined us from Cape Town where he's announcing the rare discovery of the wreckage of a slave ship. Thank you very much for joining us.

BUNCH: It's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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