Home » ‘A search for ourselves’: shipwreck becomes focus of slavery debate

‘A search for ourselves’: shipwreck becomes focus of slavery debate

by Mahmmod Shar

Vessel that sank with more than 200 transported people onboard is being used to humanise the story of slavery

Sam Jones

n 2015, a delegation from the Smithsonian Institution travelled to Mozambique to inform the Makua people of a singular and long-overdue discovery. Two hundred and twenty-one years after it sank in treacherous waters off Cape Town, claiming the lives of 212 enslaved people, the wreck of the Portuguese slave ship the São José Paquete D’Africa had been found. When told the news, a Makua leader responded with a gesture that no one on the delegation will ever forget.

“One of the chiefs took a vessel we had, filled it with soil and asked us to bring that vessel back to the site of the slave ship so that, for the first time since the 18th century, his people could sleep in their own land,” says Lonnie Bunch, now the secretary of the Smithsonian.

For Bunch and his colleagues, the importance of the find cannot be overstated. Although the São José – which was bound for Brazil – is the first ship to be recovered that is known to have sunk while transporting enslaved people, it was just one of the tens of thousands that plied their trade over the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, during which more than 12 million African men, women and children were enslaved.

The 2015 discovery has been used by the Slave Wrecks Project to explain the slave trade and the people it affected.
The 2015 discovery has been used by the Slave Wrecks Project to explain the slave trade and the people it affected. Photograph: Iziko Museums

And yet, as Bunch points out, maritime archaeology has tended to focus its masked eye on the wrecks of rich and famous ships rather than those that traded in flesh and blood.

Redressing that archaeological, academic and sociocultural imbalance was the driving force behind the Slave Wrecks Project, a partnership established in 2008 between the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and other institutions and organisations in Africa and the US.

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“People talk about the slave trade; they talk about the millions of people who were transported, but it’s hard to really imagine that, so we wanted to reduce it to human scale by really focusing on a single ship, on the people on the ship, and the story around the ship,” says Bunch. “Yes, we tell you about the thousands of ships that brought the enslaved, but we also say: ‘Here’s a way to humanise it.’”

The basic idea, he adds, was to tell people that “discovering your enslaved past is as important a treasure as finding the Titanic”.

Diving With a Purpose instructor teaches students diving Ilha de Mozambique.
Slave Wrecks Project teaches students diving Ilha de Mozambique. Photograph: Robyn Leone / Slave Wrecks Project

As well as locating the wreck of the São José, the Slave Wrecks Project has developed programmes to broaden and diversify the field by training people in Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa and the Caribbean in diving, archaeology and museum conservation and curation. Today, the project is investigating a handful of slave wrecks in Brazil, the Caribbean, west Africa and North America.

“We need to think about how these matters that seem submerged and lost are really waiting there for us all to find, and to change our scope of how we understand our world,” says Paul Gardullo, a curator at the NMAAHC and director of the Slave Wrecks Project.

“This search is connected to something much, much bigger than any one particular search for a ship; it’s a search for ourselves and it’s a search for how we relate to each other in the world and how we make the world better.”

The Smithsonian’s activities, however, extend well beyond the seabed. Bunch and Gardullo have been in Lisbon for the past few days to take part in an international symposium on slavery, museums and racism.

Copper fastenings, which held the ship together, and sheathing, which protected the exterior, recovered from the São José slave ship wreck. Photograph: Erich Koch

The choice of host country is not accidental. Like other former slave-trading colonial powers, Portugal – the European country with the longest historical involvement in the slave trade – has struggled to confront its past.

Last year, Europe’s top human rights body, the Council of Europe, urged Lisbon to rethink its approach to teaching colonial history, saying: “Further efforts are necessary for Portugal to come to terms with past human rights violations to tackle racist biases against people of African descent inherited from a colonial past and historical slave trade.”

As Gardullo notes: “Portugal is very proud of its maritime heritage, but is very silent about that heritage’s connection to slavery and colonisation.” Both he and Bunch hope the conference – which includes a one-day symposium with visitors from Angola, Brazil, South Africa, the UK and the Netherlands – will reinvigorate stalled efforts to get Portugal to reflect on its past.

“Often we’re prophets without honour in our own land and in essence when someone else comes in and says these are important issues, suddenly that then stimulates a lot of what people are doing,” says Bunch. “Part of it is saying that this is OK to wrestle with – it’s more than OK; it’s crucially important.”

Divers on water’s surface.
The research team later returned to the site of the wreck to scatter soil from the land of the enslaved people who died there. Photograph: Susanna Pershern

Last month, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, formally apologised for the role of the Netherlands in the slave trade, saying it had “enabled, encouraged and profited from slavery” and done things that “cannot be erased, only faced up to”.

According to Bunch, the riots in Brixton, Black Lives Matter, and the murder of George Floyd have all highlighted the need for open dialogue “about the underlying issues that we have to grapple with.”

It all boils down to telling the truth about a painful and shameful shared past.

People are, in his opinion, extremely ambivalent about talking about slavery and studying its history because they wonder, “Is this about guilt?” How do you understand yourself, in my opinion? You can’t understand a significant portion of who you are without that, whether it’s Portugal, Brazil, or the US. People are comfortable acknowledging that their great-grandfather or great-grandmother shaped them genetically, but they are less at ease understanding how their great-history grandfather’s shaped him and how that history continues to shape them.

Additionally, it is about respect, remembering, and tenacity. When the time finally came to scatter the remains of the Makua elder, Cape Town’s weather conditions were all too reminiscent of those that must have accompanied the So José’s sinking in December 1794.

The water, wind, and rain are so bad that we are unable to remove the boats from the location, claims Bunch.

“The divers swim as far out as they can before scattering the dirt. And on the day of all that is holy, the sun shone, the rain stopped, and the wind ceased to blow. The day was as lovely as you could possibly imagine.

“I had never really discussed ancestors or spirituality in my career, but that moment made me realize that there is something so much greater than what we can be: literally the moment that soil was poured, the weather changed dramatically to demonstrate the power of remembering.”

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