A Portuguese slave ship that left Mozambique in 1794 bound for Brazil had hardly rounded the treacherous Cape of Good Hope when it broke apart violently on two reefs only 100 yards from shore.
The Portuguese captain, crew and half of the enslaved Africans survived. An estimated 212 Africans did not and perished at sea.
The ship lay undisturbed in its watery grave until a chance discovery by divers searching the wreck found iron ballasts—evidence that slaves had been the cargo.
This week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, along with the Iziko Museums of South Africa, the Slave Wrecks Project and other partners, will announce in Cape Town that the remnants of the Sao Jose have been found, right where the ship went down, in full view of Lion’s Head Mountain.
It is the first time, researchers involved in the project say, that the wreckage of a slaving ship that went down with slaves aboard has been recovered. For the museum, set to open on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., next year, the find represents the culmination of more than a decade of work searching for the remains of a slave ship that could help tell the story of the 12 million people who were forcibly moved, over some 60,000 voyages, from Africa to North America, the West Indies, South America and Europe.
So far, no skeletons or even partial remains have been found in the wreck.
Tuesday, when Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum, will join his counterparts in Cape Town to announce the discovery of the Sao Jose, there will be a memorial service near the site where the ship went down. Divers will place soil from Mozambique Island on the underwater site to memorialize the grave of the 212 drowned slaves.