The gruelling history behind the Sao Jose Paquete d’Africa is being laid bare in a permanent exhibition at the Slave Lodge Museum.
The Portuguese slave ship sank near Clifton on December 27, 1794, leaving 212 souls to perish below the crystal blue waters.
The slaves were being transported from Mozambique to Brazil to be sold.
The ship had only been sailing for 24 days when it struck a rock and began to sink.
Another 300 slaves survived and were sold in Cape Town while the Portuguese captain, Manuel Joao, and his crew were rescued.
The Sao Jose Paquete d’Africa wreck went undiscovered for more than 200 years and was found in the mid-1980s by local treasure-hunters who misidentified it as the remains of an earlier Dutch vessel.
It is now the first known shipwreck to be identified, studied and excavated which had enslaved Africans on board.
It was through the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) that this shipwreck was discovered.
The Slave Wrecks Project is a long-term collaboration among museums and research institutions in the United States and Africa studying the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The aim of the project is to combine research, training and education to build new knowledge about the study of the global slave trade, through the lens of slave shipwrecks.
The SWP team searched several times near Camps Bay but found nothing.
It was only when maritime archaeologist at Iziko Museums, Jaco Boshoff, went back to the Cape Archives, which preserves records from 1651, and discovered the Portuguese captain’s account of the wreck, that they realised that they had been searching in the wrong place.
He realised that the captain’s description of seeking shelter under the Lion’s Head meant it was more likely for the wreck to have occurred at the Clifton beaches. The wreck was discovered in the ocean close to Clifton’s 3rd beach in 2015 and the first few artefacts were brought above water.
To honour and remember the lives lost in this tragedy, soil from Mozambique was deposited over the wreck in the same year.
The location where the wreck was found has also been declared as a national heritage site. Mr Boshoff said it was important to document and preserve the history of this shipwreck because many people in SA were brought here through slavery.
“The old political system of South Africa played a huge role in suppressing the history and now we have the opportunity to expose the history and it’s important to tell the story of the people who lost their lives and the people who came here unwillingly,” he said.
Mr Boshoff said the slaves being transported for sale were packed into the ship like objects and not human beings.
“The conditions were terrible and inhumane. Each person was seen as a sum of money, so the authorities wanted to get as many people as possible. All they cared about was money.” Mr Boshoff said a lot of people, young and old, died on these journeys during the transatlantic slave trade.
A Clifton resident who has been following the project, former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs, said the story of the Sao Jose was an extraordinary and extremely painful part of our history.
Judge Sachs said he visited the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, America, and at a large exhibition space containing relics of the Sao Jose, learnt a great deal about the TransAtlantic slave trade and the unbelievably appalling conditions in which the enslaved Africans were transported.
“We are literally recovering from the waves of history a bitter buried chapter, terrible in itself and symbolic of the much wider tragedy of human exploitation on which so much of our current civilisation was built,” he said.
The Slave Lodge is on the corner of Adderley and Wale streets, Cape Town. Call 021 467 7229 for more information.