Slaves who died in 1794 Cape Town shipwreck are remembered

Jun 2, 2015, 7:25 AM

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Against a backdrop of exclusive, sea-view apartments in Cape Town, South African and American researchers on Tuesday paid tribute at the spot where slaves died when the Portuguese ship that was carrying them into bondage sank in 1794.

Three divers, deterred by rain and wind that evoked the stormy conditions that wrecked the Sao Jose–Paquete de Africa slave ship, ventured a few feet (meters) into the surf of the Clifton suburb’s beach to scatter sand from Mozambique in honor of the doomed slaves, who were being transported from the former Portuguese colony. The divers hugged each other and one shed tears.

The memorial was the culmination of years of digging in historical archives and into the sea floor, casting new light on the century-spanning, Atlantic slave trade, in which millions from Africa were sent to labor in the Americas at the height of European colonialism.

The submerged remnants of the Sao Jose, which was starting a grueling journey to Brazil that would have lasted months and traversed thousands of kilometers (miles), are located near one of Cape Town’s most scenic beaches, in a country that emerged from white minority rule in 1994.

“It’s there and it happened, right in this spot of paradise,” said Albie Sachs, a former judge and anti-apartheid activist who opened his Clifton home to researchers, diplomats and journalists who attended the ceremony. “We have to look history in the face.”

Sachs, who lost an arm and sight in one eye in a 1980s bombing in Mozambique by apartheid agents, said a legacy oppression is in the “sinews” of Cape Town, a popular tourist destination in a postcard setting at the southern end of Africa.

The wide windows and balcony of his home, reached by stone steps cut into a slope, overlook the area where the Sao Jose broke into pieces. Far above looms Lion’s Head, a peak that draws many hikers.

More than 400 African slaves were on board the vessel when it sank in bad weather and rough seas, according to Iziko Museums, a group based in Cape Town. About half the people on the ship perished, though the captain and crew survived.

This year, divers recovered artifacts from the ship, including shackle remnants, iron ballast and copper fastenings that held the ship together. Some items will be loaned to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is currently under construction in Washington and which worked with Iziko Museums on the project.

“This is a place of beauty, of pleasure and also of pain,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the museum, said in Sachs’ home. “For us, this is an amazing moment to bring history alive, to make sure those souls are no longer lost.”

Officials have known the site of the wreck for many years. Research in archives in Portugal, Mozambique and South Africa helped confirm that it was a slave ship.

The wrecks of ships previously used to transport slaves and later refitted had been discovered in the past, but it is unique to find the remains of a ship that was active in the slave trade when it sank, according to researchers.

Standing on the beach, an American researcher surveyed the bay.

Stephen Lubkemann, associate professor of anthropology, Africana studies and international affairs at George Washington University, said the cold, churning conditions were treacherous and that “diving here is like diving in a washing machine.”

The Sao Jose ran into trouble around 2 a.m. in December 1794, and the captain later recorded that “‘our final solution was to crash disastrously upon the rocks,'” according to Lubkemann.

The slaves who survived, he said, were sold at auctions in the Cape Town area.

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Slaves who died in 1794 Cape Town shipwreck are remembered