The trans-Atlantic slave trade that sent 12.5 million human beings in chains from Africa to the Americas — killing about two million along the way — has been described by the historian David Brion Davis as “one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.” It was driven not by hatred, but by greed. The colonizers — including Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Danes, Swedes, Brazilians, and North Americans — wanted cheap labor for sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo and other goods demanded by the aristocracy.
This era is often reduced to an abstraction in contemporary conversation. But the news that a team of researchers discovered the wreckage of a Portuguese slaving ship off the coast of South Africa puts the modern world in touch with the depravity of the enterprise. It also brings forth the images of captives lying shackled together on their sides, like spoons in a silverware drawer, in the filth-ridden holds of the ships that ferried human cargo across the Atlantic for more than three centuries.
On Tuesday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, along with other partners, will announce the discovery of the wreckage of such a slave ship, the São José Paquete Africa, which went down off the coast of southern Africa in 1794. Objects from the vessel, which researchers say is the first discovery of a ship that went down with slaves on board, will be placed on long-term loan to the museum. It is scheduled to open on the National Mall in Washington next year.
As Helene Cooper explained in The Times on Monday, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the new museum, has long been searching for artifacts from slave ships to illustrate the bondage and movement of millions of people across the seas. Though there had been tens of thousands of slave-ship voyages out of Africa, the search was long and difficult.
Finally, in 2011, a maritime archaeologist doing archival research in South Africa came across the record, written in Portuguese, of an inquest involving the captain of the São José. The document makes the clear distinction between crew members, who are regarded as “men,” and the Africans, who are not.
The ship, carrying between 400 and 500 enslaved people left the East African country of Mozambique, on Dec. 3, 1794, on what was to be a four-month, 7,000 mile voyage to Brazil, which lay at the very center of slave trade and where the Africans would be sent to work on sugar plantations. Twenty-four days later, the ship encountered violent winds and broke up on reefs not far from Cape Town and 100 yards from shore. The crew survived, but half the Africans died. Those who survived were sold again within days.
The captain’s testimony led researchers to Portugal, which with Spain, had dominated the slave trade between the late-16th and mid-17th centuries. There they learned that the ship had left Lisbon carrying a cargo of 1,500 iron blocks, which were used as ballasts to balance ships carrying human cargo. The discovery of the iron blocks at the wreckage confirmed that the ship had once carried human cargo.
The story of the São José and the enslaved Africans in its hold reminds the modern world that the trade in human beings was carried out with the most sophisticated tools of commerce at the time. But it provides only the smallest glimpse of the horror endured by the millions who were stolen and sold into bondage.
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