Reaching for the Future, Rooted in the Past

Teddy B. Taylor

U.S. Consul General for Cape Town

Beginning this month a story buried by water and sand for hundreds of years off the coast at Clifton Beach can finally be told. Thanks to the dauntless researchers and divers from Africa and the Americas who have worked together for years to bring this tragic yet inspiring tale to the surface, the legacy of the São José slave ship and a fateful day in December 1794 is coming to light.

The São José’s April 1794 departure from Lisbon, Portugal, represented one of European slave traders’ first attempts to integrate East Africa into their thriving West African slave trade. The plan was to transport 500 enslaved Africans from Mozambique to Maranhão in Brazil, but when the vessel rounded the Cape of Good Hope it encountered one of the cape’s infamous storms and wrecked on the boulders of Clifton Beach.

Only about half the captives reached the shore.

For 200 years the sand and kelp off Clifton concealed the drowned slaves’ resting place until a group of sport divers discovered the wreck in the 1980s. This week Cape Town will see South Africans, Mozambicans, Brazilians and Americans collaborating to bring the fate of the São José and its 200 enslaved Africans back into public memory.

Iron blocks of ballasts recovered from the wreck of the São José. Image: Iziko Museums

Most of this work is thanks to the initiative of Jaco Boshoff, a maritime archaeologist from Cape Town, and his team at Iziko Museums.

A few years ago Iziko teamed up with Washington, D.C.’s George Washington University to establish the Slave Wrecks Project. Working with the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the U.S. National Association of Black Scuba Divers, the U.S. National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution, researchers from the Slave Wrecks Project have carefully brought artifacts ashore that are enabling them to piece together the São José’s dramatic history.

The global slave trade was, and sadly still is, a horrifically traumatic enterprise that has affected nearly every continent and dehumanized a heartbreaking number of people. It has scattered human beings from one side of the globe to the other, across oceans and cultures and generations.

We have all been affected by this history. As an African-American, I have a deep-rooted connection with the history of slavery. So do many of the people reading this, of whom more than a few could undoubtedly trace their ancestry to the slaves who escaped a watery grave just off Cape Town’s coast almost 221 years ago.

Divers inspect what remains fo the slave ship, which was sailing from Mozambique for Brazil.
Image: Iziko Museums

Thanks to Iziko and the Smithsonian, South Africans and Americans are shedding light on a painful and compelling chapter of our shared history.

Though born out of brutality, slavery has ironically produced amazingly beautiful things — products of the shared cultural legacies we now call our own.

As the Iziko South African Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture together showcase these artifacts over the next decade both here in Cape Town and in Washington, D.C., their partnership can only grow, helping people in both countries to use the knowledge of our painful pasts to usher us toward our promising futures.

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