The Portuguese slave ship had left Mozambique Island four weeks earlier and headed along the East African coast with its cargo of 500 captives, bound for the rice and cotton plantations of northern Brazil.
Now, two days after Christmas in 1794, the São José Paquete de Africa had been blown into treacherous waters near the Dutch settlement of Cape Town in southern Africa, and was impaled on rocks.
It was 2 a.m. And as the ship, weighed down with cast iron ballast bars and human beings, was torn apart in the swells, the captain, crew and many slaves reached shore with a rescue line.
But 212 slaves drowned in the frigid water, their bodies probably washing up on shore later. Eleven more died in the next few days.
On Wednesday morning, four of those ballast bars — sacred relics of the slave trade, as one historian put it — arrived at a storage site in Maryland for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
They arrived from the airport at 10:55 a.m. in a wooden packing crate stamped with “fragile” in red. Oblong in shape, they were dark brown and chipped with age. Each weighed 88 pounds, perhaps the weight of some of the slaves on board.
“These blocks were with the slaves,” said Jaco Boshoff, the South African marine archaeologist from Cape Town’s Iziko Museums who brought them to the surface.
“Although we haven’t found human remains — [and] there’s an expectation that we might do that — we will find them trapped under something like a ballast block,” he said Wednesday.
The bars constitute some of the remnants from the first known slave ship to sink with Africans on board that has been identified, studied and excavated, the Smithsonian said.
A wooden pulley block from the ship’s rigging and a piece of mangrove timber from the São José’s hull will be delivered later.
They are modest but haunting reminders of the 400-year global commerce in slaves that transformed 12.5 million Africans into a commodity and shipped them like cargo to the Western Hemisphere in bondage.
Tens of thousands of men, women and children died on ships like the São José during the “Middle Passage” across the ocean.
SOURCE: Michael E. Ruane
The Washington Post