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January 31, 2023
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‘A search for ourselves’: shipwreck becomes focus of slavery debate

Vessel that sank with more than 200 transported people onboard is being used to humanise the story of slavery

In 2015, a delegation from the Smithsonian Institution travelled to Mozambique to inform the Makua people of a singular and long-overdue discovery. Two hundred and twenty-one years after it sank in treacherous waters off Cape Town, claiming the lives of 212 enslaved people, the wreck of the Portuguese slave ship the São José Paquete D’Africa had been found. When told the news, a Makua leader responded with a gesture that no one on the delegation will ever forget.

“One of the chiefs took a vessel we had, filled it with soil and asked us to bring that vessel back to the site of the slave ship so that, for the first time since the 18th century, his people could sleep in their own land,” says Lonnie Bunch, now the secretary of the Smithsonian.

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