Nearly 221 years after the sinking of the Portuguese slave ship, São José Paquete Africa, a reminder of the horrific realities of slavery were recovered from the bottom of the ocean. According to the New York Times piece, the slave ship carried between 400 and 500 slaves packed on top of one another for a trip that was to last nearly four months. The story of this ship’s journey tragically ended just 24 days later.

As the ship traveled around the Cape of Good hope, it along with approximately 212 African slaves were lost at sea. Centuries later, fragments from the ship were found exactly where it went down. The wreckage was discovered as a result of the ballasts that were used to balance the “live cargo” whose weight moved and shifted throughout the journey.

The museums and researchers involved in the ship’s discovery were looking for fragments of an actual slave ship to include in their exhibits. Their focus was on obtaining items from the wreckage to display for their public. The realities of their find, however, give us a grim look into the horrors of the slave trade. After 24 days of traveling in the bowels of the São José–while being pressed back to back and on top of each other–hundreds of black people lost their lives. They were incapable of escaping their watery grave. The names, histories, personal stories, and cultures were entirely erased. All that was left were the iron ballasts that were used to counterbalance their weight.

In 2013, researchers discovered government archives which were dated in the same month and year of the sinking of the São José Paquete Africa. These documents verified the sale of a single slave – one out of the 400 hundred on board.And while the narrative of the São José Paquete Africa suggests that the ship’s crew frantically attempted to save as many slaves as they could, it was done so –according to the NYT article–not because of their value as a human being but because of their value as a slave. Hundreds perished. Those that survived only did so to be sold within two days of the tragedy.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture will announce on this Tuesday the discovery of the ship. According to researchers who took part in this discovery, this is the very first time that the wreckage of a ship that was lost with slaves on board has been recovered.


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