In late December of 1794, the São José, a Portuguese ship whose cargo was 400 humans captured from the interior of Mozambique, found itself caught in heavy winds off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Just over 300 feet from shore, facing heavy waves, the ship struck submerged rocks. Its captain and crew, along with half of the enslaved Africans it carried, escaped alive; the rest of the people aboard the ship perished.
The ship, for its part, sank.
When it opens to the public this time next year, in late September of 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will exhibit pieces of the São José. Those pieces will include the iron ballasts used to weigh the ship down and the copper fastenings that held the various wooden pieces of the ship together. They will be small pieces, but they will be meaningful.
And that will be in some small part because of how rare it is to see this particular kind of exhibit. As the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch III, has noted: “There has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons.”
Finding the São José was a distinct challenge—and only partially because, when he started, Bunch hadn’t realized that it was the São José he was looking for. He simply knew that he wanted to bring a slave ship—not just a diagram, but an actual ship—to the museum’s visitors.