When the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens in Washington, D.C., next year, it will have a few weighty mementos of one of the darkest periods in America’s history.
On Dec. 3, 1794, a Portuguese slave ship carrying more than 400 shackled Africans left Mozambique for what was supposed to be a four-month, 7,000-mile journey to the sugar plantations of Brazil. Twenty-four days later, rough seas and bad weather ran the slave ship Sao Jose Paquete Africa against a reef off the southern coast of Africa. An estimated 212 Africans died, but the crew and more than 200 Africans survived.
It was a tragedy quickly swallowed up by the much larger tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The sinking of the Sao Jose might have been forgotten if not for the desire of scholars like Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the African-American museum, to showcase objects from the slave-ship era at the facility coming to the National Mall.
The slave trade was conducted with roughly 60,000 voyages across the Atlantic, but the remnants of the slave ships are difficult to account for. The Smithsonian is particularly eager to showcase something from a slave ship because it would add weight to its narrative about the 12 million people sold into bondage in the Americas.
Although the wreckage of the Sao Jose was originally misidentified, it is now believed that the iron blocks of ballasts found on board were used to offset the weight of Africans in the hold of the ship. Several of these iron blocks will be displayed at the new museum, adding grim weight to a chapter in American history that will never be forgotten.