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The discovery of a sunken slave ship prompted efforts to humanize the victims of American slavery

In 2015, a Smithsonian delegation shared a long-overdue discovery with the Makua people of Mozambique. Over 200 years after the Portuguese slave ship the São José Paquete D’Africa sank near Cape Town, the wreck that claimed the lives of 212 enslaved people has been discovered. An elder Makua responded with an act of kindness that will never be forgotten.

“One of the [Makua] 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,” explains Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian secretary.

For Bunch and his colleagues, the importance of the find cannot be overstated. Although the São José, originally bound for Brazil, is the first ship found that has been known to have sunk while carrying enslaved people, it is one of tens of thousands that operated their trade of more than 12 million African men, women, and children during the 400 years of the Transatlantic slave trade.

In spite of this, maritime archaeology has put its main focus on the wrecks of rich and famous ships rather than those that traded with humans as chattel.

As part of the Slave Wrecks Project, a joint effort between the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and other institutions in Africa and the US, established in 2008, the Slave Wrecks Project aims to address that archaeological, academic and sociocultural imbalance.

“People talk about the slave trade; they talk about the millions of people who were transported, but it’s hard to really imagine that, so we wanted to reduce it to human scale by really focusing on a single ship, on the people on the ship, and the story around the ship,” says Bunch. “Yes, we tell you about the thousands of ships that brought the enslaved, but we also say: ‘Here’s a way to humanize it.’”

According to him, “discovering your enslaved past is as important a treasure as finding the Titanic.”

The Slave Wrecks Project is a monumental endeavor that will provide the ancestors harmed by the Transatlantic slave trade with the respect and remembrance they deserve, and allow their present-day descendants' opportunities to learn and appreciate their perseverance.

Source: Mother Jones


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