Search for Slave ShipwrecksLatest update January 11, 2019 Started on October 12, 2018
I am following a group of Black scuba divers, historians and archaeologists who are searching for, documenting and helping to excavate slave trade shipwrecks around the globe.
When we think about the slave trade, we mostly think about the Transatlantic slave trade, which involved European slavers first capturing and enslaving Africans, then heading to the Americas to unload their cargo (the Middle Passage) and finally traveling back to Europe with spices, goods and profits from the sale of those human beings. We know that approximately 12.5 million Africans are estimated to have been sold between 1500 and 1900, according to sources like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. And we are learning from the documentation of wrecks like the São José Paquete d’Africa that Africans were not just taken from West and Central Africa across the Atlantic, but also from East African countries like Mozambique and forced to sail around the coast of South Africa on to Brazil and the Caribbean.
I am going to hazard a guess, though, that most of us don’t know as much about the slave trade on the Indian Ocean. I must say, I was astonished to learn how pervasive and common the slave trade in Africa was before the 16th century. This trade, which started as early as the 9th century and continued until the 20th century, mainly benefited the Arab Islamic world with trade between Western Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Some historians estimate that as many as 17 million Bantu peoples from East Africa (Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya) were sold across the Sahara Desert and the Indian Ocean to Egypt, the Middle East, European colonies in the East, Indian Ocean islands, Ethiopia and Somalia. And the trade was multidirectional - with slaves also flowing into Africa from places like India and what is now Indonesia and Malaysia to work the farms and mines in Southern Africa.
See the maps below for reference.
1 - Transatlantic trade (Source: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database)
2 - Indian Ocean trade between 1500-1900 (Source: Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade)
You have to love Yolanda and Ricardo Duarte.
I know we Americans bandy this word ‘love’ about recklessly, easily “loving” anything from commodities as banal as minty dental floss (the waxed version, please) or Ciara’s Level Up video (I would “love” to pop my bootie like that!) to our soul mates within 50-year marriages.
But I think the word really does apply in this case.
You have to love Yolanda and Ricardo’s combined spirit, their determination, their absolute commitment - in the face of inertia, bureaucracy and African “salaries” - to unearthing and unleashing the terrestrial and maritime archaeological slave-trading history of Mozambique Island.
Ricardo is a gentle wind on a summer day, quietly present, a soothing soul with a slow and easy smile, while his wife Yolanda is a dust storm, a gale force, a category-five tornado who tears through and upends everything in her wake.
And yet their disparate energies complement and elevate when mixed, particularly when combined on a common mission like sharing the heritage of Ilha de Moçambique. Yolanda tells me that the day she met Ricardo, he sent her a bouquet of yellow roses. “I sent the roses back because I think he gives roses to a lot of women!” she says with a laugh. She didn’t speak to him again for three years. But when they reconnected, it got serious fast, and within five months they were living together and have been inseparable since.
Today, Yolanda is the researcher, the diver, the on-ground coordinator/organizer who makes the Slave Wrecks Project happen on Ilha. She’s the “first to wake up and the last to go to sleep” during a field season, doing a bit of everything, and with the ferocity of a pit bull. And Ricardo is the archaeologist, probably the most well-known and respected in all of Mozambique, and the first maritime archaeologist in the country. He is also a professor at Eduardo Mondlane University. Together, Yolanda and Ricardo run the Centre for Archaeology, Research, and Resources at the São Sebastião Fort on Ilha, which is supported by the government of Mozambique, Eduardo Mondlane University and the Slave Wrecks Project.
So why are Yolanda and Ricardo so invested in this work? Why does the history of Mozambique and the slave trade matter so much to them?
For both, it is a personal matter. The blood of black Mozambicans - however distant - runs through Yolanda’s veins and Ricardo’s claim of Mozambique is absolute.
I can’t easily repeat Yolanda’s ancestry - it’s complicated with enough twists and turns to fill a book. But I can say that her lineage sprouts from wealthy and illustrious slave traders from Portugal who governed the country as well as spirited Africans who spoke up and fought back, including a Makua princess who lived on Ilha and fearlessly traveled to Portugal to fight for the life of her warring Portuguese husband.
Ricardo’s ancestry traces back mainly through Portugal where he was born, and Brazil, where he has native Indigenous ancestors. His great, great grandfather married a Brazilian princess, the daughter of the great chief Arco Verde from Recife. But Ricardo says firmly, “I am Mozambican. I moved here when I was three years old. I have spent my whole life here. This is a fantastic country with a rich cultural heritage, and it is my home.”
Both Yolanda and Ricardo have spent a lot of time researching their ancestry. And you can see how the resulting knowledge shapes them and gives them strength. Perhaps it even gives them permission to be more themselves in the world. It certainly makes the fight in Yolanda’s blood something she can embrace and be proud to also pass on. For Ricardo, perhaps it helps bestow upon him the innate sense of dignity we all sense.
Is it any wonder that Africans in the Americas hunger for such connections and stories as well? That they, too, want stories of courage, of complexity, of nuance, with names and dates - and context? They want more than just stories of horror and pain. They want to be seen as more than the sum total of countless tragedies throughout the centuries.
Yes, yes...but what about those slave wrecks, you might be asking. When do we get to them? Well, searching for these wrecks isn’t easy. They are in pieces across the sea floor, located in difficult areas under multiple jurisdictions, and still not a priority for most governments and institutions.
And so the Slave Wrecks Project has had to weave an intricate web of partners and collaborators to make this project possible … partners like the Duartes who carry the legacy forward and spread it to others across Mozambique. As Ilha residents and proud locals, they help ensure that interlopers don’t swoop in and steal remnants of that history, they support the training of their neighbors to carry forth this work into the next generation and they help share knowledge so that the Makua on Ilha can use this information to uplift themselves and build a new tomorrow.
Thank you, Yolanda and Ricardo!
December 27, 2018: Today, I just discovered, is the “224th anniversary of the wrecking of the São José Paquete d’Africa as recorded by the ship captain in his testimony to court and in contemporary shipping news.”
How timely then, my meeting with Albie.
Perhaps, we can all take a moment to nod our heads or pour a libation to the 212 Makua lives lost and to the close to 300 Makua who were pressed on into slavery in South Africa and the Americas.
(Note: The above quote is from Paul Gardullo, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.)
(Correction: Please note the correct spelling of the ship’s name as São José Paquete d’Africa in the story below.)
Albie Sachs, former South African Constitutional Court Justice and revered anti-apartheid activist...(read more below).
I spent an evening last week with Albie Sachs, a former South African Constitutional Court Justice and revered anti-apartheid activist ... and a most gracious and generous host.
Albie and his wife and enthusiastic chef-in-crime Vanessa, not only host regular gatherings for eclectic groups of family and friends who just happen to be in town, but they also host homecoming ceremonies for enslaved Africans who died in shipwrecks. Well, at least, they hosted one such ceremony for the Slave Wrecks Project, in honor of the men, women and children who perished on the São José de Paquette, the slave ship that set sail from Ilha de Moçambique in 1794 and wrecked a few months later off the coast of Cape Town.
You see, Albie’s house overlooks the wreck site of the São José. From his balcony, down the rocky slopes, directly beyond a palm tree, maybe 200 meters away, you can see two boulders poking out of the water, underneath which lie the scattered remains and accoutrements of the São José.
All agreed when the weather turned foul on the day of the ceremony that Albie’s house would be the perfect place to assemble the team and to carry out the charge laid on them by the descendants of those whose lives had been lost. They were asked to scatter soil from Mozambique across the wreck site so that the ancestors would finally have an opportunity to touch home after 200 years adrift.
You smell the sea from the balcony. You hear the buzz of conversations of neighbors across other bungalows nearby and the screams of children as they play below in the cold waters. You watch the sun as it begins its slow trajectory home after a bright day’s work. You chat with a motley crew of kids and adults who are activists, reporters, social innovators, enthusiastic swimmers, and you nosh on freshly-made pumpkin cakes and cashews and drink tonic water. You’re in Clifton Bay, one of the most exclusive and expensive areas of Cape Town. And you marvel at the ordinariness of all of this against the backdrop of a most heart-wrenching tragedy.
Albie understands the irony. He grew up here. But as a member of the African National Congress, he also spent years defending mostly black South Africans accused of crimes under the apartheid regime. He lost most of an arm and was blinded in one eye from a car bomb placed in his car while in exile in Mozambique as a result of his stance. And after he was appointed by Nelson Mandela to post-apartheid South Africa’s highest court, he wrote a landmark decision that struck down legal discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was revolutionary legislation, particularly in 2005, at a time when same-sex marriages were not allowed in most countries around the world. Albie seems to need to push beyond the accepted - and the normal - and toward that which he believes is greater and higher.
Albie steps aside in a quiet room and speaks poetically about the day of the ceremony and about his vision for the future of the wreck site. He and Vanessa have an idea for a memorial here; they imagine something unobtrusive and educational but that reminds their wealthy and privileged neighbors of what lies beneath, of the enormous legacy that surrounds them and that is now calling from the depths.
Thoughtful and measured … musical, eloquent and humble in his speech. You tell Albie that he reminds you of Maya Angelou, your auntie in spirit. And of course, he tells you that he received the 2010 Lincoln Medal at the annual Ford’s Theatre Gala (a gala chaired by then US President Barack Obama and an award given to those whose body of work demonstrates outstanding courage and character), and that Maya Angelou was a part of the ceremony. He says he got to know her a bit and read all her books and that he is delighted at your comparison. You imagine his beautiful energy and hers, for one brief moment connecting, intermingling, expanding, pushing outward like a (nontoxic) mushroom cloud, enveloping and inspiring all that it touches. You feel honored to be in his presence and touched by his graciousness and his kindness.
The waves still crash against the surf along Cape Town’s many bays and outlets with velocity and vigor. The finding of shipwrecks is a serious matter. There is much to say about the São José, which to my mind sits at the center of this work. Many more tales to come, my friends.
In the meanwhile, Albie, who usually smiles easily and with abandon, leans over as you prepare to take his picture and says quietly in your ear, “I can’t smile in front of this.”
And you agree. You straighten up a bit, too, the clamor fading around you both, his unsmiling face shining like a spotlight in the night, and you inhale softly, and honor the ancestors one more time - together.
11 Facts You Might Be Interested to Know About Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island) …
The island is only 3 kilometers (a little less than 2 miles) long and 500 meters (about ⅓ mile) deep at its widest.
It was inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, mainly because of its unique architecture - a blend of Portuguese, Arab, Indian and African styles and/or efforts.
From the 16th century to the 19th century, Ilha shone brightly as the capital of Mozambique before the capital was eventually moved to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in 1898.
The island was a central East African port in the transportation of enslaved Africans during both the Indian Ocean slave trade and the Atlantic Ocean slave trade.*
In the 1940s, movie stars used to fly into the tiny mainland airstrip at nearby Lumbo (about 20 minutes away) to vacation on the island. (Thanks, Lena Runer, for the picture of Rita Hayworth arriving to Lumbo on her honeymoon with Prince Aly Khan!)
About 11,000 people currently live on the island permanently, although some guesstimate this number to be as high as 18,000.
The islanders speak a mixture of Portuguese and Makua with a spattering of English.
Ilha’s folks are mainly Muslim, but some identify as Christian, Hindu and/or with a mix of local African traditions, too; and they all seem to get along just fine.
The island is home to the oldest surviving European building in the Southern Hemisphere - the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluartea, a Catholic church built in 1522 by the Portuguese.
During colonial times, Ilha was deeply divided into two sections - Stone Town and Macuti Town. Stone Town, in the northern part of the island, is where the Portuguese, Arabs and Asians made their homes and is characterized by colorful, colonial-style stone houses. Macuti Town, in the southern part of the island, is where most of the island’s black Africans lived and is identifiable by numerous homes with thatched roofs made of plant-based materials such as coconut palm leaf. Today, Africans, who make up the majority population, live on both ends of the island, but Macuti Town is most definitely the beating heart of the place.
Only a one-lane gated bridge, about a mile and a half long, provides access for cars to the island. Cars must pull over to the side and wait if they meet bigger cars or a long line of vehicles going in the opposite direction. On our way in, it took us almost an hour to cross. And we almost had to pay a bribe to the gate guard to get off the island! But we had a secret weapon on our side - I’ll introduce you to her later. :)
*Much has been written and researched about the Atlantic Ocean (transatlantic) slave trade, but the Indian Ocean slave trade - in which ships navigated between Western Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the East Coast of Africa and on which there is far less literature - reportedly captured, sold and enslaved as many as 25 million Africans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. [More on this later.]
I arrived on Ilha de Moçambique (the island of Mozambique) twelve days ago.
Today, as I sit in the Nampula airport on the way to the next port on my journey, I travel backwards in time … remembering a whirlwind of passionate and thoughtful conversations—on roofs with the sunset and gentle sea in the background, with roommates under twin mosquito nets late at night, on strolls through the cobblestone streets of Stone Town and the dirt paths of Macuti Town … remembering enchanting sights, smells, tastes—of good food like matapa de siri siri, a stewlike version of sautéed green beans that reminds you of home, of fishermen hawking their catches on the beach to an eager crowd, of bright smiles on friendly faces that wish you “tudo bem” as you pass.
If you bear with me, over the next few posts I will take you back over those days and introduce you in more detail to the island, the people and the work of the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP; see the background post below for more context). I’ll start with a quick snippet about Jay Haigler. . .......................................................
Jay reminds me of a bit of Popeye the Sailor Man, the 1930s US cartoon hero with the burly arms and a hankering for spinach. “I’m strong to the finish ’cause I eats me spinach.”
It’s the laugh, mainly, that does it for me—they both have a distinctive caw that somehow lives in the throat but can travel across rooms in a single bound. (In the Jo’Burg airport, for example, I could hear Jay’s laugh while I was upstairs at the food court, an entire floor away, and he was holding court at the gate.)
But it’s also the rakish charm, the good humor and the enthusiasm and commitment to helping those he cares about that connects Jay to Popeye in my mind.
Jay is a lead instructor and the safety dive officer for Diving With a Purpose (DWP), and he’s the dive training coordinator for the Slave Wrecks Project. Jay trains all the new scuba divers with SWP here on Mozambique Island. Under his tutelage, for eight days, eight hours a day, enterprising Mozambicans listen to videos, review lessons, take exams and practice their water skills in a lovely infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean. The students graduate from this training as PADI-certified open water scuba divers, which means they can dive anywhere in the world. But most importantly, they are eligible to become official Community Monitors for the island, charged with the awesome responsibility of helping to preserve the maritime archaeological history of this place and sharing this heritage knowledge with their neighbors and with visitors to the island.
You see, Ilha de Moçambique was once the capital of Mozambique. It has a great—and terrible—history as the rich and bustling central hub of international trade, including the trade of enslaved Africans, on the African East Coast. This place was the glistening home of the Portuguese who colonized the island and made it their most favored jewel. It attracted influential and prosperous Europeans, Arabs and Asians, who also settled here and inadvertently left traces of their lives.
SWP looks to the waters to learn about the island’s past, which makes sense because ships reportedly rest in scattered pieces across the harbor, hiding clues to those lives, and to the lives of the enslaved Africans on the ships who had no voice and whose existence has been casually and disdainfully overlooked in the historical records.
These voiceless people are of particular interest to SWP. The project sees Community Monitors as key participants in helping to raise voices from the depths and restore them back into the world’s collective memory.
And Jay sits at the nexus of knowledge, experience and practical application for SWP. He provides the monitors with the tools they need to actively explore their heritage and to protect it from treasure hunters, developers and outsiders who would otherwise steal or destroy it.
Eight monitors graduated on Sunday during a lovely ceremony with music and food and dancing, bringing the total number of Community Monitors trained by Jay to 11. His goal is to get that number to 20 in the next few years.
You hear Jay’s voice—a booming, rich, deep tenor—and the trademark cackle, and you see the twinkle in his eye and the joy emanating from the center of his being … and you believe him when he says quietly, remembering how all the divers completed their tests successfully: “This is what I live for.”
And so it all begins...Nicole, Kamau, Jay and I squeeze together for a quick selfie before we board the plane from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Jay and Kamau are two of the lead divers for Diving With a Purpose and Nicole is the project coordinator for the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP). We will meet more members of SWP in Jo’Burg and then head on to Mozambique Island in the a.m.
More on these smiling faces to come....
On a hot summer day in the murky waters of the man-made Millbrook Quarry in Northern Virginia, a group of about 25 people outfitted in scuba gear take turns going down to a depth of 30 feet, testing their compass reading skills, flooding their masks and practicing emergency ascents without air. The sight is not so unusual since Millbrook is the main training and certification site for scuba divers in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area and often hosts such groups. What might give folks pause, however, is that upon closer look they may notice that all 25 of the divers are African American. And if they chat with this unexpected bunch, they might also find that a majority are certified and qualified to search for, document and help excavate slave trade shipwrecks.
Many of these divers are members of Diving with a Purpose (DWP), a non-profit organization dedicated to researching, conserving and protecting submerged heritage sites, and in part, the protection, documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks. DWP is part of a global network known as the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) whose mission is to use slave shipwrecks as a unique point of entry into understanding the history and impact of the slave trade and sharing that understanding with the widest global public. Hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), SWP also works to create exhibitions, train divers and archaeologists and promote greater diversity in scholarship.
The passionate divers of DWP are not necessarily archeologists or historians by training, by the way, although some are. Mainly, they are retired military officers, engineers, entrepreneurs and civil servants who just love to dive and want to make a difference in the world.
Take Jay Haigler, who sits on the board of DWP, for instance. He’s tall and big – I'm guessing about 6'4 and 240 pounds - with a booming voice and an easy, infectious laugh. He is a retired engineer, a PADI-certified master diver training instructor and a NOAA scientific diver. Or tall and wiry Kamau Sadiki with his thin, wire-framed glasses, and quietly serious manner. He is a retired engineer and pilot, a DWP board member and President of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. Or Dr. Albert José Jones, the founder of the first diving club for African Americans, a Korean War combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient and an inductee into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame with over 6,000 dives from 50 countries under his belt. He's in his 80s and walks with a cane, but he slides into the water with ease.
Or finally, Ken Stewart, the founder and visionary of DWP who got all of this off the ground at the very start. He is 74 years young, but still steps with the quickness and the slickness of an uptown New Yorker. Ken is also an Army veteran, a former corporate executive and the program manager for Youth Diving With a Purpose. This year, he was named by Scuba Diving magazine and Seiko as the 2018 Sea Hero of the Year.
Over the next year, I will tell many stories about these and other DWP divers - and Black historians and archaeologists committed to this work with the SWP - who by their very presence are turning the maritime archaeological world on its head and providing a new and deeply personal lens through which to understand the global slave trade.
Here is one example of how their work easily becomes a dive of the soul.
DWP members participated in key aspects of work researching, diving on, and memorializing the São José Paquete d’Africa, the only working slave ship - sunk with its captive human cargo still aboard - to be fully documented by maritime archaeologists. It was found off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa under the leadership of SWP founding partners Iziko Museums of South Africa and the George Washington University.
Kamau, one of the lead divers on the São José, shared what it meant to him to travel to South Africa, dive in those turbulent waters and touch an artifact from the ship. “Holding that wooden member in my hand, it was like I was hearing the souls of the lost. It helped me imagine the slave trade in a personal way.” Afterward, Kamau traveled to Mozambique with NMAAHC’s Founding Director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is African American, and other members of the Slave Wrecks Project to participate in a ceremony with the Makua, the descendants of those who perished on board, and Mozambican officials.
The Makua chief gave Lonnie soil from the country in a special cowrie shell vessel with the instructions to scatter the soil at the site of the wreck in Cape Town and to be sure to deliver the message that their descendants have never forgotten them. Lonnie writes in From No Return, a book published by NMAAHC about the Sao José, “I felt a chill run through me as I held the vessel. It was as if I were holding the spirits of our ancestors. I could feel a spiritual weight upon me, and for a few moments, I was simply taken away.”
A few days later Kamau, along with a South African marine archaeologist and a Mozambican college student - each with three distinct and personal connections to the diasporic journey of Africans - waded in the waters in Cape Town as close to the wreck as possible and scattered the soil, giving those long-lost spirits of the Makua a chance to finally sleep in their homeland.
According to the Trans-Atlanta Slave Trade Database, approximately 12.5 millions Africans were forcibly transported via ships during the Middle Passage (the Atlantic ocean crossing, or middle leg, of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas). SWP reports that hundreds of these ships sank during the crossing, but only a handful of those vessels have been found. Outside of the Slave Wrecks Project, few divers, maritime archaeologists, historians or treasure hunters are searching for these ships. Most likely this is because the treasures of these ships perished on board, but it is also because this part of history has been glossed over in our history books. A 2018 study released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "Teaching Hard History: American Slavery," reports that fewer than half of the high school seniors that responded to its survey had even heard of the Middle Passage and that most knew little about slavery’s origins.
For DWP though, it doesn’t just matter that these shipwrecks are found and that this missing story of the global slave trade is told. For them, it also matters who tells those stories. People of Black African descent, they believe, must begin to find their own history and tell their own stories.
Over the next year, through funding from the National Geographic Society, I will follow, dive with and tell as many stories as I can - of these divers, historians, maritime and terrestrial archaeologists; of the wrecks found; of the ancestors who perished and the descendants who survived them; and of the relevance of this history today. And I will do so in as many creative and experimental ways as possible.
I will also talk about the work of the Slave Wrecks Project, which has made an enormous investment in serving as witness and protector to this moment in history, in educating the public about the realities of the global slave trade and in engaging and supporting the local communities where the wrecks are found.
Finally, I will hold the space for other creative Black storytellers to re-engage with the Middle Passage and to help bring humanity, nuance, complexity and light to the origin story of Africans in the Americas.
You can follow the journey here, and get weekly updates.
My Itinerary: Mozambique - December 1st - 12th South Africa - December 12th - January 31st Senegal - February 1st - February 22nd US and the Caribbean - March 1 - July 30th
I look forward to unraveling and sharing this oft forgotten part of history with you. And I hope you will join me and share your comments and observations along the way.
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