One picture worth a million or more words

Credit Iziko Museums
Credit Iziko Museums

So what are what look like black and white iron bars in the picture? Those of you who read the Times will know (in fact if you are a regular reader of the world’s best newspaper you’ll know this, as well as most of what I know).
The Times story, written by  where I saw the picture was number 6 of the “most emailed” of May 31st.

Grim History Traced in Sunken Slave Ship Found Off South Africa

So, what are the bars? Jaco Boshoff, a maritime archaeologist with the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, suited up and slipped into the water to see them for himself. There, resting in the sand, were the black iron bars with holes in them. He understood instantly what they were. Ballasts. Iron blocks of ballasts.

“I’m a scientist,” he said, “I’m not one for massive amounts of emotion. I knew immediately.” Iron ballast bars were part of the currency of the slave trade. Ships undergoing those long ocean voyages needed weight to keep them stable, and human beings in the cargo hold do not weigh enough. Their weights go up and down. Some of them die. So slavers used iron blocks of ballast to counterbalance the variable weights of their human cargo.

More than anything else that divers had pulled up so far from the site of the São José on December 27, 1794, from a pulley block to refined finishing nails to encrusted shackles, the iron ballast bars had meaning for the researchers involved. “That people were calculating the weight of human bodies that way — it’s difficult to imagine,” said Stephen C. Lubkemann, a George Washington University anthropologist and maritime archaeologist, who had heard about it from Jaco Boshoff.

So far, no skeletons or even partial remains have been found in the wreck.

 But you ought to go to the Cooper article yourself. It’s fascinating, horribly fascinating to read about the slave ship and what happened to the slave “passengers”. If however you don’t, here’s Cooper’s summary account:

On Dec. 3, 1794, a Portuguese slave ship left Mozambique, on the east coast of Africa, for what was to be a 7,000-mile voyage to Maranhão, Brazil, and the sugar plantations that awaited its cargo of black men and women.

Shackled in the ship’s hold were between 400 and 500 slaves, pressed flesh to flesh with their backs on the floor. With the exception of daily breaks to exercise, the slaves were to spend the bulk of the estimated four-month journey from the Indian Ocean across the vast South Atlantic in the dark of the hold.

In the end, their journey lasted only 24 days. Buffeted by strong winds, the ship, the São José Paquete Africa, rounded the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and came apart violently on two reefs not far from Cape Town and only 100 yards from shore, but in deep, turbulent water. The Portuguese captain, crew and half of the slaves survived. An estimated 212 slaves did not, and perished in the sea.

And a map:


And to add to the fascination and great interest that this true story holds, Robben Island is just a few miles north of where the ship, the São José Paquete Africa went under.


And Robben Island, Dutch for “seal island” is flat, only 5 km sq. and only a few metres above sea level, quite unremarkable, except that it was here that the Nobel Laureate and former President of South AfricaNelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

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