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A Ghost Ship That tells a tale of misery

South Africa’s Cape was a player in the transatlantic slave trade, which saw 12 million Africans transported to the Americas. The discovery of a shipwreck is bringing this shameful history back to life.

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The São José-Paquete de Africa had been at sea for over three weeks when, just off Cape Town’s treacherous coastline, it was overcome by a bellowing storm. As gusty winds yanked at its sails, storey-high waves pushed the vessel closer to shore.

Captain Manuel João from Portugal refused to give in, after all was just a few sea miles away from Table Bay. The plan was to anchor there, stock up on food, water and other supplies, and sail on to Brazil to offload his precious cargo: 500 men, women and children from southeast Africa, packed like sardines in the dank belly of his ship. After delivering his load, João would return to Mozambique for a fresh shipment.

Mother Nature decided otherwise. On December 27, 1794, the São José smashed against razor-sharp rocks, 100 meters off present-day Clifton, an affluent suburb of Cape Town. The vessel disintegrated into matchwood and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic – taking 212 slaves with it. Those who survived were captured and sold into bondage in the Cape, possibly to recoup the damages.

The São José was soon to be forgotten, until sports divers stumbled upon her remains in the 1980s – after which the ship ended up in the archives as the Van Schuylenberg. This Dutch merchant vessel had gone down off the Cape coast in the 1750s.

In 2011, South African marine archaeologist, Jaco Boshoff, came across an account by João, in which he described how the ship had left Lisbon on April 27, 1794, to purchase slaves from Mozambique. On the 24th day of the voyage to Table Bay, for an interim supply stop before crossing the Atlantic, the ship was overcome by bad weather and sank.

More information has since emerged from the archives in Portugal and Mozambique, as well as the bottom of the Atlantic, which suggested that the wreck off Clifton was everything except a Dutch merchant vessel. So, in 2014, the partners of the Slave Wrecks Projects – which includes Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – began unearthing what was left of the wreckage.

“We found iron ballast blocks, which were often used to stabilize slave ships. Human cargo tends to move around and is therefore more unstable than dead weight, hence the blocks,” says Paul Tichmann, curator of the Iziko Slave Lodge, a museum in Cape Town.

He adds that Portuguese archival documents confirmed that the São José had loaded iron ballast before departing for Mozambique.

“We also found slave shackles, copper nails, and sheathing,” he says. “Tests have indicated that these date back to the 1790s. The timber remains we have found, was proven to be a type of Mozambican hardwood, also dating back to that particular time.”

Unearthing whatever was left of the São José was not easy.

“It is a very difficult area for diving. The waters are very turbulent, with strong currents. One of the divers described it as working in a washing machine. There were times, they could only dive three days per month,” says Tichmann.

The discovery of the ship – which was announced in June – has been hailed as an extraordinary find, making headlines around the world. It is one the few transatlantic slave ship wrecks ever recovered.

The São José’s significance goes beyond that, says Patrick Harries, who has been studying the role of the Cape of Good Hope in the transatlantic slave trade for decades. The wreck, he says, has once again proven that the Cape – generally known as a refreshment stop for ordinary merchant ships – was an important service spot for slave vessels en route to the Americas.

“It served as such from the mid-1700s to 1834, when the trading and owning of slaves was abolished in all British territories,” he says, adding that slave ships anchoring in Table Bay were transporting slaves who had embarked in Mozambique, southern Tanzania, and Madagascar.

“Many were brought to the coast after being captured in the deep interior, for instance where Zambia and Malawi are now,” Harries says.

“They were then loaded onto ships in Mozambique, which would then sail to Table Bay to refuel prior to sailing on to their final destination. Close to half a million slaves were taken from southeast Africa.”

While supplying slave ships with wood, food and water, thus making a profit out of the transatlantic trade, Cape Town also absorbed some of these slaves.

“Generally speaking, a ship owner would sell 10 percent of his slaves in Table Bay to pay for the fuel and supplies,” Harries says. “They would end up working on farms.”

While the Dutch shipped East Africans into the Cape, they didn’t play much of a role in the transatlantic slave trade. The trade in humans from southeast Africa to the New World started under the French in the 1770s.

“The French had been using African slave labour since the early 1700s to keep the sugar plantations on Reunion Island and Mauritius going. They started transporting East Africans across the Atlantic upon realizing that they were worth more in Saint-Domingue than in Reunion,” says Harries.

Situated in the Caribbean, Saint-Domingue used to be the sugar capital of the world.

“Sugar was the petrol of those days, making it the jewel of the French empire,” says Harries.

The tide turned in 1791, when slaves in Saint-Domingue staged an uprising and took control, renaming the region Haiti. This put an end to the French East African slave trade.

Like their French counterparts, Portuguese and Brazilian slave ships stopped in Table Bay for supplies before crossing the Atlantic.

“Particularly the months between October and March, known as the slave season, were busy. There could be as many as three ships in Table Bay, each carrying 300 to 400 slaves,” says Harries.

Cape Town continued to service slave ships until December 1, 1834, the year the trading and owning of slaves was outlawed. This prohibited any slave ship from anchoring in Table Bay and put an end to the Cape’s transatlantic slavery role. This didn’t end the influx of cheap African labor into the Cape.

“In 1834, the Brits had granted themselves the right to hunt down any slave ship within their waters. The slaves on board these captured vessels were brought to British controlled territories, the Cape included. Here, these so-called ‘Prize Negroes’ were sold on as apprentices, for up to 14 years,” says Tichmann.

The ‘Prize Negroes’ were often worse off than slaves.

“Apprentices were a prized and expensive commodity. Those who bought apprentices felt they had to get the most out of them as long as they could legally have them. Conditions were therefore very harsh. They would not get paid. It was another form of slavery, really. This happened until the 1880s if I am not mistaken,” says Tichmann.

Records show that 3,000 to 4,000 ‘Prize Negroes’ were imported into the Cape, on top of the previously mentioned 63,000 African, Asian and Indian slaves.

Both Tichmann and Harries hope that the São José discovery will trigger a greater level of awareness around Cape Town’s role in the slave trade.

“South Africa always thought it was safe from that particular history, but in fact, the transatlantic trade in Africans is very much part of it,” Harries says. “It is important that people in the Western Cape acknowledge this. A large part of its population, after all, are descendents from these African slaves. Their ancestors survived a month in a slave ship, and experienced the most awful conditions imaginable. We need to remember,” says Harries.

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IN PICTURES | Looking Back At The Vibe Of The South African Elections

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FORBES AFRICA’s photojournalists immortalize the tension and elation of the South African elections in May that saw the African National Congress win for the sixth time since 1994.


In what was a landmark 25 years since the first democratic elections, South Africa registered, voted and elected the African National Congress (ANC) for the sixth time to govern the nation again for the next five years. The 2019 elections saw many surprises and plenty more political action compared to the previous polls.

 In the run-up to election day, political parties (48 in all) emphasized the country’s socio-economic challenges such as unemployment, education, housing and the contentious issue of land expropriation.  

On May 8, the day the country cast its vote, voters woke early to congregate and line up at the 22,924 voting stations strewn across the country.

FORBES AFRICA’s photojournalists immortalize the tension and elation of the South African elections in May that saw the African National Congress win for the sixth time since 1994. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

I was among them, a citizen also doubling as a photojournalist on the quest to document this historic election, my camera strapped around my neck and my constant companion. 

This Wednesday morning was particularly cold but voters were in sweaters and armed with their identity books to have a say in South African politics with an ‘X’ mark on the ballot paper.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), was among those at the Presbyterian Church in Dobsonville, Soweto; the township where he was born.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

His arrival created a frenzy as international and local media wrestled with each other for the perfect shot.

After casting his vote and walking out of the church, he addressed the public.

“On such a historic day, it is important to vote in Soweto with the people of Soweto to express hope and a future for our country. Soweto, to me, represents the home of where the struggle is and now we’re entering into a new struggle for jobs for many South Africans. I remember, vividly and well, when I played in these streets and I remember too well the release of Nelson Mandela, therefore today, I urge that we come and cast our votes,” Maimane said.

He spoke about the new struggle.

“To me, there could be nothing more special, nothing more historic than being able to express our future. Vote for the future of this country and for the unemployed South Africans; it’s a new struggle and we are fighting for the protection of freedom and advancement of freedom.”   

Post the election results, Maimane was the first DA leader to not have grown more supporters, whereas the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with the third highest number of votes, gained more in all South African provinces except the Northern Cape.

A few kilometers from Dobsonville is Mzimhlophe Hostel. A hostel among many others in Soweto that erupted with service delivery protests prior to the elections. On election day, it was more peaceful and locals were going about their daily lives.

Kwenzi Gwala standing outside what is left of his shack. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

In the same vicinity is a squatter camp (informal settlement) allegedly set on fire weeks before the elections.

Residents and brothers Mduduzi (32) and Kwenzi Gwala (22) came to Johannesburg looking for employment.

“This is my first time voting this year; I wish the economy could strengthen so we can move out of the squatter camps and live in houses. Our camp burned around the Easter holidays while we were at church. We used to sell African beer and our stock got burned along with the money and clothes that were inside. All we have is what we are wearing now,” Kwenzi says.

About 12 kilometers away was where national president and president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa cast his vote in his hometown of Chiawelo, at a local primary school.

National president and president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa cast his vote in his hometown of Chiawelo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

The supporters of various parties, the media and voters were out in full force to witness their president in Soweto.

“The nation and the people are energized. They can see their votes are heralding a new dawn. This is a vote that reminds me of 1994 when the people were just as excited as this because they were heralding a new period, a new future for our country,” said Ramaphosa.

“Today, this is what I am picking up, our people are excited about what lies tomorrow and they want to vote for a government that is going to serve them, that is going to address their needs and aspirations. So, I am truly humbled by the turnout that I’ve seen here.

“There is a great vibe and it’s a vibe for democracy, it’s a vote also for our democratic system that we’ve been building over the last 25 years. So, 25 years later, we still have a nation that is breathing confidence and excitement casting their vote. Today, I will go home to sleep very peacefully like I did last night.

Brother of South African journalist Shiraaz Mohamed, kidnapped in Syria on January 2017, begs for government intervention. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“This vote is about confidence, it is about the future and it is about us that are going to be elected to work a lot harder, much harder than we have in the past to realize the ideals, wishes and hopes of our people, so this, to me, is like a rocket booster for democracy and we are going to build a great country because we will be doing so standing on the shoulders of our people,” Ramaphosa said.

Like the DA, the ANC lost more supporters nationally; Gauteng province was the gold prize, for the first time since 1999, the ANC had to battle to remain above 50% to secure the province.

Motlabana Monnakgotla

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May Will Be Gone In June Ending Months Of Political Battering And Speculation

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British Prime Minister Teresa May – just under three years into the job – says she will step down on June 7.

This follows a hammering, from both sides of the house, over her clumsy handling of the Brexit process. She has lost countless votes in Parliament over a Brexit deal and was seen by many in politics as weak and dithering. It is ironic that May herself voted to keep Britain in Europe, only to see her career expire as she struggled to make the opposite happen.

READ MORE | Chilling Words From The Man Who Broke The Bank Of England

Her heartfelt farewell speech on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street concluded that she had done her best to make Britain a better place not merely for the privileged few, but also for the whole population.

The supreme irony is that her shuffling off of the Prime Minister’s job will see the shuffling in one of Britain’s best known members of the privileged few. Eton and Oxford educated Boris Johnson is likely to step in as leader of May’s Conservative party ahead of what surely is going to be a snap election.   

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Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections

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May 8, a landmark day for Africa’s second biggest economy. South Africans will cast their votes for the country’s sixth general elections since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

In the run-up to the polls, the country saw flagrant protests in some parts, as disgruntled citizens expressed disapproval of their stifling living conditions. 

In this image, a resident of Alexandra, a township in the north of Johannesburg, squats in the middle of a busy road leading to the opulent precincts of Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile.  

The dichotomy of socio-economic circumstances is an accelerant in one of the country’s poorest communities filled to the brim with squatter camps and the restlessness of unemployment.

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