Slave Wrecks Project

Our Mission

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) searches for slave ships one voyage at a time, and looks at sites, histories, and legacies connected by those voyages. This mission to humanize the history of the global slave trade increases all people’s capacity to understand a trade that shaped the world in which we live. By recovering the experiences and highlighting the humanity of those who were enslaved aboard the ships that plied the most horrific and extensive trade in people in world history, SWP seeks to bring the immensity of that history to a human scale, voyage by voyage. Through SWP’s efforts, previously submerged archeological remains and long-neglected histories are recovered, restored, remembered, protected, and shared.

Two divers inspect a shipwreck underwater.

Jaco Boshoff, Iziko Museums of South Africa, on the site of the São José wreck, Cape Town, South Africa.

Photo by Jonathan Sharfman.

Who We Are

SWP is an international network of researchers and institutions hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that uses maritime archeology and historical research in a distinctive approach to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. SWP integrates technical training, support for heritage protection, and deep community engagement into its research. SWP develops innovative programming and initiatives that connect local, national, and global audiences.

Along with the museum, SWP’s global partners represent the international leadership of the project and engage in collaborative work across regions that span and expand the Atlantic world. Current global partners for the SWP network include The George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, U.S. National Park Service, and Diving With a Purpose.

The SWP network also spans a growing list of national, regional, and at-large partnerships with institutions, researchers, and community groups in South Africa, Mozambique, Senegal, Cuba, Brazil, Saint Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands), and other sites in the U.S.


A group of people in wetsuits sit in the back of a boat in the ocean.

Ken Stewart, founder of Diving With a Purpose (DWP) with instructors and students in Biscayne National Park, Florida.

Photo courtesy Diving with a Purpose.

What We Do

The Slave Wrecks Project:

  • Conducts groundbreaking research rooted in specific regions, but with a global reach that incorporates the disciplines of maritime and historical archaeology, history, museology, and anthropology.
  • Builds a community of global scholars conducting local and regional research that spans the world created by the African slave trade.
  • Creates interpretive programming with its partnerships that manifests dialogues about the complex, enduring legacies of the slave trade.
  • Fosters an educational agenda that cultivates opportunities from the classroom to heritage tourism to empower local communities while developing international exchange and collaboration.
  • Advances education and professional training in partner communities to encourage diversity within the fields of history, archaeology, and anthropology, with a focus on the lasting legacies of the African slave trade.
  • Works with descendant communities to connect local histories to the global slave trade and includes local communities in research.
  • Promotes knowledge, fosters reconciliation, and advances social justice.
A group of people pose for a photograph.

NMAAHC curator of slavery Mary Elliott and manager of media relations Fleur Paysour with members of the Africatown community in May 2019.

Photo courtesy Alabama Historical Commission.

Why Is This Work Important?

SWP catalyzes a new field of research – maritime archeology – in the scholarship of slavery and the slave trade. The project establishes a new model for international collaboration among museums and research institutions, and it links research to professional training, institutional capacity building, heritage protection, and heritage tourism.

Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the transatlantic slave trade is the ships that carried captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return. Until SWP recovered the wreck of the slave ship São José in 2014, there had never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons. Locating, documenting, and preserving this cultural heritage has the potential to reshape understandings of the past, making unique and unprecedented contributions to the study of the global slave trade. In addition, publicly displaying and interpreting this history through a variety of platforms provide the opportunity for a worldwide public to experience and grapple with authentic pieces of the past that played such a foundational role in shaping world history.

Diving With a Purpose lead instructor Jay Haigler trains members of the community monitoring program on the Ilha de Moçambique in 2018.

Photo by Robyn Leone.

Where We Work



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South Africa

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St. Croix U.S.V.I.

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Africatown, Alabama, U.S.A.

Clotilda: "America's Last Slave Ship"

In 2018, the National Museum of African American History and Culture joined the effort to locate the Clotilda through SWP. The museum and SWP participated in support of the Alabama Historical Commission in archaeological work and in designing a way to involve the community of Africatown in the process of preserving the memory of the Clotilda and the legacy of slavery and freedom in Alabama. Many of the residents of Africatown are descendants of the Africans who were trafficked to Alabama on the Clotilda. The museum continues to work directly with the descendant community in Africatown and develops educational, preservation, and outreach opportunities with the community. For more about the discovery of the Clotilda, read the Smithsonian Magazine article.

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What the Discovery of the Last American Slave Ship Means to Descendants | National Geographic

National Geographic Society
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