Slave Wrecks Project

The Slave Wrecks Project is an international network of researchers and institutions hosted by the Museum. The Slave Wrecks Project uses maritime archaeology, historical research and the study of sunken slave ships to take a distinct approach to the study of the transatlantic slave trade.

These Divers Search For Slave Shipwrecks and Discover Their Ancestors | National Geographic

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Special Feature

Explore the Journey of the São José through our Interactive Story Map

From No Return: The Journey of the Slave Ship São José

Explore the different ways communities continue to commemorate and research the history and memory of the São José. The scope of this story is far more than a single shipwreck site. It is a journey across geography and time that extends around the globe and exists on a crossroad between individuals and communities, cultures and nations, descendants and ancestors.
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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.

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.

About the Slave Wrecks Project

Learn More About Our Work with Local Communities Around the World
Africatown
01/05

Africatown

In 2018, the Museum joined the effort to locate the Clotilda, "America's last slave ship." The Slave Wrecks Project supported the Alabama Historical Commission in its archaeological work and designing ways to involve the community of Africatown in preserving the memory of the Clotilda and the legacy of slavery and freedom in Alabama.
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Mozambique
02/05

Mozambique

Since 2013, the Slave Wrecks Project has developed a strong collaboration with the faculty, researchers, and students of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Eduardo Mondlane University. By developing a robust research collaboration on terrestrial and underwater archaeological sites, this partnership provides opportunities for a new generation of Mozambican archaeologists.
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Senegal
03/05

Senegal

Since 2014, the Slave Wrecks Project has fostered a network based in the Laboratoire d’Archéologie Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop . Over five years of dive training, skill building in maritime archeaological technique, and remote survey work, the Slave Wrecks Project is helping build West Africa’s first maritime archaeological team led by Africans.
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South Africa
04/05

South Africa

First launched in 2008, the Slave Wrecks Project's' initial focus was on Southern Africa. Since then, it has grown exponentially while maintaining a focus on combining research with training and community engagement. Using the work on the São José Paquete D’Africa, the Slave Wrecks Project has advanced archaeology, oral-history collection, educational programming, and museum exhibitions that have reached millions.
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St. Croix U.S.V.I.
05/05

St. Croix U.S.V.I.

Since 2015, the Slave Wrecks Project has developed a network in St. Croix, devoted to exploring the history and legacies of slavery and freedom. Project partners advance archaeological investigations, dive training, and underwater heritage monitoring and analysis. The Slave Wrecks Project also conducts exhibition development, interpretation, and community outreach in St. Croix, telling fuller stories about our shared history.
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Our Global Partners

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 United States. 

Museum staff with members of the Africatown community in May 2019. Photo courtesy Alabama Historical Commission

What We Do

  • Conduct groundbreaking research rooted in specific regions, but with a global reach that incorporates the disciplines of maritime and historical archaeology, history, museology and anthropology.
  • Build a community of global scholars conducting local and regional research that spans the world created by the African slave trade.
  • Create interpretive programming with its partnerships that manifests dialogues about the complex, enduring legacies of the slave trade.
  • Foster an educational agenda that cultivates opportunities from the classroom to heritage tourism to empower local communities while developing international exchange and collaboration.
  • Advance 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.
  • Work 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.
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.

Why Our Work Matters

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.

While we can find artifacts and archival records, the human connection to the history helps us engage with this American story in a compelling way.

MARY N. ELLIOTT Curator of American Slavery at the NMAAHC and leader of the community engagement activities for the Slave Wrecks Project