Slave Wrecks Project

Explore Initiative

Discovering history through the lens of the global slave trade.

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) is an international network of researchers and institutions hosted by the NMAAHC that pursues a distinctive approach to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Using maritime archeology and historical research as its entry points, SWP integrates technical training, support for heritage protection, and deep community engagement into its operation. SWP produces exhibitions, interactives, and is involved in developing a number of innovative programming and education initiatives that connect local, national, and global audiences.

The Slave Wrecks Project’s mission is increases our 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, the SWP seeks to bring the immensity of that history to a human scale, voyage by voyage.

Through the SWP’s efforts, previously submerged archeological remains and long neglected histories are being recovered, restored, remembered, protected, and shared.

Tara Van Niekerk, Yara de Larice, Kamau Sadiki at memorial ceremony at site of the wreck of the Sao Jose.

Tara Van Niekerk, Yara de Larice, Kamau Sadiki at memorial ceremony at site of the wreck of the Sao Jose.

Getty Images

Why is this work important?

SWP catalyzes a new field of research—maritime archeology—in the scholarship of slavery and the slave trade, while generating an innovative model through which museums can relate research to exhibits and public education, as well as meaningfully engage with the diverse communities of local, national and international stakeholders. 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 fields of heritage tourism.

Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is the ships that carried captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return. As of yet, however, there has 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 provides 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.

Uncovering Shared Histories and Recovering Usable Pasts

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 manifest 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.

Where SWP works

In a dynamic approach to global public history and archeology, SWP works on sites under the water and on land, in museums and in archives, as well as in classrooms, communities, public forums, and online.

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

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

Jonathan Sharfman

The work of the SWP is necessarily international and collaborative.  The partnership has grown from a research collaboration into an expansive international network that draws upon archaeology, anthropology, history, and other intersections between the sciences and the humanities. 

Along with The NMAAHC, SWP 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
  • 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 of America.

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

Diving with a Purpose

Just to be able to dive that site, to find a tangible piece of artifact, or information, something to raise their silent voices, to tell their story, is an extraordinary thing

Kamau Sadiki National Association of Black SCUBA Divers

SWP Features

The Saõ José Paquete D’Afrique investigation is a flagship project of the Slave Wrecks Project.  The voyage of this ship in the late 18th century was one of exploitation, subjugation, and slavery. The SWP is dedicated to making the process of the recovery of this tragic history one of repair, openness, and cooperation among individuals, institutions, communities and nations.  The work is ongoing in South Africa, Mozambique, Brazil and Portugal.

The story has been profiled on the BBC, CBS 60 Minutes, The New York Times and many local, regional and international news outlets.

The story of the São José

The above media is provided by YouTube (Privacy Policy, Terms of Service)