Slave Wrecks Project

Discovering history through the lens of the global slave trade.

Explore Initiative

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) is a long-term collaboration between six core partners, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The project is designed to combine research, training and education to build new scholarship and knowledge about the study of the global slave trade, particularly through the lens of slave shipwrecks. Core partners for SWP include the George Washington University, Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resource Agency, the U.S. National Park Service, Diving With a Purpose and the African Center for Heritage Activities.

Launched in 2008 as the Southern African Slave Wrecks and Diasporan Heritage Routes Project with a seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the project initially focused on Southern Africa and launched its first research efforts in the republic of South Africa. From its inception, the project has sought to assist developing-country partners in the advancement of cultural resource management programs that can preserve and protect irreplaceable heritage related to the historical slave trade and Africa’s global diaspora, while also fostering a unique niche for regional cultural tourism with tangible economic benefits and promoting capacity building for educational, heritage and scientific institutions in partnering countries.

Now in its second phase (2012–2017), SWP has expanded the geographic scope of the project to reflect the global reach and impact of the African slave trade. While the project continues to pursue and expand its activities in South Africa, the current phase also features the development of activities in other regions as well, with an added focus on sites in the Americas. Work is currently in progress and partnerships are under development in North and South America, in the Caribbean, in West Africa and in the East Africa/Indian Ocean regions.

The story of the São José

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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

Why is this work important? SWP catalyzes a new field of research—maritime archaeology—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.

Underwater archaeology researchers on the site of the São José slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa

Underwater archaeology researchers on the site of the São José slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Iziko Museums

For more information on issues surrounding maritime archaeology and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, visit: