Lessons to be learnt from the Sao Jose tragedy of 1794

In the middle of packing up in Joburg and preparing for my move to Cape Town my cellphone and electronic communication packed up while I was writing this piece. I also lost much of my info on my phone. Also I regretably missed an important commemoration in the anals of slavery at the Cape when due to my still being in Joburg the memorial at Clifton of the San Jose tragedy took place.

This week for the first time many of the people of Cape Town first heard about the great 1794 tragedy that played out just off the shore between Oudekraal through to Clifton when a Portuguese slaver ship, the Sao Jose Paquete de Africa carrying over 500 slaves sank and over 200 drowned. It is one of many many hidden stories that our citizens do not know and one which illuminates the multifaceted and unclebrated heritage of the people of Cape Town. This incident represents by far one of the largest single migrant landings in Cape Town, albeit by accident, as around 300 of the surviving African Slaves were sold locally by auction and dispersed largely to the Western Cape farmlands.

I came across this story around 2002 and began to regularly raise it through my old blogsite Cape Slavery Heritage, bringing to the attention of the public who relax and forget about their troubles on Camps Bay beach, that the scores of bodies that washed up was buried in a mass grave on the beach of Camps Bay. I then called on tourism practitioners to integrate this story into their narratives and called on the city and Cape Town Tourism to recognise this tragic event with a permanent memorial marker board or a monument of some sort. My argument was that there are so many important sites for indigene and slavery memory that are unmarked and have no visual recognition of the history and heritage of our forebears in Cape Town and the broader Western Cape that it stymies the tourism narrative to such a degree that an almost false history is presented. In fact even the content of courses which tour guides have to undergo is often based on a highly skewed narrative. Tour guides who attempt to redress the skewed narrative and talk about indigene and slave heritage, and indeed even about non- conformist or rebel colonial history have to appeal to tourists to use their imagination because of the lack of visible markers and the lack of place names that truely reflect the past.

It was wonderful that the passionate Iziko Maritime archaeologist Jaco Boshoff took up this challenging exercise with his Slave Wrecks Project and that the wreck has been positively identified. The discoveries of artefacts also opens up the world of objects of memory and this provides a means of connecting us with our past in a visible and dynamicway. Imagining is very valuable but not as valuable as the tangible connection.

The Sao Jose was of course not the only slaver ship to sink in our waters and dynamic impact of many other indigene and slave stories do not reflect in our memory nor projection of the pillars of history on which our city is built. The 1808 Jij Slave Rebellion involving around 400 slaves which was brutally suppressed by Lord Caledon is just one such historical event. The slaves in both the case of the Sao Jose and the Jij Slave Rebellion were mainly those we refer to as the Mazbiekers. East and Central African slaves who were captured from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar and transported through Mozambique Island and Maputo to Brasil, the Caribbean and US with a steady trickle being sold at the Cape. The Sao Jose was en route with its human cargo to Brasil. A half a million East African slaves were taken to the Americas via Mozambique and the Cape of Good Hope in the latter 18th century and possibly as many from the entire Indian Ocean territories before. From 1808 the British Royal Navy began to intercept these slaver ships and seized the human cargo whom they called Prize Slaves. The Prize Slaves were then taken to various Indian Ocean Naval Stations and then resettled in South Africa and the Caribbean not as free men and women, but as people who were forced to be indentured labourers for 14 years. Prize Slaves continued to be brought to the Cape in large numbers until 1856 and remained in indenturship until 1870. So even although slavery was abolished in 1834 and effected fully in 1838 it hung around until 1870. The last of the Prize Slaves in fact arrived in 1890 – the Oromo. They were seized from a slaver vessel and came to the Cape from the RN Naval Station in Yemen. They were children and were taken to the Lovedale Mission College.

In 1818 another Portuguese slaver ship the Pacquet Real wrecked on Woodstock Beach with 167 slaves on board of whom 37 perish in the sea and their bodies was buried in a mass grave on that beach. Ships carrying slaves were also frequently wrecked on the wild coast and surving slaves were integrated into local Eastern Cape communities. There is so much more to our collective heritage in South Africa which involves the slaves of diverse African-Asian origins and this is a part of who we are today. These too are the ties that link and bind us as South Africans. Too many today think of themselves a “pure race” whatever that may mean and as having exclusive inalienable rights based on this “purity” as opposed to those whom they “other”. In paying tribute to these our slave forebears we are also reminding ourselves that it is the gravest folly and insult to our ancestors to engage in antagonisms towards others whom we may deem to be alien…. forgetting our cousin connections.

The history and heritage of slavery in the Cape and indeed in South Africa as a whole has many facinating dimensions which is poorly understood. In the earliest years of slavery West Africans features as the largest single group of slaves to be brought to the Cape in the first 50 years of settlement by Europeans. India and Sri Lanka slaver stations supplied the Cape with the largest numbers of slaves after the combined number of slaves brought from the African continent and Madagascar over the whole period of two centuries of the importing of slaves. But over 16 500 slaves were also brought to the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries from another distinct corner of the world and while this was the smallest segment, their diversity and cultural impact was great. They came from South East Asia and the Indonesian Archipelago incorporating Bengal, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Jakarta, Java, Borneo, Celebes, Buton, Boegies, Ambon and othr islands… even as far as Japan and China.They came to be mistakingly collectively called Cape Malays largely because the slaver ships and slave stations used the Portuguese-Melayu languages as the main means of communication.

Of concern to me about how the present San Jose investigation is being pursued with our friends in the USA playing a large role is that while at last US academics are waking up to the role of the Indian Ocean slave trade they seem however to be starting their learning journey by making a cardinal mistake because they are still looking at the subject through a skewed lens. Reports in the media show them to be proceding from the notion that the Sao Jose shipment of slaves represented the first or earliest of the shipments of slaves from the Indian Ocean region, whereas this is just not true. Slaves from the Indian Ocean region were taken to the US and Latin America for 150 years before this date already and in the Indian Ocean slavery tradition such slaves would have been of both African and Asian origin. Before New York became New York it was New Amsterdam at the time when the Dutch were still in ascendency in Asia and a dominant force in the Indian Ocean. The trade in African and African Asian slaves from Madagascar and Mauritius shifted to Mozambique as the new centre from around the 1770s whereafter slaves who had predominantly come to the Cape from India, South East Asia and Indonesia became much smaller in number and the import of East African slaves began to dominate. Slaver ships destined for the European colonies rounded the Cape with their human cargos throughout the 1700s. However so dominant is the Atlantic Slave trade in US historiography that now the Indian Ocean slave trade is coming into the picture it is being presented as a later occurance and simply being seen as African slaves rather than the diverse community of slaves from all corners of the Indian Ocean territories occupied by the European empires.

Our understanding and approach to Cape Slavery has been isolated to the locally recorded experience of slavery largely through the eyes of slave owners and colonial authorities. As a result Cape Slavery has also been captured in a highly stunted and skewed manner in a relatively dry and dispassionate academic exercise. Cape Slavery’s full diversity, cultural heritage and impact, the slaves own experience, slavery resistance, indigene slavery and relations with imported slaves, Indian Ocean slavery and the experience of colonialism in India, South East Asia and Indonesia has largely been factored out. Only in the last 15 years have these dimensions began to be seriously explored in South Africa and elsewhere. There is an amazing connection between what happened here at the Cape and what happened eleswhere across the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British colonial footprint in East Africa, India, South East Asia, Indonesia, Japan and China. There are ties that bind us across the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean territories, but alas we are very ignorant of these in South Africa and of how it contributes to our identities whether of black, white, coloured, dravidian or asian ancestry. A few years ago when there was an international on slavery in Durban it was embarrassing to South Africa as to how ignorant the South African government participants were on the history and heritage of slavery in general and even more so on chattle slavery in South Africa. The dominant US narrative on slavery is also guilty of distortion and perhaps it will be though collaborations such as this Sao Jose story that we may have opportunity to influence the skewed perspectives…. But we really must be alert to distortion.

The Sao Jose story therefore represents much much more than the tragic loss of life. It represents a huge set of hidden histories and perspectives and a new opportunity for voyages of discovery about our past and exploration of our connections to so much more other communities than our previous narrow perspectives have allowed. It is a window on how Cape Town and its people were moulded from the first Khoena maritime trading settlement at the Camissa River in Table Bay, taken over by the Dutch under Jan van Riebeeck, to become the city of Cape Town today, with a people of such diverse roots. The over amplification of Dutch, French, German and British contributions to Cape Town has drowned out the Indigene contributions and that of the forced labourers who arrived in large numbers over time from the 1650s onwards from Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius and across the Southern African region – from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – from Arakan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore – from Jakarta, Java, the Celebes, Buton, Malaccas, Ambon, and Borneo – from the Phillipines, Makau, Japan and China – .and the Kroomen and Siddis from West Africa and from Zanzibar. What a rich history we have and what does this mean when we interact eith peoples ftom thesd same regions who continue to migrate here today either voluntarily or as smuggled and trafficked migrants to our shores. (Yes slavery still exists and slaves can be encountered within 10 kilometers of any South African home).

In conclusion it will also be interesting for readers to know another hidden fact about Camps Bay, the site of the mass grave of Sao Jose slaves….. The very first landowner of the entire Camps Bay estate and most sucessful farmer of her time was the Cape born daughter of two West African freed slaves, Anne and Evert of Guinea. Her name was Swart Maria Evert. She died in that fateful year of the first smallpox epidemic in 1713 and was the richest woman of her time…… But that is another story. ( pictures show the divers examining the wreck and the ceremonial scattering of sand from Mozambique at the wrecksite by divers)

1 thought on “Lessons to be learnt from the Sao Jose tragedy of 1794

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.