National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts begins to understand the healing power of diving for shipwrecks from the slave trade when she learns of a ceremony that honored the 212 Africans lost aboard the Portuguese ship São José Paquete d’Africa. Diver Kamau Sadiki, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III, and South African luminary Albie Sachs take turns describing the ritual, held in both Mozambique and South Africa, which brought tears, reflection, and resolution. Tara invites fellow Explorer Alyea Pierce to help visualize the centuries-long disintegration of the São José, which sank off the coast of Cape Town in 1794.
TARA ROBERTS (HOST): On December 27, 1794, the Portuguese ship São José wrecks off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.
It takes maybe three hours to sink to the ocean floor.
A day goes by.
ALYEA PIERCE (POET): And the cold of the water takes the ship’s breath away. Sand still settling from the loud boom. The current tears cloth from sails and sweeps ragged rope across ridges.
ROBERTS: A month passes …
PIERCE: … since the São José became colonized by the sea. The force of waves push and pull through the ship’s broken body like a dance. Marine life hide in their dens asking, What is this? How did it get here?
ROBERTS: A year goes by.
PIERCE: Kelp forest backbends around corroded iron ballasts. Copper fastenings and sheathings rust.
ROBERTS: A century.
PIERCE: Over 300 tons of vessel, now bones encrusted in coral, are merely fragments reminding us of the sea’s feast.
ROBERTS: Two hundred years.
PIERCE: A window to the past. Replicas of memory encased by rock and time. Sea creatures relax as this fossil, invisible to the untrained eye, becomes home.
ROBERTS: Until it was discovered by divers and later verified.
KAMAU SADIKI (DIVER): It was encrusted. It was concreted in the material, but the shape was—it had a loop and a rod and another loop.
ROBERTS: Kamau Sadiki from Diving With a Purpose.
SADIKI: And yeah, it was a shackle.
ROBERTS: You know, it’s hard learning about, talking about, even working with these ships.
SADIKI: It was like you could hear the screams and the hollering and the pain and suffering that people must have went through. And the agony of being on a vessel in shackles, the sinking and breaking up in the sea.
ROBERTS: The pain can almost be too much to bear.
SADIKI: And you know, in scuba diving, you know, we wear a mask, and sometimes they get foggy. But mine got wet from tears. I just couldn’t hold it back. And so I did like that. I put some water in there, washed it off, opened up my mask and washed the tears out.
ROBERTS: But Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, if you remember, said we have to look back.
LONNIE BUNCH III (HISTORIAN): You cannot find healing and reconciliation without finding the true past, without having an unvarnished understanding of who we are.
ROBERTS: What does the unvarnished truth look like when you talk about the slave trade? How do you tell the truth about such a painful and traumatic moment without retraumatizing yourself and others?
For the last four episodes now, we’ve tried to do it with care.
I’ve shared with you the sinking of four ships that trafficked Africans to the Americas: the Henrietta Marie, the Guerrero, the Fredericus Quartus, and the Christianus Quintus.
Around 250 lost souls.
I’ve talked about the raiding, the sailing, the wrecking, the sorrow, even the wonder of finding artifacts underwater.
But my question here, now, is more of a heart-and-soul question: Whether it’s how to make this podcast, or whether to dive on these ships, or even what books to read, what films to watch, what news to tune in to, how do we interact with stories of the slave trade and take care of ourselves?
I got some answers in this episode through the story of the São José Paquete d’Africa. The São José traveled from Lisbon, Portugal, to Mozambique Island.
There, traffickers loaded more than 500 people, likely from the Makua ethnic group, into its cargo hold.
The boat headed for Brazil but met its fate on the rocks off Cape Town, South Africa, killing about half on board.
The story could have ended there in tragedy. But a group of historians, archaeologists, divers, and descendants pulled together to get past the trauma and bring healing to the community.
This is a lesson in collective soul care.
All right, I’m Tara Roberts, and this is episode five of Into the Depths, coming to you right after the break.
(SADIKI speaking to other divers, “OK. You got that? OK. So if you get off the boat and go this way you’re going to hit the baseline …)
ROBERTS: First, let’s officially meet one of my diving mentors along this entire journey.
(SADIKI saying aloud, “Everybody clear? We tracking? OK, one final thought here …”)
ROBERTS: Kamau Sadiki. He’s the one you heard speaking earlier. Tall and wiry with a curly ’fro like the seventies soul brother I’m sure he once was. He’s a retired engineer, pilot, yoga teacher, father.
SADIKI: My full name is Kamau Beyeti Anon Sadiki. Beyeti means “someone who exists between God and humanity.” Sadiki means “trustworthy and faithful.”
ROBERTS: Kamau has been a lead instructor with Diving With a Purpose for 10 years now. And he is absolutely unafraid to face this history head-on.
SADIKI: I want us to get beyond the shame and the silence. And the only way that we can do that is to seriously engage the story. Be able to tell the story from our perspective, not based on fabrications or speculations, but actually engage in the data and creating the narrative so people will understand the true essence of what this was all about.
ROBERTS: A few years ago, Kamau had been working with the Slave Wrecks Project to identify the São José.
Now, the Slave Wrecks Project, or SWP, is this beautiful international network of collaborating organizations whose mission is to help uncover and document slave shipwrecks globally. It’s hosted by the Blacksonian. That’s the National Museum of African American History and Culture that Lonnie Bunch headed, and Diving With a Purpose is a partner.
SWP was on a mission to confirm the identity of the São José. The research suggested that the ship may be located in Clifton Beach in Cape Town, but they needed hard evidence.
Kamau was one of the divers on the team. The day of the dive was calm, but the water was cold.
SADIKI: The water temperature was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. So not only was it cold, but we had what’s called a surge, where the water moves back and forth. And that was about a 10- to 15-foot surge that moves you back and forth like this. And every time it surges, it stirs up the white sandy bottom.
Not only that, there was kelp. It’s like a kelp forest there as well. And so you’re diving in these conditions, getting slammed up against the rock, trying to hold up the dredge.
A lot of the material from the wreck has gotten caught between boulders and settled down and jammed up between there, and sand has been deposited over top.
We have some magnetic hits as well that we were checking out. And it’s using the magnetometer to tell you if something ferrous, or metallic, is down there.
ROBERTS: They found shackles. They found ballast stones. And they found the smoking gun: wood.
They tested samples and realized the wood on the ocean floor was a rare type of wood found in certain spots in the Mozambique hinterland. That analysis led them back into the archives, to more terrestrial archaeological searches, and eventually to the Makua people and to Mozambique Island.
This and other finds meant they could identify the ship and the people in its cargo hold.
The team decided to share the news with the descendants on mainland Mozambique and on Mozambique Island. A small island in the north of Mozambique—just under two miles long and less than a quarter of a mile wide. It was the colonial capital of Mozambique from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Portuguese colonizers turned this little island into a center of the slave trade in Mozambique, with hundreds of thousands of Africans trafficked from the country.
BUNCH: When I learned it was from the Makua people in Mozambique, I felt an unbelievable obligation to go to Mozambique, which is unbelievably beautiful.
And so, it really immediately made me think about the contrast between the beauty that was around me and what slavery was.
I met with the chieftain of the Makua people.
ROBERTS: Señor Evano Nhogache, the highest ranking Makua leader there.
The SWP team presented the chief and members of the Makua ethnic group with the news and evidence of the São José.
BUNCH: A woman was introduced to me, who was probably maybe 35. And she talked about how her ancestor was on the São José and was lost. And she talked about how her family remembered him every day.
And that taught me that this was as much about today and tomorrow as it was about yesterday.
When I was asked to come up and stand next to the chieftain, he basically looked at me and said, his ancestors have asked—then he said, no, his ancestors have begged—that I do a favor. And he said, “And we have this gift for you.”
SADIKI: He had gathered some soil from the community in this cowrie-shell-covered basket. And he called him forward and told Dr. Bunch in a very powerful way that “this is the soil from our community. I want you to take this soil to that wretched space where that ship went down, that our ancestors know that we are still here. And in a sense, I want you to bring those people back home.”
BUNCH: And so, I’m looking at this beautiful cowrie-shell-encrusted vessel, just gleaming whiteness. And when I opened it, it was full of dirt.
And I remember thinking, OK, I’m not clear what this is—why is this a gift? What did his ancestors ask?
And then he sort of teared up and said that his ancestors have asked that when I go back to South Africa, where the ship was, if I could sprinkle the soil over the site of the wreck, so for the first time since 1794, my people can sleep in their own land.
I lost it. I’m crying. I’m trying to not sort of, you know, drop the vessel. And I’m just thinking about the contradictions. The beauty that surrounds me, the fact that I’m a historian, but this is about how living people feel and think.
And to have this vessel, it almost was as if I was holding an iron weight. It was so heavy. It wasn’t heavy, but it seemed heavy. And it made me think, Please don’t drop it. Please give this the care it deserves.
ROBERTS: I traveled to Mozambique with Kamau and the SWP team after all this had happened, and I stood in the spot of the ceremony.
And I met Señor Nhogache and talked with other Makua divers like Amade, Dinho, Samira.
Being there physically again, feeling the residue of emotions, the imprint of energy still in the place hit me.
More after the break.
(Sounds of pouring rain)
ROBERTS: On June 3, 2015, Lonnie and Kamau and the other members of SWP did bring the vessel with the soil back to Cape Town, to the wreck on Clifton Beach.
ALBIE SACHS (ACTIVIST): It was raining on that day.
BUNCH: So we knew Albie Sachs, the great judge and the great leader with Nelson Mandela, struggle for freedom, actually wrote the first South African constitution. And his home overlooked the water where the São José was.
ROBERTS: Albie lost an arm and the sight in one eye in a car-bomb retaliation attack for his tireless work against apartheid. President Nelson Mandela appointed him to the high court. And President Barack Obama awarded him a Lincoln Medal.
SACHS: So we had the ceremony in our house.
BUNCH: Now it was really ironic, because, you know, here we are in the fanciest parts of Cape Town. And yet this is really about pain, and remembrance, and loss. And so we’re getting to Albie’s place, and it’s pouring rain. It’s unbelievable. It’s like the monsoon. And we’re literally soaked, and we get there, and I’m looking out his window over the water.
And suddenly it made me feel like—I wonder if this was like the day the São José sank, that the wind was so strong, was pushing the currents in, so much so that we had planned to have boats go out, and boats couldn’t get out. Because it was the tide and the wind was so strong. I thought, Is this like that day when the ship sank? And so we’re soaking wet, caught up with our emotions.
SACHS: It was a very wonderful and very special ceremony.
ROBERTS: Most of the group stayed up on Albie’s balcony because of the weather, and just the three divers headed to the beach: Kamau representing the United States; Yara, a Mozambican diver; and Tara (not me), a diver and maritime archaeologist from South Africa.
The three divers.
SADIKI: The waves was breaking significantly. I would say it was eight- to 10-foot seas. It almost swept us off of our feet there a couple of times. But the waves was breaking, very large. And it was breezy.
And so we stood there and sort of looked out and meditated. And the three of us walked out into the surf as far as we could without getting washed away.
(Sounds of ocean waves)
We walked out into the surf, and once we got there we stopped for a moment, and I was going to—I don’t know if you know the scene in Roots when the baby was born and they hold him up and see, you know, all that. I had the idea of doing that, but once we got out into the surf, it was so, the intensity of the emotions was so—between the three of us.
And we can just see it in our faces, you know, looking at each other. Nothing needed to be said. I was speechless anyway. Couldn’t nothing come out. You know, I tried to say something, but it was a moment to be quiet, I guess. And so I couldn’t speak at all.
And tears started flowing down all three of our eyes, and it was a very emotional moment.
So I opened up the basket. And Yara reached in and grabbed a handful of sand. And you can see her distributing it. And then Tara did the same thing. And I followed lastly and distributed the sand, and we got down to the bottom, and I deposited the remaining earth or soil into the ocean there. And we stood for a moment. And I think there’s one point where we just stood and embraced. And just let the waves hit us and washed us.
ROBERTS: Maybe the ancestors heard.
SADIKI: As soon as Yara walked back to shore, there was some calmness in the sea. And actually the overcast sort of went away, and the sun came shining through. I know that sounds like wooooooo, but you know, that’s the way it went down. You know? And I do remember the calmness in the sea.
BUNCH: And when they sprinkled the soil, the rain stopped. The wind stopped blowing, and the sun came out. It was like the movies. And all of a sudden, it became the brightest, clearest day. And first of all, it scared me. It said don’t mess with your ancestors. But what it really did was tell me the power of a memory.
Even though my ancestors did not come from Mozambique more than likely, I felt the pain of my own ancestors. I felt their voyage across the Atlantic.
Suddenly, I saw one people, regardless of tribal differences, regardless of regional differences, and that moment allowed me to feel what it must have been like to be connected to a place and then to be taken from that place.
SACHS: And it was like liberating our beach. It was emotional for me.
ROBERTS: This was the first time that I had truly seen the healing potential around these ships.
I was beginning to understand the subtle, quiet, big magic of this work.
How did Kamau see it all?
SADIKI: It’s been insightful for me. It’s been inspiring, particularly to, you know, connect with direct descendants that comes from some of those vessels. And to just to be in that space, where those vessels lie on the seafloor. Not only has it been professionally rewarding, but for me personally and spiritually, it’s been incredibly rewarding and heartfelt and insightful and even inspirational.
ROBERTS: How do you personally deal with the trauma of the work?
SADIKI: We have to sort of get past the shame and the silence that’s been around these vessels and this issue of the transatlantic slave trade for so long.
You know, imagine. I have two children. My daughter sitting in class, and they’re talking about slavery. And she has no awareness or context to put that in, right? But if she is aware that there was resistance. You know, these people were human. There were incredible individuals on some of these boats, whose lives were disrupted, families destroyed, lineages destroyed. One of those individuals could have discovered a cure for cancer, possibly.
ROBERTS: For Albie …
SACHS: I’m meeting scientists. I’m meeting scuba divers. I’m meeting people from different countries, connecting up with them. I’m learning about how you restore something that’s been underwater for a couple of hundred years. Good old-fashioned science.
Science, in a way, is being thrown into disrepute because it’s cold. And it’s lovely for me to see the restoration of a belief in science as an agency of endeavor, of advancement, of healing. In this case it’s social healing.
ROBERTS: And now I am back to my original question. How do we talk about this difficult history without retriggering the trauma?
Whether it’s through stories, education, museum exhibits.
For Lonnie, as a museum administrator, the key is …
BUNCH: … to create the right tension between tragedy and resiliency. Between hope and victimization.
ROBERTS: And this makes sense. Balance.
The ships themselves, and the ceremonies and rituals around them, also provide us with an opportunity to go beyond the trauma.
The São José ceremony took those in attendance, from the past to the present, and provided an actual link to that ghost family that Anna mentioned in the last episode.
It closed a loop.
ROBERTS: A few years after the ceremony at Clifton Beach, I went to Albie’s house for an impromptu holiday party. He and his wife Vanessa were celebrating the eclectic group of family and friends who just happened to be in town.
I could smell the sea from his balcony. I could hear the buzz of conversations of neighbors across other bungalows nearby and the laughter of children as they played below in the cold waters. I waded in and out of conversation with activists, reporters, social innovators. I noshed on freshly made pumpkin cakes and drank tonic water.
And I sat with Albie for a bit and talked about Clifton Beach, and how most of its residents had no clue that only 50 or so meters away from the sand lay this shipwreck.
SACHS: It happened in our paradise. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world. He stopped at Cape Town and described it as the fairest cape he’d ever seen. So we are the fairest cape. And I feel the irony of that: The fairest cape was the unfairest cape.
I’m looking out there, and it’s just so beautiful here. And you see the waves coming in, and the beaches nearby. Everything is so tranquil. And we’re so safe in our homes, looking out. And I think of the fun that I had growing up on the beach, and everything is just so lovely and so beautiful. It’s a kind of a paradise, where I am.
And in that paradise, there was hell. And then I don’t visually imagine the people. It’s almost too much for me to imagine the people drowning. I visualize and imagine the timbers and the bits of metal lying down in the ocean bed.
ROBERTS: We watched the sun as it began its slow trajectory home after a bright day’s work.
And I took out my camera to snap a picture of Albie on the balcony, in front of the São José wreck site.
Framed behind him, I could see a palm tree on the shore and two boulders jutting out of the water, the visible markers of what lay below.
But Albie leaned over as my finger hovered over the button and said quietly in my ear, “I can’t smile in front of this.”
It was like the rest of the house went stage dark, and only Albie and I and the wreck site stood in the spotlight.
And here’s the thing: Turns out this holiday party at Albie’s house, this conversation, happened around the 27th of December, [the] 224th anniversary of the wrecking of the São José. I didn’t realize it until I’d returned home.
Djaloki said the ancestors were guiding me.
Albie, an 87-year-young white, Jewish, South African luminary, and I, an astrology-loving Black girl writer from the dirty South, standing in silence, amid the noise of the party, enacting our own private ritual, our own ceremony. Paying homage to the Makua ancestors together, united in our commitment to see the humanity of a group of people we had wordlessly agreed would be remembered on this day.
I felt complete.
If you loved this podcast, you can dive deeper at natgeo.com/intothedepths, where we’ve got a ton of resources to help you explore this history. You’ll find more on my work with these divers and stunning photos from photographer Wayne Lawrence. And for all our teachers, we have some great tools you can use in your classroom. Also, check out our special in-depth feature in the March issue.
Plus, don’t miss Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship—a film from National Geographic Studios premiering on Hulu in February. You can find all the links in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
Please rate and review us. And to support more content like this, consider a National Geographic subscription and listen to Overheard, our weekly podcast. That’s the best way to support us and hear more adventures from around the world. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
I’m National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts, host and executive producer.
Into the Depths is a production of National Geographic Partners and is funded in part by the National Geographic Society.
It’s directed by the awesome Francesca Panetta who got us to the finish line. Thank you!
And produced by the tireless, ever ready Bianca Martin and my ride-or-die Mike Olcott.
Our poet is the brilliant wordsmith, National Geographic Explorer Alyea Pierce.
Our executive editor is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Kate Sinclair and Heidi Schultz.
Our copy editor is Jennifer Vilaga.
Our production assistant is Ezra Lerner.
Our sound designer, engineer, and composer is Alexis “Lex” Adimora.
Our audio engineers are Jerry Busher and Graham Davies.
Special thanks to Ainehi Edoro.
And our consultants—who offered sharp critiques, insights, and encouraging words when we needed them—are Ramtin Arablouie, John Asante, Greg Carr, Celeste Headlee, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Linda Villarosa.
Debra Adams Simmons is National Geographic’s executive editor of history and culture.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences for National Geographic.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
Thank you to Fleur Paysour, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Slave Wrecks Project, for opening doors, literally.
To MIT Open Documentary Lab for being an amazing sounding board.
Thanks to all our friends and family who listened to these episodes and gave early feedback. We appreciate you so much!
Finally, we couldn’t have done this series without the support, cooperation, and friendship of Diving With a Purpose, Ambassadors of the Sea, the Society of Black Archaeologists, and the Slave Wrecks Project.
To learn more about Diving With a Purpose, follow them online at divingwithapurpose.org.
Oh, and to my mom, Lula Roberts, for being our biggest cheerleader and reminding us always that the best is yet to come.
Thank you for listening, and see you all next time.
And download a tool kit for hosting an Into the Depths listening party to spark conversation and journey deeper into the material.
Find out more about the Slave Wrecks Project, the consortium of organizations working to uncover and document slave shipwrecks globally, hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Iziko Museums of South Africa provides a closer look at the wreck of the São José through its exhibition, Unshackled History: the Wreck of the Slave Ship, São José, 1794, which includes online resources.
Watch footage from a dive exploring the wreck of the São José off the coast of Cape Town’s Clifton Beach, and hear accounts from historians and the divers documenting the findings.