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Shipwreck relics recovered by professor displayed in new museum

Keegan Mullen | Hatchet Photographer
Keegan Mullen
Keegan Mullen | Hatchet Photographer

After years of research along the South African coast, one professor’s archeological project is now featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Stephen C. Lubkemann, an associate professor of anthropology and international affairs, co-founded the Slave Wrecks Project in 2008 with the intention of recovering shipwrecks from the African slave trade. In 2012, he and a team from the project found a sunken slave ship off the coast of South Africa, and that ship’s relics are now part of an exhibit in the museum.

The exhibit, which was unveiled when the museum opened last month, displays archeological remnants of a shackle, iron ballasts and pieces of a Portuguese ship called the Sao Jose Paquete d’ Africa, which sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794 on its way to Brazil.

The exhibit highlights work on an area that has long been neglected that helps tell the story of the slave trade, Lubkemann said.

“There’ve been hundreds of vessels that have been studied in maritime archeology, and yet it’s only been in the last decade that there has been any concerted efforts to identify or look for and try to document any vessels from the slave trade even though over a thousand are known to have been lost,” Lubkemann said. “There’s clearly been a neglect of this history.”

The Slave Wrecks Project is a long-term collaboration between six partners, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute, according to the project’s website. Lubkemann said when the wreck was uncovered, select artifacts were placed on loan to the museum for 10 years.

Lonnie Bunch, the director of the museum, wanted to use the artifacts to tell a story that people could understand and identify with, Lubkemann said.

“So this particular wreck became one way in which to tell a story that is in some ways really hard to tell,” Lubkemann said.

Lubkemann said days before project leaders were set to publicly announce the finding of the Sao Jose Paquete d’Africa, the team brought Bunch, the museum director, as well as a team of 60 Minutes reporters to Mozambique – where the slaves who died in the wreck originated.

Lubkemann said when they met with people on the mainland, one of the local chiefs provided Bunch with soil to deposit onto the sunken vessel as a way of reconnecting people from their homeland who had died. The chief then asked Bunch, “Do you see my face?”

“Slowly it became clear that what he was saying was ‘Will you remember what we look like?’ And after Lonnie said ‘yes,’ the chief said ‘That’s important because when you go to South Africa, you’ll deposit this amongst the people who perished there and who are some of our ancestors who will be worrying about whether their descendants are OK,’” Lubkemann said.

The chief told Bunch to tell his ancestors who died on the ship that their descendants are taken care of and that they desired a connection to those who were lost in the wreck, Lubkemann said.

“It was so profoundly moving because you see how important to them it was to make that connection,” Lubkemann said. “It brings home what this kind of research can do for people in different places.”

Lubkemann said he hopes the project and the museum in general will lead to better understanding of social inequality by forcing people to trace the root of discrimination back to its source, rather than just considering it in a modern context.

“I think the importance of studying the slave trade is that that’s the foundation of many of the legacies of social and racial injustice that we see today,” Lubkemann said.

Jennifer James, an associate professor of English and the director of the Africana Studies program, said archeological evidence helps people understand slavery, because physical evidence is hard to ignore.

“I think that sometimes people have a more visceral and intimate response to material objects, to things they can see and imagine touching than they do the written word, to history, to documents, to numbers to statistics,” James said. “So it vivifies a part of history that is sometimes unimaginable and it makes it imaginable. I can see it and perhaps understand what it represents.”

James added that imagining world history without the slave trade is impossible.

“The trans-Atlantic slave trade is the beginning of the black modern identity,” James said. “It’s the origins of the black diaspora. It’s almost impossible of thinking about global history without thinking about these communities having naturally emerged outside of Africa.”

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