The shackled cargo of the San Jose did not fit the stereotype of the slave trade. This human cargo did not step off one of the slave castles that dot West Africa’s gold coast, nor was its journey across the Atlantic to the Americas.

Rather, the 400-odd slaves that left a Mozambique island were part of the lesser-known network that operated on the east coast of Africa. This part of the slave trade, believes a historian, had the greatest impact on Southern Africa.

Earlier this week the San Jose was identified as the first slaving ship to have been fully documented. The ship sank in 1794 when it ran onto rocks near Cape Town. Only 200 slaves survived.

The San Jose, says history professor Julian Cobbing, was one of many multinational slaving ships trading along the east coast of Africa from the late-18th century to the early-19th century. The network stretched, he believes, to Port Natal, now Durban, and implicates some of South Africa’s better known historical personalities.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History estimates that nearly half a million slaves were trafficked from East African ports between 1800 and 1845. Raiding parties would gather slaves and take them to centres on the coast.

wreck of a slaving ship

Cobbing argues that the threat of slave raids was one of the reasons for the rise of the Zulu nation: “The Shaka state was a defensive state, with regiments first formed in the 1810s, [at the height of the slave trade].”

He says there is evidence that the Zulus traded in slaves. However, there is also evidence that refugees displaced by trade sought refuge in the Zulu state.

A well-known trader, Henry Fynn, who knew Shaka, wrote of watching a Zulu raiding party take slaves although Cobbing suspects he was more than a spectator.

“We are getting chance glimpses of individuals and evidence of slave trading,” said Cobbing. One piece of evidence he found charted the journey of a Sotho slave who ended up in Brazil.

Associate professor Joel Quirk of Wits University said that over the last decade a lot of research had gone into the East African slave trade network, but that most of what had been produced was written in Portuguese and is only now emerging in English academic journals.

Quirk hopes the San Jose will provide a personal glimpse of what individuals experienced, away from the cold statistics that list numbers of voyages and people.

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