A book both factual and personal, From No Return: The 221-Year Journey of the Slave Ship São José
recounts a portion of African American history as it is being made. Here is the story of the recovery in 2014 of artifacts from the São José
, the first known slave ship to be recovered that sank with its human cargo aboard. Finding such a singular lens through which to view the unfathomable scope of the Middle Passage had become a quest for National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) founding director Lonnie Bunch. From No Return
chronicles the efforts of NMAAHC and its collaborators to locate the ship and unearth its ungodly objects, including some of the 1,130 iron bars the São José
crew used to balance the weight of the ship’s human cargo. The book contains full-page images of these artifacts along with reproductions of the ship’s manifest, the captain’s deposition after the ship capsized in December 1794 off the coast of South Africa, and other archival documents.
Bunch is one of four authors. The others are NMAAHC curator Paul Gardullo and the co-founders of the Slave Wrecks Project, Stephen C. Lubkemann and Jaco Jacqes Boshoff, who repeatedly dived the site. The “journey” that’s referenced in the book’s subtitle is threefold: the recovery of the artifacts; the symbolic return in 2015, by Bunch and the other authors, of those who had perished to their Mozambique homeland; and the personal journeys of the authors themselves as they unspooled this story from the turbulent waters off Cape Town. Each of them bore witness to a moment of discovery that will soon be part of history.