The seas around the southern tip of Africa were, for centuries, a notorious graveyard for early sailing ships.
Wild weather and rough seas that arrive unhindered from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, fast-flowing currents, hidden reefs and giant rogue waves all made it a perilous journey for ill-equipped sailors in their flimsy vessels. The result was many a shipwreck and many a surprising tale.
Indeed, early Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias was so distressed by his difficulties in navigating the area in 1488 that he named it the Cape of Storms. Only later was it given the more positive title of the Cape of Good Hope, because its discovery by European explorers was seen as a good omen that India could finally be reached by sea from Europe.
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The precise number of ships lost here between the late 1400s and the end of the sailing era at the beginning of the 20th century varies according to who is telling the tale. The Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum at Cape Agulhas – officially the southernmost point of Africa – puts the total at 150 in that area alone. But for the whole of the southern tip, it’s probably safe to say that sailing ships account for at least two-thirds of the 3 000 wrecks that dot the coastline.
1. A courageous tradition
Perhaps the most famous wreck is that of the British troopship HMS Birkenhead in 1852. While the loss of life – 445 men perished when the ship went down off Danger Point near the town of Gansbaai – was significant, the tragedy is best known for creating the selfless naval tradition of ‘women and children first’ which endures to this day.
The ship, an early engineering attempt to marry sail and steam, was carrying a combination of military personnel and women and children when it hit a submerged rock at around 2 am. With the Birkenhead sinking rapidly and too few lifeboats available, the order was given for the soldiers and sailors to stand fast aboard the sinking ship while the civilians were loaded into the lifeboats and rowed to safety. In all 193 people survived, very few of them military personnel.
Today the people of Gansbaai continue to hold an annual memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony at sea to honour the remarkable sacrifice that took place on the Birkenhead.
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2. Town named for a shipwreck
HMS Arniston was a three-masted East Indiaman heading back to Britain from Asia with an array of cargo and around 100 wounded soldiers from Ceylon, in addition to around 270 other personnel. Battling a storm and separated from its convoy, the captain became disorientated and set the Arniston on a course which took it onto the unforgiving rocks of the Agulhas Reef near the village of Waenhuiskrans (“Wagon House Cliff” in English).
By nightfall on 31 May 1815, the ship had broken apart and sunk. The scale of the tragedy became apparent the next day. A total of 372 people perished and only six survivors made it to shore, where they were eventually rescued by a shepherd and a local farmer’s son.
The scale of the tragedy so touched the people of Waenhuiskrans that the village also took on the name of Arniston and today it is the only town in South Africa with two official names.
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3. St Patrick’s Party Goes Wrong
Another early attempt to blend sail with the emerging technology of steam, the Queen of the Thames was built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1870 for the then eye-watering cost of 55 000 British pounds. It was claimed to be one of the fastest ships of the era and the first of her kind when it came to grief at Struys Point, not far from Cape Agulhas.
It had just successfully completed its maiden voyage from London to Australia and was returning to Britain when the crew decided to come close inshore for a ‘look’ at Africa. According to some reports a party – apparently including the captain – was in full swing aboard to celebrate St Patrick’s Day when the crew made a navigational error after mistaking the bright flames of a bushfire for the light of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse.
All 200 passengers made it safely ashore, but four crewmen were drowned. Part of the wreck can still be seen today and a number of artefacts salvaged from the Queen of the Thames are on display at the Shipwreck Museum in the town of Bredasdorp.
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4. The haunted pirate ship
One of the most famous supposed shipwrecks off the southern tip of Africa may never have happened at all – but nobody knows for sure. For centuries, seafarers in the area have reported the presence of a ghostly pirate ship named The Flying Dutchman. There are various versions of the legend, but all tell of a spectral ship of the Dutch East India Company that appears to sail above the water, its full sails billowing even when the wind is non-existent.
The ship is said to have been reported missing at sea in 1641 on her way back to Holland after a trading trip to Indonesia. Approaching the Cape of Good Hope, it ran into strong headwinds that seemed determined not to allow it to pass around the tip of Africa. Equally determined was her captain, Hendrik van der Decken, who pressed on into the storm and is said to have sworn the oath: “I shall round this damned Cape, even if I have to sail until Doomsday comes.” This sealed the fate of Van der Decken and his crew, and to this day they continue their never-ending effort to sail around the stormy southern tip.
Among those who reported a sighting of The Flying Dutchman was the Royal Navy ship HMS Leven, whose captain and crew watched it through binoculars while off False Bay in 1823.
5. Johanna and her treasure
Where there are shipwrecks, there are tales of treasure too. One such famous example is the Johanna, a 550-ton English East Indiaman which was lost off Cape Agulhas in 1682 while on her way to Bengal in India. Her cargo, destined for English factories in Bengal, was mainly silver coins and bullion valued at 72 000 British Pounds in 17th-century terms – a veritable king’s ransom today.
Ten lives were lost and 104 passengers and crew eventually made their way to Cape Town, where the Dutch governor of the time heard the rumours of sunken treasure and sent his own search party to investigate. They returned with several thousand silver coins that created much excitement in the colony. That wasn’t the end of the treasure trove, however.
The Johanna lay unknown and untouched for a further 300 years until a team of local divers discovered the wreck lodged beneath an outer reef in 1982. They set up a salvage operation and eventually recovered 23 000 silver coins and several hundred pounds of silver bullion, as well as 44 iron cannons.
Words Mike Simpson
Images Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum