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The Wrecks that Lay Beneath

The Wrecks that Lay Beneath

Wrecks have an enduring fascination both for the heroism and the horror involved and for the tales of lost fortunes in the deep.

South African shipwrecks off the coast

Stories from the deep

The noise is horrendous. Huge crashing seas boil around the heaving ship, the wind wails in the rigging over the cries of terror. The night is pitch black, the moon and stars blanketed in thick clouds. On 30 May 1815 in a fearful storm the ill-fated vessel called the Arniston has struck the Waenhuiskrans Reef off Cape Agulhas, and is about to go down.

And then the lights go on in the main exhibition area of the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum; the simulation of a shipwreck is over, just one of the events to mark the 200th anniversary of the biggest maritime disaster in South African waters at that time, the number of lives lost (372) surpassed by those lost (450) when the Birkenhead sank in 1852.

The Arniston, an East Indiaman requisitioned as a transport ship, was on a return voyage from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England carrying homecoming troops, many injured in the Kandyan Wars. It was a needless tragedy. If the ship had been equipped with a marine chronometer rather than the captain having to rely on dead reckoning, the navigational error that left him believing they had rounded Cape Point, while they were still at Agulhas, would have been avoided.

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The wreck of the Arniston is significant not just for the great loss of life – bodies were still washing ashore more than a month later – it was also the focus of a dive and salvage operation in 1982, with some of the finds from the site displayed in the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum. Rupees, jewellery and star pagodas (a gold coin issued by the East India Company) were recovered, finds that fuelled the legend of sunken treasure.

In the turbulent waters around the coast of South Africa there are somewhere between 2 000 and 3 000 wrecks, nothing like the million or so off British shores but, with 38 nations represented, South Africa certainly has a wide variety. On the coastline stretching 60km on either side of Cape Agulhas there are about 135 wrecks alone according to a spokesman for the Shipwreck Museum.

Sunken treasure

South African shipwrecks sit in the thousands

Many vessels lost around the South African coast were wrecked while plying the rich trade route between Europe and the East, some homeward bound with valuable cargo, where wealth from the East might include gold, coins, jewellery, even gifts destined for princes. Again the stuff of legendary sunken treasure.

But just how realistic are these legends? A recovered hoard of coins from The Fame, which sank in 1822 and was discovered in 1965, and Chinese porcelain recovered in 1969 from the Middleburg (Saldanha Bay, 1781), are evidence of the existence of treasure. There are also a number of ships known to have been carrying valuables. These include the Brederode (1785) that was lost off Cape Agulhas with a cargo of porcelain; one of the earliest trade wrecks, the Nossa Senhora dos Milagros (1686), lost off Struisbaai with a rich haul of jewellery; HNLMS Amsterdam (1817) in Algoa Bay, thought to have been carrying treasure from Java for the King of the Netherlands; RMS Kafir (1878) off Olifantsbos Point with a box of Portuguese government money.

Their existence is one thing, recovery for the valuable insight into marine history and for the salvage of cargo is quite another, given that the whereabouts of some wrecks may be unknown, and others may be buried under sand or lie in very deep water. And that Hollywood image of a virtually intact ship standing upright in the deep awaiting discovery is a myth where stormy South African waters are concerned, according Jaco Boshoff, maritime archaeologist with Iziko Museums.

Our coastal waters make it difficult to salvage the sunken treasure from South African shipwrecks

There are widely divergent views about the future of wrecks and their contents, with conservationists at one end of the opinion spectrum and those in favour of salvage at the other. “Indiana Jones has done us a great disservice,” says Jaco. “Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark equate archaeology to finding a unique object, whereas what we are trying to do is open a window on the past. A wreck is almost like a crime scene where we have to find as many clues as we can.”

While archaeologists are concerned with conservation, Jaco maintains treasure seekers are in the business for commercial gain, their bottom line to make money by selling recovered valuables. “It’s all about motivation and, in Iziko’s case, it is about leaving something for the next generation,” says Jaco. “We tend to see treasure hunters as poachers.”

Malcolm Turner, author of the comprehensive book Shipwrecks & Salvage in South Africa 1505 to the Present, describes wrecks as his passion. “Wrecks are very difficult to work on. Often all you will see are a few bits of rusty metal. You can work on them for months and find nothing of value, but you don’t research and dive on wrecks for money, you do it for the love of it.” A commercial diver for the oil industry, researching, discovering and diving on wrecks has been his lifelong hobby. “I’m a great believer in bringing up stuff and putting it on display. I don’t see any point in leaving it lying on the sea bed to deteriorate. Wrecks are notoriously difficult to police and some divers are just going down and taking stuff.”

Working together

Malcolm feels the state should go back to the drawing board and review the current legislation, and find new ways to cooperate with divers and salvors. Salvage and conservation is time consuming and expensive but the retrieval of artefacts has great potential as a tourism and maritime history resource.

He points to the success of a Titanic-themed visitor attraction in Belfast, dedicated to the ill-fated Titanic (already notorious and made more famous by the movie of the same name) which sank on her maiden voyage in 1912, and to the city’s ship-building history. The actual wreck of the Titanic still lies on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean, where Robert Ballard who discovered it maintains it should remain in memory of those who lost their lives.

South African shipwrecks offer an opportunity for tourism

So what are the chances of South Africa having its own version of a Titanic attraction with recovered treasure? Or the equivalent of the Mary Rose, the Tudor ship that sank in 1545 and was famously raised in 1982 to become the centrepiece of a fascinating museum in Portsmouth? Or are the secrets and their treasures of wrecks destined to remain mysteries lying in the deep?

The previous law on maritime salvage under the 1969 National Monuments Act allowed salvors to keep up to 50% of what they recovered from historic wrecks, not always satisfactory from a conservation point of view. Now the National Heritage Resources No 25 Act 1999, which brought South Africa in line with international legislation, rules that all wrecks more than 60 years old belong to the State, effectively banning treasure hunting.

South African shipwrecks are packed full of cluesMarine heritage, which also includes land-based marine heritage, is the remit of the South African Heritage Resources Agency. Under the aegis of the organisation, Iziko is currently researching the wrecks of slave ships such as the Dutch Meermin (1766), and is conducting a land-based project involving the survivor camp of the seal-hunting shipwreck on Marion Island (part of the Prince Edward Island group in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean).

One possibility, believes Jaco Boshoff, in a situation where heritage is low on priority lists and there is a shortage of marine archaeologists, is to have a co-operative venture with an international partner.

A different scenario would be to take a leaf from Belfast’s book where the Titanic Quarter was funded by a public/ private venture – something that seems to have paid off handsomely. In the first year the Quarter was open, visitor numbers greatly exceeded expectation and drew more than 800 000, half of them overseas tourists. So it’s not beyond belief that one day the legend of our sunken treasure might become a reality.

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Visible Wrecks

  • At Cape Agulhas the only visible wreck is Meisho Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel wrecked in 1982.
  • Cape Point Olifantsbos Shipwreck Trail leads to the dramatic remains of the Thomas T Tucker, a liberty ship wrecked on its maiden voyage in 1942. On the track built to remove salvage is the wreck of the Nolloth, a Dutch freighter laden with liquor (urban myth has it that bottles can still be found in the sand) that ran aground in 1965. Also there is Le Napoleon, wrecked in 1805, and Phyllisia, the steam trawler wrecked in 1968. You might even see the Flying Dutchman, the legendary ghost ship doomed forever to sail the oceans forever.

Words Marianne Heron
Photography David Morgan and supplied

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