- South Africa’s coastline is notorious as the graveyard for an assortment of vessels.
- It ranges from huge steel passenger liners to wooden ships, barges, yachts and even skiboats, and the history of how they came to meet their final resting place is stirring.
- Indeed, the bones of many a mariner and ship’s passenger lie buried in the sands of the shoreline from Delagoa Bay to Namibia.
A recent news article published in the Southlands Sun reveals about shipwrecks and buried ‘treasure’ add an element of intrigue to South Africa’s oceans.
Lure of finding sunken treasure
Whether it’s the lure of finding sunken treasure, or the simple desire to explore an ancient relic, or even the craving to meet beautiful marine species in their own natural environment, there is no doubt that shipwrecks have a magnetic attraction to both commercial and recreational divers.
More than 2 500 vessels have run aground off the South African coast since the 1500s, and while the resting places of most are well documented, some – reportedly carrying cargoes of great wealth, including gold and diamonds – have never been found.
Shipwrecks are a fascinating study, more especially those from the age when seafarers sailed by the stars, without navigational aids such as GPS or radio.
Maps were also rather vague: In fact, many explorers were pioneer cartographers, plotting their courses as best as the rudimentary equipment of the day allowed.
Scenario before the construction of Suez Canal
Before the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, seafarers – mainly Portuguese – rounded the tip of Africa seeking new trade routes.
While their wooden boats were sturdily built, they were no match for the fury of the ocean storms off our coastal regions, whose very names instil fear and foreboding: ‘Wild Coast’, ‘Cape of Storms’, and ‘Skeleton Coast’.
Historical records in Cape archives
Historical records in Cape archives tell of wooden ships that spilled their cargoes and their crews after hitting hidden reefs; how survivors walked from Mozambique to Simonstown, crossing croc- and hippoinfested rivers, and fighting off lions, hippos and malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
The journeys took months and even years, with some deciding the trek was too daunting, and deciding to make their permanent homes along the route.
And while the story of human tragedy and endurance is filled with suspense, so too are the undiscovered treasures that were dumped overboard as ships capsized off the Zululand, Transkei or Cape coastline.
He realised these were nails used to hold together the wooden ships that plied the coast – copper being a non-rusting material. Over a few visits, he collected enough nails to buy himself a skiboat!
Casualties of war
Few might know that the coastline north of Durban was the scene of numerous skirmishes between the British navy and enemy warships during World War II.
According to local historian Dr JC van der Walt, only after the war was it discovered that, as a result of submarine attacks by the Japanese, Italians and Germans, 163 Allied ships were sunk, captured or damaged off the South African coast.
Divers inspecting the many shipwrecks off the SA coast will find that experience all the more rewarding by first doing some homework on the historical circumstances. Details of the various wreck sites are easily found online.
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