SOUTH AFRICA’S MARITIME HISTORY
Over the past 500 years, the South African coast has seen the drama of shipwreck played out again and again. Rugged coastlines have swallowed up vessels straying too close to the shore and poor weather conditions have claimed ships even in the best condition. It is no co-incidence that the coast around the southern tip of Africa was known as the Cape of Storms. In summer, gale force winds batter the seas around the coast, while winter sees the development of deep sea storms which push waves in excess of 10 metres onto our the shoreline. Legendary foul weather like “The Great Gale of 1865” in which more than 10 ships were wrecked during one night around Cape Town alone, have found a place in local folklore and in the myths of various maritime nations. Poor weather was not the only difficulty that was faced by mariners passing the South African coast in their efforts to reach the rich trade ports in the East. Poor harbour facilities, dodgy maps and modest navigational markers also hampered their progress. We forget that even the major South African ports were little more than jetties jutting out into protected bays and rivers until relatively late in our history. Large-scale harbour works didn’t begin at the Cape Town, for example, until the mid 1800’s. Before this the harbour facilities consisted of small piers from which supplies could be loaded onto small boats and taken out to the vessels anchored in Table Bay. Artists’ impressions of the Cape very often show an inhospitable bay with ships being continuously battered by high winds and huge seas. When conditions became unfavourable, ships had no option but to ride out storms at anchor or attempt to move into safer waters offshore. There was nowhere else to hide.
Poor maps of the southern African coast did little to assist with safe passage. Although Dutch sailors were equipped with more accurate charts, they were unwilling to share information with nations with whom they were often at war. As a result, English, French and Portuguese sailors had to make do with the inaccurate charts provided to them by their governments and East India Companies. The map used by most of those attempting to navigate their way around the coast was the Perestrelo Roteiro, drawn in 1575. Even as late as the 1780’s, English ships were being wrecked after miscalculating their position relative to the actual coast. Because Perestrelo’s map shows the coast angling more steeply to the north-east than is actually the case, navigators believed they had plenty of water between themselves and land when in actual fact they were dangerously close to disaster.
Navigational markers such as lighthouses were also in short supply. In the early 1900’s, ships rounding Cape Point for Cape Town harbour often came perilously close to being wrecked, or were, in many instances. Wreck sites such as the Lusitania and Kakapo are testament to the problem. It was these wrecks that finally inspired local administrators to erect a number of lights around the Cape Peninsula.
The result of these and other problems such as overloading, un-seaworthy vessels sent out for “one last voyage” in the scramble for profit and a steady increase in shipping activity after 1499, is that South Africa boasts a collection of almost 3000 known historical wrecks. There are various wreck hotspots such as Table Bay (450 wrecks, with Robben Island alone having 68), Cape Agulhas at the southern tip of Africa, Algoa Bay and Durban. The rest are scattered along about 3000km of coast stretching from the mouth of the Orange River in the north-west to the border with Mozambique in the north-east. South Africa’s wrecks reflect centuries of history. Historical documentation and archival evidence dates our ealiest known wreck to 1505. Most wrecks, however, occurred in the 19th century. This was the peak of maritime traffic around southern Africa before the opening of the Suez Canal made the passage around the continent unnecessary. Although English and Dutch wrecks predominate, those being the two nations who controlled the colonies here, 38 nationalities are represented in South Africa’s shipwrecks.
It is possible that more and older wrecks are to be found in South Africa’s waters. We know that Arab traders have sailed down the east coast of Africa for many centuries. Their presence in what is now Mozambique is clearly reflected in the culture and architecture of that country. Their influence is highly evident even as far south as Maputo, not far from the South African border. There is no reason to doubt that explorers, if not traders, ventured further south and came into contact and traded with the people of kwaZulu-Natal, possibly even further south. There is also little reason to doubt that some wrecks must have occurred on these voyages. Unfortunately, access to the north-eastern coastline of South Africa is difficult. It is largely unpopulated and vast wildlife reserves have prevented development of infrastructure such as roads. This has meant that large stretches of coast are, as yet, unexplored and that the tantalizing evidence of middle eastern influences that may lie just offshore is still undiscovered.