Pot of gold

On our first day back in the field to conduct Phase Two of our research, SK and I went to Noqhekwane, a village in Port St Johns near which, we had heard, the Nossa Senhora de Belem (NS de Belem), a Portuguese ship, wrecked in 1635. The day we visited Noqhekwana coincided with a community meeting at the headman’s homestead. “Great,” we thought, “All these different people in one place”! What we were not expecting, however, is for the headman to give us a slot in the agenda to introduce ourselves and to state the reason for our presence in the village.

The headman introduced himself as Tata Belem (Mr Belem). YES! BELEM! SK and I stared at each other, four eyeballs popping out of their sockets! Could it be? Could this man, standing right in front of us, be a descendent of a survivor from the NS de Belem!? Our suspicions were based on Belem not at all sounding like a Xhosa or Pondo surname; and on the fact that most Nguni surnames end with a vowel, not a consonant. (Going through several surnames in my head, I can’t think of a single one that ends with a consonant. But I digress …)

I sat there with ants in my pants, hardly able to wait for the community meeting to end so we could take Mr Belem aside and ask him his life story. (The reference to ants in my pants in not merely a metaphor; we were sitting on the floor in the front yard, and I did feel an itch, or five …) Mr Belem handed over to me, and I told the community the purpose of our visit. I spoke about the project and our particular interest in the ship that wrecked on their shores, and what became of the survivors who were in it. I mentioned the ship’s name and enquired if Mr Belem was not in fact a descendant of the NS de Belem; or if his surname could be linked to the ship. (I told you I could hardly wait for the meeting to end so I could talk to Mr Belem alone! As it turned out, I was not able to wait. I blurted out my question in front of everyone in the community meeting.)

The answer, I’m afraid, was a disappointing “Andazi.” (I don’t know.) Mr Belem and his fellow villagers that I spoke to were aware that a ship had wrecked on their shores many many years ago, but they did not know when it happened, where the ship had come from, or what it was called. Nor, more disappointedly, was Mr Belem particularly interested in this possible connection that SK and I had made with the NS de Belem. Mr Belem’s younger sister – in her late 60s/early 70s – was also at the meeting, said she too knew nothing about a family connection to the ship wreck. I was really hoping they could lead us to a family member or an elder in the community who knew the Belem family history, but alas … these siblings are the oldest surviving members of the Belem family.

SK and our three companions walking down the hill from which we viewed where the ship is believed to have sunk.

SK and our three companions walking down the hill from which we viewed where the ship is believed to have sunk.

Feeling rather deflated, SK and I, accompanied by Ma Mtunasi (Mr Belem’s sister), Ma Mathanzima and  Ma Tshezi, set off to see where the NS de Belem is believed to have wrecked and sunk. They took us to a hill overlooking the ocean, where a rusted metal rod, about 3cm wide and 60cm long, was sticking out of the ground at a 45 degree angle (it had clearly been there for a long time). They told us that “abelungu” (white people) had stuck it in the ground as a landmark to indicate where the ship went under. Looking out on to the ocean, there was no sign of a ship wreck.

Ma Mtunasi (nee Belem) points out the location where the NS de Belem is believed to have sunk. The rusted metal rod that acts as a landmark is next to her feet.

Ma Mtunasi (nee Belem) points out the location where the NS de Belem is believed to have sunk. The rusted metal rod that acts as a landmark is next to her feet.

Everyone we spoke to at the community meeting said the ship had sunk to the depths of the sea, and that although many abelungu had tried to get to it, nobody had been successful so far. Legend has it that the ship is filled with gold (others think it may be made of gold!) and that a inyoke yolwandle (sea snake – which I imagine must be enormous!) wraps itself around the ship to prevent anyone from having access to the treasure. The question of whether any of the local community members had ever tried to reach the treasure was met with incredulous laughter and protests. None of them had actually seen the snake, but nobody doubted the abelungu’s story of the sea snake that protects the treasure.

A view from Noqhekwana village, looking out on to the sea. Just around the corner is Mzimvubu River.

A view from Noqhekwana village, looking out on to the sea. Just around the corner is Mzimvubu River.

Interestingly, the people who live in Lambasi, the region where the Grosvenor wrecked in 1782, also believe that isilwane solwandle (a sea creature) wraps itself around the Grosvenor wreck and that is why, after decades of trying, nobody has ever been successful in getting the gold that is believed to be inside the wreck. None of the people we spoke to there had ever seen this creature either, but that’s what abelungu said, and none of the locals were willing to test it’s existence for themselves.

All this talk of vessels sinking deep into the ocean made me think of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a mystery that has grabbed my over active imagination by the horns! I wonder if – had the jet been believed to have disappeared closer to the Wild Coast stretch of the Indian Ocean – talks of treasure (in the jet) and isilwane solwandle or inyoka yolwandle protecting it would eventually weave themselves into the local mythologies to explain why it can not be found.

Ma Mtunasi, who is not afraid of (land) snakes, and kills them rather than runs away from them when they cross her path, said she had no desire to ever go anywhere near the sea snake wrapped around the NS de Belem. Her reasoning was that if trained divers, using the most modern technology, had not been able to reach the treasure because of the sea snake, she certainly had no business trying. “You don’t disturb something in it’s natural habitat,” she said matter-of-factly.

Now that’s a golden rule if ever there was one.

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