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 ┬áMa 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.

Notes from the field…

Written by Lusanda Ngcaweni (Lead Researcher, EC Maritime Oral History Project), photographs by Andisiwe Qubekile (Research Assistant)

MONDAY

We met up with one of my contacts, Mr Sihlali, in Lusikisiki, who introduced us to a Mr Makanya from a village called Lambasi. Lambasi spreads out over a large area, including the vicinity where both the Sao Bento and the Grosvenor got wrecked. He only mentioned the Grosvenor, and we were not aware that it includes the area where the Sao Bento wrecked until Wednesday. (But more about that later.) Mr Makanya said he’d speak to the chiefs in the area and get back to me. The two gentlemen mentioned that there are local people who have “white” surnames, and that they are probably descendants of the shipwrecks. Something else of interest that the two brought up is BBC China, which wrecked in 2004 not too far from the Grosvenor. My second contact, Chief Mjoji, wasn’t answering my calls but he eventually got back to me in the afternoon to say I must call him after 13:00 on Tuesday.

Port GrovenorTUESDAY

First thing Tuesday morning I phoned Jimmy, a tour guide who lives and works from Port St Johns. He said he would only be able to see us on Wednesday. I phoned Mr Makanya to make sure he hadn’t forgotten to speak to the chiefs in his area about us and the project. He said he was on it and I should call him again on Wednesday.

I managed to get hold of my third contact, Chief Faku Ndabankulu. (He is the one who said he was attending a meeting of the entire Faku chieftaincy clan.) The timing of the call was impeccable, because he was on his way from his village in Lusikisiki to Mthatha, so we were able to meet him in town in Lusikisiki 20 minutes later! But our hopes were dashed when he said he and his fellow chiefs were unable to help us. He brought up the project at the meeting and they all felt that because their clan resides more inland, none of them had any generational knowledge of shipwrecks.

Chief Faku did, however, make several phone calls to people he knows whose villages are closer to the coast. They all said they would get back to him. I was able to eaves drop on these conversations and I heard a mention of ship wrecks between Hluleka and Silimela, which is further down the coast (ie south of the Mzimvubu River). I asked him about this when he got off the phone and he said the person he was speaking to was going to get the details of the ward councilor in that area. When we parted ways Chief Faku promised to try and get us more contacts and to follow up with the people who said would get back to him.

We only managed to get hold of Chief Mjoji in the afternoon and we managed to meet up with him. He too said he didn’t have any information for us because his village, Malangeni, is inland. He did however say he would get us in contact with a certain Patrick van Rooyen, a local “coloured” man who is a descendant of the shipwrecks. He also said that he knew of the Caine and Ogle families, who are descendants of shipwrecks. “YAY”, I thought!

He also mentioned Nqguza Hill, the place where I told you there was a battle of historical significance in Lusikisiki. He said he was appalled at how that story was told by white people, when there are some local people who were involved in that battle that are still alive and tell a totally different story of what happened. He promised to take us there and introduce us to these people next week. He asked for a lift home and, low and behold, on the way there we came across Patrick van Rooyen.

He introduced us and the project, after which Mr van Rooyen immediately rattled off locals with “white” surnames who are descendants of shipwrecks – Caine, Ogle, Stoffel, Berry, Grimmit Canham and Roskruge – who are all apparently still in the rural villages of Lusikisiki. It turns out Mr van Rooyen is not a descendent of the shipwrecks, but of the Boer War. Chief Mjoji said he would take us around to these families this weekend, but I have not been able to reach him ever since. (Sigh!) Both Chief Mjoji and Mr van Rooyen mentioned the recent BBC China shipwreck.

WEDNESDAY

We ┬ámade our way to Port St Johns on Wednesday morning to meet Jimmy. Although he didn’t have any new information about the wrecks and the people it affected, he did however show us a very detailed map that was soon to become my best friend. It’s shows the three wrecks we’re looking at and the villages close by. This is how I not only discovered that the Sao Bento wrecked close to Mr Makanya’s village, but also that the N.S. De Belem wrecked close to Noqhekwane, a village near Port St Johns where a woman I care for deeply lives! (YAY! Another contact!) Jimmy didn’t have any more of the maps so we made a photocopy. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. I didn’t think we’d be able to make it up to Noqhekwana after such a heavy downpour (the road up there is precarious on a clear sunny day). Jimmy also said there was no way we could make it up there, so after taking some photos from an airstrip looking down on Mzimbuvu River, we headed back to Lusikisiki.

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Mzimvubu Rover on the way to Port St Johns

I phoned Mr Makanya again, but he wasn’t able to talk. By now we had had enough of not (yet) interviewing people so I decided it was time to head out to the villages and mission out on our own. With my new map as a guide, I found a camp site in Msikaba village and made bookings. The NSdeBelem wrecked in Msikaba Mouth and it’s apparently not too far from Lambasi village, where the Grosvenor wrecked. Mr Makanya also phoned back to say he had just come out of a meeting with some chiefs who didn’t have a problem with us going out into the their villages.

(There was a hitch with our booking though, the camp site does not offer linen! I called Chief Faku, who had mentioned when we saw him on Tuesday that he would be returning from Mthatha on Thursday, and asked him to please bring us linen from home. I arranged with him to meet up with my house mate at her place of work to pick it up on his way back to Lusikisiki the following day. He said he would leave Mthatha in the morning so that was perfect timing for us! Our encounters with Chief Faku were proving to be very serendipitous indeed!)

THURSDAY

So much for Serendipity! Chief Faku ended up leaving Mthatha rather late, so we only left Lusikisiki in the early afternoon. He also said that he was still trying to get information from the people he had called on Tuesday. We found our camp site quite easily, though the last stretch of road was dreadful! Our van managed, although it got very hairy at times. Then we realised that there was no cellphone reception and had to walk quite a distance and up a hill to call you!

FRIDAY

You’ll hear about this later. We’ll be going to find two families that the camp site manager told us about. They apparently go around the beach looking for and collecting beads from the Sao Bento!

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