The business of treasure…

So you read about the ‘chance meeting’ with Matholakele Bhobosana.

We later meant with 56-year-old Ngomani Mhlolivele, the son of the woman we we looking for when we drove right up to Bhobosana’s front door.


Ngomani Mhlolivele with his partner, Nofezile Memani, and grandchildren, Sanele, 14 months and Oluhle 4.

He has been digging up beads on the rock island next to Msikaba Mouth since he was a little boy. Though he has had other forms of work outside his village of KwaNdengane, digging up beads, broken pieces of crockery and clay pots has been his longest form of earning an income. He also currently works as a night security guard for the ten or so holiday homes along the beach.


Beads from shipwrecks

Ngomane says he sells each regular-sized individual bead for R100. (A regular-sized bead is more or less the same size of the beans you’d use in samp and beans.) Some of the beads are broken, and these he sells for about R30. His clients are the white holiday home owners who come to Msikaba during the holidays. The broken pieces of crockery and clay pots don’t seem to have much of a market, he hasn’t sold any in a long time.


Ngomani Mhlolivele with pottery shards

Last year Ngomani found a bell-shaped gold artifact, which he has not yet sold. He says one of the white men who own a holiday home in the area took a photograph of it which he left with Ngomani before taking the artifact away to the city to be evaluated. He brought it back on his next visit to Msikaba but did not tell him what it is valued at.

Gold bell from a shipwreck

Gold bell from a shipwreck

I asked Ngomane what he thought of the idea of having some sort of museum to keep and display all the shipwreck artifacts that he and his fellow villagers find. He was said that one of his customers had recently asked him the same question, and that he is very open to the idea, especially because it would be a legacy that he could leave to his grandchildren.

The following day we eventually met uMama ka Ngomani, a feisty old lady with a great sense of humour. Having arrived at her house at about 07:30am, I was concerned about it being too early and perhaps waking her/her household up. Our self-appointed escort, Mama Bhobosana, insisted that it wasn’t too early because people in the villages rise at the crack of dawn.

Not convinced, SK and I lagged far behind and let Bhobosana go way ahead of us, only for her to return within minutes with uMama kaNgomani in tow. She found her already working in her garden!

Born in 1937, Majajini Mhlolivele (uMama kaNgomani) has been digging up beads and other other artifacts from shipwrecks with her grandmother since she was a little girl. She couldn’t wait to get our interview over and done with so she could go and see if the tide was low enough for her to get to the rock island and start digging. She however, unlike the men, digs in the sand because it is less strenuous for her body, which is not as strong as it used to be.

uMama kaNgomani with beads she recovered from the beach

uMama kaNgomani with beads she recovered from the beach

UMama kaNgomani says she used to sell her beads for as little as R25 or R30 for an average-sized bead that is intact. I asked how she came up with that price, and she said it was not her, but her buyers who set that price. The same buyers her son Ngomani sells to.

uMama kaNgomani with recovered clay pot shards

uMama kaNgomani with recovered clay pot shards

She said uTata kaZwelinzima, a village who also digs up artifacts from shipwrecks, was motivating for all the villagers to not only increase their prices but also to agree on what prices to sell their wares. While this gave her the courage to increase her bead price to R50 a bead, and she fully agrees with uTata kaZwelinzima in principle about setting a unified price, she is all too aware that poverty and desperation is what causes people to go behind each others’ backs and sell the artifacts for cheaper. Rather go home with a little bit of money than with no money at all.

Two years ago uMama kaNgomani convinced her widowed daughter to start digging for beads in order to support her two children. We’re meeting her next.

Who do you think you are?

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Never did a saying ring so true.

Sun rising behind Msikaba River

Here I am in one of the most scenic places on earth (the Transkei Wild Coast, of course!), knocking on the doors of complete strangers’, and asking them to share with me their life stories. I’m tasked with tying to find descendants of survivors of the three ships that wrecked on the short stretch of the coastline – about 50km in length – between the Msikaba and Mzimvubu Rivers; finding out whether the locals have any artifacts from the ship wrecks, and they interact with the sea in their daily lives.

My assignment is just swell. You see, I am so fascinated by people’s stories and experiences that I have been called all manner of things – nosy, prying, snoopy, curious. I like to think of it more as having an inquiring mind, being interested in people, being a great listener … Being able to ask questions that would be considered forward in normal social settings is a fringe benefit in my books.

The mouth of the Msikaba River in Lusikisiki, on the north-eastern Pondolond, is where the Sao Bento, a Portuguese ship, wrecked in 1554. Eight decades later another Portuguese ship, the Nossa Senhora de Belem wrecked near Mzimbubu Mouth in Port St Johns in 1635. About a century-and-a-half after that the Grosvenor, a British ship on a return journey from India to England, wrecked in 1782 between the Msikaba and Mzimvubu Rivers.

Hills and valleys of KwaNdengane village

Hills and valleys of KwaNdengane village

So here in KwaNdengane, the seaside village where the Msikaba River flows, is where my sidekick (SK for short) and I found ourselves – or rather, strategically placed ourselves! – hoping to find said descendants and artifacts. Our camp site manager pointed out a homestead where an elderly woman, umama ka Ngomani (Ngomani’s mother), who digs up beads, presumably from the Sao Bento, resides. Our landmark was her daughter’s homestead behind hers, which is bright purple in colour.

Almost immediately after turning off the main dirt road in the direction of mama ka Ngomani’s home, the road ended and ankle-length grass started. We were able to make out and follow faint tyre tracks, which were thankfully going in the general direction of the homestead we were headed to. Too late we realised that the tracks ended right in front of somebody else’s front door! We could make out our purple land mark in the distance so we knew this was the wrong home. And to make matters worse, the home owners were sitting outside in the shade, a mere four or five meters away, looking at us; no doubt wondering who we were.

As I was getting out of our bakkie to explain ourselves, the woman also got up and walked towards us. After exchanging greetings I apologised for driving right up to her door and told her we had followed the wrong tracks trying to get to umama ka Ngomani’s home. I also told her who we were, where we came from, and why we were looking for umama ka Ngomani. Noticing that her eyes were “different” (a lighter shade of brown, unlike a lot of black people’s eyes), I asked whether she perhaps wasn’t a descendent of one of the ship wreck survivors. (Was I being forward? Perhaps. But my curiosity was piqued and I just had to know!) My suspicions were confirmed and she immediately started to tell me her story.

Matholakele Bhobosane, 3rd generation of survivor Thanki from the Grovernor ship wreck

Matholakele Bhobosane, 3rd generation of survivor Thanki from the Grovernor ship wreck

Growing up, Matholakele Bhobosana, 58, had on numerous occasions heard her father say that he wasn’t from here and that he was from England, but she had never paid him much mind. Years later, after she got married and moved from Rhole – the village where the Grosvenor wrecked – to KwaNdengane, she started having visions of a coloured man dressed in a soldier’s coat coming to meet her half way and leading her back to Rhole. She asked her parents about this man, and her mother told her that it was her paternal grandfather Wana, who had died before she was born. Though he was never a soldier, Wana had a favourite army coat that he wore all the time. According to her father, Wana was the son of one of the male survivors of the Grosvenor.

Her great-grandfather was called Thanki, which is also her clan name. SK and I reckon that he must have said, “thank you” early on during his arrival, and with the language barriers between the local and the new arrivals, the locals must have decided to call him Thanki.

Unfortunately Bhobosana does not know much else about her English great-grandfather, though she, like here father, is very proud of her ancestry. “Ndilikhaladi mna! Ndiyayithandi into yokungafani nabanye abantu.” (“I am colourd. I love the fact that I am different from other people.”)

Following the wrong tyre tracks and driving right up to Bhobosana’s door – though embarrassing at first – worked out very well for us in the end. Not only did she enjoy sharing her story with us, but she also offered to accompany us to KwaRhole village to see where the Grosvenor wrecked.

Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project field work officially begins!


Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project field work officially begins!

ACHA has officially moved in the field work phase of a new project that is focusing on the collection of maritime oral histories for the geographic area between Port St Johns and the Msikaba River in the Eastern Cape Province. The project will involve the review of secondary literature to create a historical context for the research as well as field work to gather oral histories from people currently living in the designated area. The objective of this project is to share the research findings in the form of both report as well as a public exhibition! This is a picture of the team involved: Left to right – front row: Lusanda Ngcaweni (lead researcher), Zuleiga Adams (Historian), Heather Wares (literature survey), Janet Ranson (exhibition artist), Andisiwe Qubekile (research assistant), Sophie Winton (SAHRA). Left to right – back row: Jonathan Sharfman (Maritime archaeologist/NAS training), Luvuyo Ndzuzo (Robben Island Museum), and Tahirih Michot (project manager).

Bed Time Reading – Part II

As Europe struggled out of the feudal system that followed the sacking of Rome by the barbarians in  400 AD and into the renaissance, it looked east to satiate its re-awoken taste for exotic goods. But Europe had little direct access with India, China, Japan and the Spice Islands. Instead, traders in the Middle East controlled trade between East and West. In an effort to circumvent the Middle East and gain access to cheaper goods, European nations began searching for other safe, fast and cheap ways to acquire those trade items for which demand was growing. Attempts to gain control of the dangerous terrestrial trade routes had failed and so people looked to the sea and Europe entered its Age of Exploration. Ships were dispatched both east and west of Europe in an effort to reach the rich Spice Islands, porcelain markets, textile factories and other goods which European markets craved.

In the context of South Africa’s history, it is the voyages around the African continent that most influenced change. The exploratory voyages of Bartholomew Diaz  in 1489 and Vasco Da Gama in 1499, opened the way for a flood of seaborne trade that had profound consequences for South Africa, the African continent and the world in general. Diaz was the first European to round the southern tip of Africa in Portugals’ attempts discover an all sea route to the East. Evidence seems to suggest that he got as far as Mossel Bay before returning home. Da Gama followed soon after and continued across the India Ocean to the East in 1499. Portugal’s pioneering explorers gave her the edge in the race for eastern markets and she quickly became a major power in Europe. But others followed quickly as the rest of Europe realised the potential of direct trade with the East.

Bed Time Reading – Part I


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. Continue reading