Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The wreck of the Sao Joao June 1552

Taking a break from genealogy I spent some time on one of the most evocative coasts in South Africa - the south-eastern stretch, graveyard of too many ships to mention individually. In particular, I was enthralled to find myself walking on the beach where the great Portuguese galleon Sao Joao was wrecked in June 1552.

Though controversy has dogged the matter of the precise wreck site, experts currently suggest this is slightly north of what is now Port Edward.

Port Edward in the distance
For those who like accuracy, there's E Burger's study (University of Pretoria 2004), chapter one of which pays attention to the puzzle concerning the location of the wreck and refers to various sources speculating on this topic. Historian George Theal in the early 1900s held the view (unsubstantiated) that the Sao Joao was wrecked off Port St John's at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. However, despite the fact that the galleon gave her name to Port St John's, the wreck at this location has subsequently been identified as that of an entirely different and much later ship - the Nossa Senhora de Belem, 1635. 

Engraving: wreck of Sao Joao

The Sao Joao left Cochin, China, in February 1552 under the command of Manuel de Sousa Sepulveda. At 900 tons the ship was one of the largest built at the time for the India route and this was the return trip of her first voyage. Richly laden, she carried a great quantity of pepper - one of the most highly-prized spices - other export merchandise and about 600 souls.

A storm hurled the vessel on to the rocks, breaking it up so completely that no remains of her hull have been found. About 120 people perished in the wreck and perhaps they were the lucky ones. The survivors, decimated by starvation, exhaustion, disease and attacks by indigenous tribes, attempted to walk to Delagoa Bay (Maputo): only 25 reached their destination almost six months later.

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