Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 11: the Bennebroek

To be shipwrecked off the Natal coast in the 19th c was unfortunate but one's chances of survival were reasonably good, given help from those ashore. In the 18th c, when most of the coast of southern Africa was uninhabited or sparsely so, there was usually no assistance in the vicinity and the survivors could not avoid a long walk to the nearest civilized place.

In 1713 the Dutch ship Bennebroek returning from Ceylon came to grief on the Natal coast, possibly near the mouth of the Umtana river, or somewhere north of the Umzimvubu. The ship broke up, many drowned, 57 Europeans and 20 Malabar slaves reaching land. They started to walk for the Cape but were stopped by a large river, perhaps the Umzimvubu, and turned back. 

Others continued the journey but of these only one slave actually reached the Cape. Seven who had remained behind were found by a small trading vessel but only four were taken to the Cape. They reported having been well treated by the local tribesmen. The three left behind may have been the three shipwrecked Englishmen found by Hubner's party in 1716 living in Pondoland with wives and children. If not from the Bennebroek their origins are a mystery.

The wreck was found in 1985 and some pieces of Chinese porcelain recovered as well as some bronze swivel cannon bearing the Amsterdam mark.

A dark unfriendly shore awaited the survivors of the Bennebroek

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 10: a controversial photo

This photo is said to be of the Minerva, wrecked at Port Natal in 1850. However, there is some controversy about it largely because of the date - 1850. If it is indeed of the Minerva it would be the first exterior photograph taken in Natal. Photography was in its infancy and most pictures were taken inside the photographer's studio. There were photographers in Natal in the 1850s but not many of them.

It is more likely that this photo shows the Defiance, wrecked in 1871, but that took place near the Umzimkulu.

For more on this topic see

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 9: William Hartley and Ariosto

Its an ill wind that blows no good. 

When the American barque Ariosto 361 tons was wrecked on the Back Beach, Durban, on 31 July 1854 while on her way to Boston from Sumatra, carrying a cargo of pepper, a local Byrne settler, William Hartley, saw an opportunity. He knew that pepper did not deteriorate when wet and he dried out the peppercorns then sold them at a satisfactory profit.

The Captain (Balch) had mistakenly kept the ship on course believing their position to be some miles from the Bluff. The sound of breakers alerted the deck watch but it was too late. The vessel struck, bumping over the Bar, and ended up on the beach. The crew of 17 landed in their boat. The ship became a total wreck but no lives were lost. Durban's inhabitants rushed to the scene and William Hartley began to have ideas about the cargo.

Hartley and his wife Isabella had emigrated on the Sovereign, one of Byrne's vessels, which arrived at Natal in March 1850.  Hartley was prompted to go to Natal by James Methley's book The New Colony of Natal. He and Isabella were married a fortnight before they sailed, Isabella sewing into her corset William's parents' gift of a hundred pounds in sovereigns - a bank from which they would withdraw funds as the need arose.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 8: the Waldensian 1862

The Waldensian,  built on the Clyde in 1855, continued the coastal service alone (after the Madagascar her sister ship was wrecked) but was herself wrecked on Struys Point in October 1862 on a voyage for Cape Town. The ship broke in two, but the approximately 100 souls on board were safely landed, most going overland to Cape Town by wagon via Bredasdorp. Some returned in Barry's coaster Kadie and the Cape Town tug Albatross which had responded to news of the disaster.

More about the Waldensian wreck can be seen at:

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 7

Because of the enormous number of shipwrecks which have occurred along the coast of South Africa over the past five centuries, it is impossible to trace an ancestor who was shipwrecked unless a close date parameter and location, plus preferably a ship name, are known.

This doesn't seem to deter numerous descendants from attempting to identify a relevant wreck based on absolutely minimal information about the event. A regular blog visitor has just asked me about her own 19th c ancestor, said to have been wrecked off the Namaqualand coast or possibly near Algoa Bay, but no further details are available.

That the man survived is proved by the existence of his Death Notice some years later. However, there is nothing found concerning the wreck in which he was said to be involved.

The question is asked about newspaper reports of the wreck but the ship may have been a small schooner or other craft with not many crew or passengers on board, so it is unlikely to have made the local press.

In this case, the descendant would do well to pursue other lines of enquiry and leave this ancestor to one side until, with luck, more information about his shipwreck comes to light. It may prove to be an apocryphal family anecdote which has been embellished over the generations. These red herrings crop up in every family tree. They add to the general interest but are frustrating unless taken with a pinch of salt.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Souvenir Saturday: Lilla Lacon Ireland 1866

Lilla Lacon Ireland 1866 in baby buggy.Lilla Lacon Ireland was the daughter of Rev William Ireland, the American missionary, and his second wife Oriana nee Grout.  

Ireland was the principal of the now famous Adams College on the south coast of Natal, and 5 children of the 7 born to William and Oriana survived.

In 1885 Wm Ireland read his historical paper on the occasion of the Jubilee of the American Mission; the basis for this paper was his original Sketch of the Zulu Mission written some time earlier. He died in 1888, and his widow was put in charge of the girls on the Mission. She returned to America in 1897, dying there in 1902, but their daughter Lilla Lacon Ireland is recorded as being at Adams Mission in 1900. She too returned briefly to America, but came back to Natal, remaining until the 1930s and teaching at Inanda Seminary. 

This carte de visite appeared on the etsy site, a reminder that such sites - ebay etc - are worth a look for memorabilia of this sort.

Acknowledgements to Kathleen Freimond who alerted me to this photo on etsy. Kathleen is researching Barbara Buchanan a well-known author who lived in Natal and at one time was governess to the Ireland children. Mention of this is made in Buchanan's book Natal Memories page 48.  for more on  the Irelands

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 6: the Fusilier wreck

Not all wrecks in the vicinity of Port Natal escaped loss of lives on  board.

The Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reported on Saturday 22 July: 

Received on Monday from Natal it appears that the ship (Fusilier), while lying off that harbour on the 25th of last May in gale of wind, broke from her anchors, and was totally lost on the Bluff Rocks at the south side of the entrance of Natal, and 26 of her passengers were drowned.

The ship had previously lost 189 passengers during the voyage, due to fever. More detail is to be gleaned from the Australian press on this incident, under the heading Wreck of a Cooly ship at Natal. This is a reminder that from 1860 indentured labour began to be brought to the Colony primarily to work on the sugar fields. The report gives an indication of how these immigrant ships were crammed to bursting point.

Indentured Indians arriving at Natal

Note: coolie or cooly was not at that time considered an opprobrious term

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 5: wreck of Earl of Hardwicke 1863

This interesting report (Natal Mercury 4 December 1863) on the wreck of the ship Earl of Hardwicke clearly emphasises some of the difficulties found when a ship was entering the port of Natal during the 1850s and 60s and beyond.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 4

During the mid-19th c a wave of immigration to Natal meant an increase in the number of ships to that destination. Some of these vessels came to grief before even anchoring at the port, because the sandbank at the entrance to the harbour made it necessary for ships to wait in the roadstead or outer anchorage for favourable conditions.

Survivors of such shipwrecks generally survived because of the proximity to the settlement at the port and to help from those on shore. A case in point was the Byrne settler ship, Minerva, wrecked on the rocks at the foot of the Bluff in 1850. Among others, Captain William Bell stood in the surf for hours assisting in the rescue of Minerva's passengers and crew. No lives were lost though the new colonists lost all their possessions, making their introduction to Natal much more difficult. But they were made of stern stuff and soon put down roots in the colony. Descendants of these settlers still reside in Natal. 

The wreck of the Minerva by J Forsyth Ingram

This painting offers a snapshot in time showing the costume of residents and sightseers gathered on the beach at the scene of the wreck, as well as some of the temporary tents and other shelters put up to help the settlers from the Minerva.

A lady of the 1850 Settler era

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 3

This dramatic 18th c painting by Claude Vernet gives an indication of what shipwreck survivors faced in order to get to land. Before them lay an arduous journey on foot, which they would probably not come through alive, kept going by the faint hope of rescue by a passing ship or the kindness of local tribes. 

The subject became a popular one with artists of the period, one of the most famous being African Hospitality, showing reaction of natives to the survivors of the wreck of the East Indiaman Grosvenor in August 1782 on the coast of Pondoland.

123 people reached the beach alive. These castaways chose to walk south in the direction of Cape Town. Only 18 of them reached the Cape, four eventually returning to England.
The Grosvenor is a fabled treasure ship, with speculation re the famous Peacock Throne and other valuables having been carried on board. Sydney Turner, a pioneer of Natal, made one of the earliest salvage attempts, finding silver coins and other items in the vicinity of the wreck.
However, the wreck itself has yet to be found, joining the list of maritime mysteries associated with South Africa, including that of the SS Waratah.

See Andrew van Rensburg's blog

Friday, January 15, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 2

In his book British Residents at the Cape 1795-1819 Peter Philip attempts to define the term
'settler' as 'a person who had left his bones or his bairns in South Africa'.  Although many shipwreck survivors left their bones on our shores not many of them produced descendants, most not living long enough to do so or being lost track of due to their isolation in the interior of the country where some were absorbed into local tribes. The story of one of these is told in The Sunburnt Queen.

But it would be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to trace the descent of a shipwreck survivor who married local women and produced a mixed race. There is no doubt that this happened and notably in the area known at one time as Pondoland. The paler colour and different cast of feature among many inhabitants testifies to that fact.This region had long ago suffered the incursions of the east coast slave trade run by the Arabs and this also accounts for variety of skin colour and even language found in the area.

Most survivors of wrecks simply didn't make it back to civilization though many tried, some walking incredible distances. Most of those who did get there were sailors, a tough hardy breed, rather than the more refined passengers who expired - as Manoel de Sousa Sepulvedo's wife did, on the coastal sands, after the wreck of the Sao Joao.

Ahead of the people who survived this wreck lay a walk of hundreds of miles north to Delagoa Bay during which they succumbed by turns to exposure, heat, exhaustion, thirst and starvation. Why attempt to reach Delagoa Bay? The initial plan was to build a small caravel on the beach to send to Sofala for help, but there were insufficient usable timbers from the wreck for this purpose. Table Bay, equally far off, held memories of d’Almeida and fifty of his men killed by Hottentots in 1510. Delagoa Bay was chosen as a known stopping point for Portuguese ships for water and trade.

The account of the boatswain’s mate reveals that it took them three months to reach Delagoa Bay, at a rate of about 4.2 miles per day. Only 22 of the original 500 survived – 8 Portuguese and 14 slaves, the latter presumably being used to surviving all manner of circumstances. None of these people remained on the shores which had treated them so cruelly, so no descendants exist - as far as we know.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Shipwreck survivors and treasure-seekers

Gazing out at the beautiful blue and peaceful sea seen in this photograph it's difficult to imagine it in the grip of a furious tempest, with a ship tossed wildly on to the rock-fringed shore. Yet this scenario has been played out hundreds of times on Natal's coast from the time visitors from other countries ventured to round the tip of Africa.

Of those who were on board such ships perhaps the ones who drowned before reaching land were the more fortunate. The men and women who found themselves flung on to the sharp rocks and finally on to the beach were in a perilous situation, miles from civilization and usually without knowledge of precisely where they had landed. 

They generally decided to walk along the beach, hoping they had chosen the best direction, but sand is hard on the feet and legs. Surely it would have been better to go inland? There would be a chance of finding fresh water, impossible on the beach. However, the mussels and other marine foods among the rocks held out a small hope of stilling hunger and survivors were less likely to encounter dangerous wild beasts or, more terrifying, man.

As I recently walked down to the beach in the photo (this is on the north rather than the south coast) - along a path already cut through the natural bush - it was obvious to me that shipwreck survivors, forsaking the beach, would have been unable to penetrate the thick tangle of plants and trees of the coastal undergrowth. They usually lacked suitable tools for hacking a path. Even on my man-made pathway, branches and tree roots required careful footwork and lowering of the head from time to time.

I am thinking of the earliest wrecks, Portuguese galleons like the Sao Joao and Sao Bento, but of course shipwrecks continued to occur, and still do, along our Natal coastline.

For example, again on the north coast, on the reef at Cape Vidal, the Dorothea was wrecked 31 January 1898. Rumours that she had been carrying a cargo of gold, smuggled via Delagoa Bay from the Transvaal, have spurred several unsuccessful salvage attempts.

If it weren't for the possibility that the Dorothea was a 'treasure ship', her end would have been long-forgotten despite the fact that her anchor decorates the rocks at Cape Vidal.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A beacon for the New Year

The Lighthouse

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
  And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
  A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
  Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
  In the white lip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
  Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
  With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
  And perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
  Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
  Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
  The night-o'ertaken mariner to save.

And the great ships sail outward and return,
  Bending and bowing o'er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn,
  They wave their silent welcomes and farewells.

They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
  Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils,
  Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.

The mariner remembers when a child,
  On his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink;
And when, returning from adventures wild,
  He saw it rise again o'er ocean's brink.

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
  Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
  Shines on that inextinguishable light! 

It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
  The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace;
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
  And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.

The startled waves leap over it; the storm
  Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
  Press the great shoulders of the hurricane.

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
  Of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
  Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
  Still grasping in his hand the fire of Jove,
It does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
  But hails the mariner with words of love. 

"Sail on!" it says, "sail on, ye stately ships!
  And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
  Be yours to bring man nearer unto man!"

by H W Longfellow

Remembering our lightkeeper and mariner ancestors and all who went down to the sea in ships.