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.

1 comment:


I enjoyed this post. Thank you Mole. Salvaging a shipwreck is a time-consuming and costly enterprise. It is no wonder that the prospect of treasure spurred on these ventures. It is sad that shipwrecks and lost souls, without the aura of treasure or mystery to capture public attention, are forgotten. Andrew