The mysteries of the 'Brederode' shipwreck soon to be revealed
with South Africa's first ever hi-tech, deep water excavation
Major historical artefacts to be recovered in accordance with
international archaeological standards - National Monuments Council [Cape Town, 22
September 1999]. Important historical artefacts will soon be recovered from the Brederode
shipwreck, off the Cape Agulhus coast, using highly sophisticated and specialised
equipment in South Africa's first-ever deep water, hi-tech archaeological excavation.
It is expected that the excavation, which may cost up to US$3 million, will get underway
in February 2000.
The Brederode, a Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie or VOC)
vessel, sank on 5 May 1785 after striking an uncharted reef off the Cape Agulhus coast,
about 200kms from Cape Town, South Africa. The vessel, now lying in 65 metres of water, 10
kilometres off the coast, was carrying a valuable cargo of tea, spices, satin and linen
cloth, porcelain, tin and gold.
A Project Steering Committee with the National Monuments Council, South African Maritime
Museum, Aqua Exploration and Hallstrom Holdings has been established to guide and control
the excavation of the site.
Maritime archaeologist, John Gribble from the National Monuments Council and chairman of
the Brederode Excavation Steering Committee, said the Brederode project is unique in South
Africa, not only from an archaeological perspective, but also because of the method of
"The Brederode is a valuable maritime archaeological resource and is protected by the
National Monuments Act from any unauthorised disturbance," Gribble said.
"It will be the first time in South Africa that such a hi-tech, deep water excavation
will be undertaken conforming to international archaeological standards", Gribble
"Valuable historical artefacts of significant cultural and archaeological importance
recovered from the wreck will be housed in the South African Maritime Museum for all South
Africans to enjoy"
Jaco Boshoff, the chief maritime archaeologist working on the Brederode excavation on
behalf of the South African Maritime Museum, said investigations using sophisticated and
specialised equipment shows a flat site with little structure visible above the sand.
"However, because we believe that the Brederode sank slowly onto a sandy bottom, it
is hoped that substantial portions of her hull will be well preserved under the sand, and
yield a wealth of archaeological and historical information," Boshoff said.
"Also visible on the seabed is one of the most important and valued items on any
wreck site - the ship's bell. This is the key to the positive identification of a wreck,
as bells were generally cast with the date and maker's name in the same year as a vessel
is completed. Among other artefacts visible are two bronze cannons, porcelain and
"The successful archaeological excavation of a site at a depth of 65 metres poses
immense challenges, but will contribute to international knowledge about VOC ships, as
well as the archaeological excavation of deep-sea shipwrecks"
Charles Shapiro and his partners began the search for the Brederode in 1982. They formed
the Cape Town-based group Aqua Exploration in 1984 which consisted of Erik Lombard, Andre
Hartman, Mike Keulemans, and Charles and Mickey Shapiro.
"After several years of combing archives in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and in
South Africa on behalf of a group of salvors for further information on the location of
two other wrecks, I came across valuable information relating to a shipwreck named the
Brederode," said Charles Shapiro.
"In 1991, Andre obtained vital information from a trawler fisherman who mentioned
that his nets had snagged on wreckage while bottom trawling, and a wooden pulley block was
brought to the surface.
"On the strength of this, we planned a side scan sonar survey around the approximate
position and were successful in getting a side scan sonar image and magnetometer reading
but could not identify the wreck site in 65 metres of water."
Between 1991 and 1997, Shapiro contracted several professional surveying companies to
positively identify the site, but due to equipment failure, adverse weather and various
other factors, was unsuccessful. In 1998, Singapore-based Sverker Hallstrom, a
professional shipwreck explorer, joined forces with Aqua Exploration and the shipwreck was
positively identified with the help of his vessel "Scorpio", which was fully
equipped with a global positioning system, magnetometer, side scan sonar and remote
operated vehicle camera.
"When I learned that Aqua Exploration had been looking for the wreck for a long time
and that Charlie had a pre-disturbance survey permit for the Brederode, it made sense to
explore the possibility of a collaboration," Hallstrom said.
The safest and most practical way to work at 65 metres depth will be with the use of a
saturation diving system. Divers are compressed to a little above the working depth in a
master chamber on board a vessel, and then lowered to the sea-bed in a bell.
A team of specialist divers will be used for the excavation and can stay in this closed
system for as long as required, which can be up to 20 days at a time, after which only one
decompression period is needed.
Due to the expected cold and dark conditions underwater, divers will be equipped with hot
water suits and artificial lighting.
According to the Captain's report of the incident, the Brederode sank on 5 May 1785 after
striking an uncharted reef some 10 kilometres off the coast of Cape Agulhus. While 80
people safely abandoned the sinking ship, 12 people were accidentally left on board. On
landing, the life boats were cast high and dry by the heavy breakers and could not be put
back into the water to save the remaining 12 persons left on the Brederode.