|For centuries, ships rounding the perilous southern tip
of Africa have endured or been lost to the ravaging winds and hungry seas of this
notorious, jagged coastline. A salvager's paradise, it can also be a mariner's hell. The
fickle conditions, turning wild, have claimed the lives and cargos of many a vessel, from
the seemingly flimsy, yet surprisingly hardy sailing ships of former days, to the massive
and sturdy steel tankers of the present.
Cape Agulhas, the continent's rugged, southernmost
tip, about three hours' drive from the city of Cape Town, South Africa, is currently under
the international spotlight owing to the discovery of one such sailing ship. Braving the
coastline en route from the Far East to the Cape of Good Hope in the 18th Century, with a
large cargo of Chinese porcelain and other precious goods, she met her end after striking
an undetected reef.
She is the ill-fated 'Brederode', a wreck pursued since 1982
when she first caught the attention of her salvors. Built in Amsterdam by the Dutch East
India Company (VOC) in 1780, she was to enjoy a very short life at sea.
It is owing to the expertise - not to mention perseverance -
of an international team of researchers and salvagers that her story and treasures will
soon be known to historians, collectors and the curious in the very near future.
Renowned South African salvaging expert Charlie Shapiro and
his group, Aqua Exploration - the country's most prominent, professional salvage group -
had spent many years combing the area for a sign of her remains, contracting, at
intervals, several different survey companies to assist them in their search. But in 1997,
when the Group had a chance meeting with Sverker Hallstrom while he was on a working visit
to the country, the fate of the project shifted into a new direction.
A joint venture between the two parties was to prove a huge
success. In 1998, the wreck of the 'Brederode' was finally discovered and, after a long
process of licensing and negotiation*, announced to the world at a press conference in
Cape Town on 23 September 1999 (the day before National Heritage Day in that country).
*The project has been carried out in close collaboration with
the South African National Monuments Council, the South African Natural History Museum and
the Maritime Museum in Cape Town.
It was on the return leg of her maiden voyage, to the Far
East, that the 'Brederode' suffered her tragic end.
Under the command of Captain Gottlieb Mulder, the 'Brederode'
began her journey by calling at the VOC's victualing station at the Cape of Good Hope in
November 1783, departing the following January for Batavia and China, where her holds were
filled with a great variety of valuable goods - tea, fine silk and linen cloth, exotic
spices, Chinese porcelain, tin and gold. She began her journey home on 27 January 1785.
It is possible to re-live the events leading to the disaster
owing to a detailed report written, in Dutch, by Captain Mulder for the attention of the
VOC "Politieke Raad". Around sunset on 3 May, headed on a westerly course
towards the Cape of Good Hope, the eastern and southern corners of Cape Agulhas had been
charted as north-east by east and north-west by west respectively. At 1am on 4 May, the
south point of Agulhas could be seen as expected - the distance estimated to be 2 to 2.5
miles. The captain and officers came to the conclusion that, since sunset, the ship had
drifted 3.5 miles west by south in the strong current. She was turned very strongly around
the north, making it extremely difficult to steer her round the south.
Another attempt led to disaster; the 'Brederode' struck
against a concealed reef, which no-one had seen owing to an absence of any surf or
breakers in the sea. According to the officers, it was possible that the distance of the
reef shown on the chart was less than 1.5 miles off the shore, or that the reef was more
to the east and to the south, or an uncharted reef altogether.
Again and again, in quick succession, she was dashed against
it, the fourth time causing her to sound. The crew tried in vain to turn their ship's head
towards the shore, hoping that she might be run onto a good beach, thus allowing them to
salvage as much as possible of the Company's valuable cargo. But she remained in her
position, lying with her head to the south. When the water rose to 10 feet, it was decided
to launch both big and small boats in preparation for abandoning the vessel before it
became too sluggish for them to put the boats out. Throughout the chaos, three pumps were
put to continuous work, while continued - although fruitless - attempts were made to turn
her towards the shore.
By 4am, the water had risen to 14.5 feet and the weather had
begun to change for the worse. At 4.30am, the decision was made to abandon the
The morning's horror was not over, however. Daylight revealed
to those safely in the life boats signals from the sinking ship, indicating that there had
been people left on board. Even though it was through their own neglect that they had not
made it to the boats - all had sufficient knowledge that the ship was being abandoned -
the captain and officers saw no possibility of returning to the far-off vessel. They
decided, rather, to land everyone on shore, after which they would return for the others.
At 10 am, after battling through dangerous surf, the
'Brederode's' 80 survivors reached the shore, meaning - after a count - that there were 12
people left on board the ship. But they were not to be saved; on landing, the heavy
breakers prevented the boats going back into the water.
Nine days later, Captain Mulder and his officers were called
upon to give an account of the circumstances which led to the sinking of his ship.The
wrecking of the 'Brederode' saw 12 lives lost and 80 lives saved.
Aqua Exploration - comprising Charlie
Shapiro, Micky Shapiro, Erik Lombard, Andre Hartman, Traill Witthuhn and Mike Keulemans
(who passed away in 1991) - has an excellent track record. Among other discoveries, the
group was actively involved in finding the first English East Indiaman, the 'Johanna',
wrecked on the South African coastline in 1682. They were also chiefly responsible for
excavating the famous wreck, the 'Birkenhead 1852'.
Like all reputable salvaging companies, Shapiro's group
believes the prerequisite to the success of any shipwreck search is comprehensive research
and analysis. Charlie Shapiro had years before begun delving into the Netherlands' and
South Africa's archives for information pertaining to the location of the 'Brederode'.
Enough was written for him to learn that the ship sank off Agulhas, and a search was
commenced in 1982.
Over a 16 year period, the group had had little opportunity
to investigate the area for more than two months of every year. Off Agulhas, the sea and
weather conditions are generally treacherous.
In 1991, they came into contact with a local fisherman who,
trawling the ocean floor in the area, had caught a wooden pulley block in his net. With an
approximate position, they tried their luck again, joined by Mike Keuleman on his last
trip out to sea. This time they were more successful, capturing a side-scan image of a
possible site in 65 meters of water. However, up until 1997, none of the professional
survey companies they had contracted had managed to identify this site positively.
Hallstrom was in Durban, South Africa, with
his ship, 'Scorpio', in late 1997. He had completed the preliminary phase of a search in
Madagascar and, while in this country, was interested in pursuing a closer look at some
local projects he had in his files. One of these was the 'Brederode'. Hallstrom, learning
of Shapiro's involvement in the search for the missing wreck, decided to meet him to
discuss the possibility of a collaboration. When they did meet, they agreed that the
combination of Hallstrom's expertise and Aqua Exploration's research on the wreck's
potential position, as well as their familiarity with the local authorities, was worth
their joining forces.
An agreement was signed and the team set out on the 'Scorpio'
on 22 May 1998. This entailed, firstly, verifying Aqua Exploration's three proposed
positions before searching any new areas. Two of these positions were discarded within a
day, the remaining one of particular interest to Shapiro's group. Three side-scan searches
were subsequently conducted in this area, each time proving unsuccessful.
Frustrations were high, and even Hallstrom - used to this
repetitive process of returning to an area again and again from previous experience - felt
his optimism wane. By this time he had fulfilled his contractual obligation, searching the
areas given to him as well as several of his own determined positions. Also, it would soon
be time for the arrival of winter storms, a factor causing further reluctance to start the
Determination won, however, and
it was decided that the team would bolster its search with the use of Hallstrom's
magnetometer, which was air-freighted from Sweden. The dense expanse of rocks in the area
had not allowed for an optimal performance by the side-scan sonar on its own. With the
arrival of the magnetometer, the operation began to show positive results, renewing the
hopes of all involved.
Hallstrom scoured "his" area for 24 hours a day,
weather permitting, until at last two interesting readings had been obtained. One of them
was a geological anamoly of some sort, the other - what appeared to be a shipwreck dating
to the early 19th Century. But the Aqua Exploration team were keen for Hallstrom to return
to their primary location and, owing to the camaraderie between them, it was agreed.
However this time the search effort was concentrated in another area, adjacent to the area
This time - after a few hours - a target was recorded, and
the next few hours spent attempting to pinpoint its exact position. Late that night the
weather drastically deteriorated and the 'Scorpio' had to take shelter in nearby
Struisbaai (Struis Bay). By morning the conditions had not yet abated and - despite the
mounting excitement - the day's work was put on hold. By the 28 June, the wind and swell
in the Bay had increased to the extent that the Scorpio had to weigh anchor and steam up
and down in the area until the early hours of the following morning.
By the early morning of 30 June the weather forecast verified
that the storm had run its course. Charlie and Karen Shapiro, along with team member Erik
Lombard, joined Hallstrom on the 'Scorpio', and the ship set out for what was firmly
believed to be the "real" site. High optimism ruled the journey, and soon after
finding a place to anchor, the 'Sea Owl' ROV was sent down to comb the sand dunes.
After about an
hour's navigation, a thrilling image appeared on the monitor - a wreck! Indeed, the wreck
of the elusive Brederode, unseen since she went down in 1785! Within moments, shards of
blue and white porcelain, scattered across the sand, appeared on the monitor, followed by
images of tin ingots, a heavily encrusted cannon, an anchor and rows of boxes of the
exquisite Chinese porcelain.
The historic moment, captured on video, had been a long time
coming. However, when the sea current and a mounting swell.began to change the ship's
position, a degree of patience had to be restored. Heading back to Struisbaai, the team
decided to wait no longer to celebrate their success, and the champagne (standing by in
the wings) was finally opened.
The discovery made at last, the team of Aqua Exploration and
Hallstrom Holdings began the long process of obtaining a license for her excavation. The
license was eventually signed and sealed on 6 August 1999, its outcome highly positive for
all. The team, in conjunction with South African maritime archaeologists, will soon begin
the careful recovery of the Brederode's cargo, bringing to light - and preserving - a
fascinating fragment of history.
According to an agreement with the South African Government
and the National Monuments Council, the team has been granted all the porcelain and tin -
except for representative samples of each category of porcelain, which will be kept and
displayed at the South African Maritime Museum.
African Maritime Museum
The South African Maritime Museum is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the
preservation of South African maritime heritage.
Jaco Boshoff - chief maritime archaeologist (CMA)
South African National Monuments Council (SANMC)
The SANMC is a statutory organisation established under the National Monuments Act (act 28
of 1969) as the administrative body responsible for the protection of the country's
cultural and historical heritage.
- The principal objects of the NMC are:
- to preserve and protect the historical and cultural heritage
- to encourage and promote the preservation and protection of
that heritage, and
- to co-ordinate all activities in connection with national
monuments and cultural treasures in order that they will be retained as tokens of the past
and may serve as an inspiration.
Historical wrecks are a valuable maritime archaeological
resource and are protected by the NMC against unauthorised salvage. In issuing salvage
permits, the NMC ensures that archaeological methods are used and that valuable cultural
material recovered from the wrecks is housed in suitable museums.
No person shall destroy, damage, alter, disturb or export
from the Republic
.any wreck or portion of a wreck, known or generally believed
to have been in South African territorial waters longer than 50 years
a permit from the National Monuments Council.
John Gribble - maritime archaeologist
Watch this space to read all about the excavation of the
'Brederode' as well as for details pertaining to her treasure, exhibitions, merchandise
for sale and more!