SA shipwrecks rise from the deep

From centuries-old shipwrecks to ancient Stone Age middens and fish traps, South Africa’s rugged and often dangerous coastline is a treasure-trove of historical gems and archaeological riches.

Yet little scientific information is available on the exact location and condition of these valuable heritage sites, and the information they contain on the economics, politics and daily life of the country’s maritime past.

This is set to change over the next few years, following the launch in Cape Town of the country’s first long-term underwater heritage survey.

Thanks to a R4,2-million grant from the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund, the South African Heritage Resources Agency has established a national survey of underwater heritage.

The survey has recently received the first tranche of a three-year funding package.

One of the unit’s main tasks will be to produce an inventory of South Africa’s underwater heritage resources, including details of the more than 2 700 historical shipwrecks scattered along the country’s almost 3 000km of coastline.

The survey team comprises four archaeologists, three of whom specialise in maritime archaeology.

Unit head and maritime archaeologist John Gribble says coastal sites are under threat ”in a big way” from coastal development.

He says his survey will be examining a number of very important shipwrecks along the South African coast, including the wreck of the troopship HMS Birkenhead, which struck a rock off Danger Point on the Cape coast in 1852.

The disaster, in which 445 died, gave rise to the famous maritime tradition of ”women and children first”.

Gribble says another wreck of great historical interest is that of the Milagros, a Portuguese vessel that sank in 1686 off the Cape south coast.

Another is the oldest-known wreck in South African waters, called the Soares wreck by archaeologists, after the Portuguese admiral who commanded the fleet of which the vessel was part.

The ship sank in 1504 off Mossel Bay, and little is known about it.

Gribble believes underwater cultural heritage suffers from the perception that it is colonial, and therefore of relevance and interest to only some South Africans.

”This is perhaps because much of the publicity generated around it relates to colonial-era shipwrecks.

”However, when one considers that underwater heritage is best defined as the physical remains of people’s relationship with the sea, it is clear … that it is a resource of importance and interest to all South Africans.

”Considered in these terms, this heritage includes a wide diversity of sites and materials, ranging from pre-colonial shell middens and fish traps to shipwrecks, survivor camps, harbours and other more recent maritime remains.”

Not the least of these are the thousands of Stone Age coastal middens, essentially piles of discarded shells and bones, left by earlier hunter-gatherer inhabitants.

According to Gribble, ”South Africa’s coastline is one long midden”, at least in those areas that have not suffered the depredations of developers.

The middens are of great archaeological importance — some have yielded evidence of modern human activity from nearly 100 000 years ago.

Besides scouring archival sources for information, the team also plans to tap the oral history of people in various parts of the country. This approach, they say, could yield useful information on sites and material.

Three of the survey’s four members are qualified scuba divers, and the team members expect to spend a lot of time doing what they like best — diving on sites.

Gribble says the survey’s main purpose is to find and record sites rather than excavate them.

He says a conservative estimate of the total number of wrecks along the South African coast is between 3 000 and 3 500.

In the three years available — the extent of the funding — he does not expect to complete a full survey of the entire 2 798 kilometres of coastline.

”We will start with a number of small, discrete geographical areas. These will include, among others, areas around Saldanha Bay, Simon’s Town, Struisbaai, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and possibly Port Nolloth,” he says.

The wrecks of ships or aircraft, and any associated cargo, debris or artefact more than 60 years old and in South African waters, are protected in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act.

They may not be disturbed in any way, except under the terms of a permit issued by the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

There are severe penalties, including fines and jail terms, for those caught breaking the law.

Wreck diving has become a popular pastime in South Africa in recent years.

The advice of Gribble’s team to those who visit wreck sites is best heeded: ”Take only photos; leave only bubbles!” — Sapa

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Richard Davies
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