Shipwreck Museum showcases maritime heritage

Shipwreck Museum showcases maritime heritage

By Vivienne Mackie

Discover the dramatic history of shipwrecks that testify to one of the world's most dangerous coastal stretches.

Many parts of the world are known for shipwrecks, but one of the most famous (or notorious) is the Cape Agulhas coast on the Overberg peninsula, a couple of hours southeast of Cape Town, South Africa.

The coastline around the southern tip of Africa is feared for strong winds and currents, gigantic storms, dangerous offshore reefs, shallow sand banks and the rugged, unforgiving coastline. Over the years, many hundreds of ships met their fate here.

Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans officially meet, creating powerful dangerous currents. It also was known as the Cape of Storms.

About 30 to 40 kilometers to the west of Agulhas Point is Danger Point. About 100 kilometers farther up the northeast coast is Cape Infanta. Between these two points are more than 130 shipwrecks, so the area became known as The Graveyard of Ships, as ships have been lost here at a rate of more than one shipwreck for every kilometer, a sobering statistic. Most are concentrated around Cape Agulhas, Arniston and Quoin, and parts of some of them are still very visible.

We knew a little of this history when we lived in South Africa but not the details. On our recent trip back, we stayed in Arniston, named after one of the famous shipwrecks (in 1815, in which only six of 378 aboard survived).

The Arniston Hotel, which has a good restaurant where many people eat (including us for most dinners), has a small gallery of photos and large posters about the most famous shipwrecks around here, such as the Zoetendal (1673), Joanna (1682), Schonenberg (1722), Nicobar (1783), Queen of the Thames (1871) and The Oriental Pioneer (1974).

This piqued our curiosity, so we were happy to find out there is a Shipwreck Museum in the nearby town of Bredasdorp.

This is the only museum of its kind in South Africa. It is situated in what used to be the Independent Church and adjoining rectory in Bredasdorp and started as the Bredasdorp Museum in December 1968.

A local teacher, Coenraad Potgieter, published his book "Shipwrecks Along Our Coast," and the theme was taken up by the museum. After restoration, the Shipwreck Museum was officially opened in April 1975. It displays artifacts salvaged from ships wrecked off this treacherous coastline over the centuries.

The museum also was important in creating and initially running the Agulhas Lighthouse Museum on Cape Agulhas Point. The two oceans meet at this point, a place marked by a stone and plaque. Ironically, less than 1 kilometer away is another wreck, the Meisho Maru (1982).

It's a small museum but one with a fascinating story, because some of the wrecks are well documented, either by the (few) survivors or by those on land who witnessed the event or by the ship's company.

There also are plenty of artifacts that have been recovered, sometimes directly after the wreck, sometimes much later when a ship was found and excavated (does one excavate in the sea?). So we see cannons, figureheads, porcelain from China, chains, portholes, ship bells, buoys and many other maritime artifacts.

This is part of the history of South Africa — who was sailing its shores, what they were carrying, where they were going. Most were foreign ships, but some had a South African link, like the one shipwreck explorers continue to try to locate, the Meermin. It was a Dutch East India slave ship that sank in Struisbaai in 1766 after a dramatic, but failed, slave revolt on board. (There was a PBS movie, "Slave Ship Mutiny," in the series "Secrets of the Dead.")

This ties in with the story of slavery in this part of the world at that time, why it happened and how it was changing. Also fascinating is the story of the coins and other money carried (much from Sweden, amazingly) and the types of bottles and glass.

The location of this little museum also is interesting: in an old church with pretty gardens at the back, leading over a tiny footbridge to the old coach house that houses cape carts, two horse-drawn hearses and an old fire engine.

A small building in the garden has a collection of household items, toys, books and clothes from the 1700s and 1800s. The old parsonage right next door is the typical Strandveldhuis (literally, sand flats house, for one of the dominant landscapes in the Overberg) and is furnished with articles salvaged along the coast and a collection of newspaper cuttings and other trivia from wrecks.

All the buildings are in the white-washed late Cape-Dutch style. Metal anchors of many ships surround a huge fig tree in the back garden— a nice way to display them.

For us, the museum opened up as many questions as it answered: the sign of a stimulating place, I think. Well worth an hour or two — and a second visit if we are ever back in the Overberg.

Why are people so fascinated by shipwrecks? By the sheer scope of the disaster? By the fact that "there but for the Grace of God go I"?

We go out of our way to find and view a wreck that's close to shore. Why? Because of the shiver of fear, and/or the gladness that it wasn't us? The realization that the sea is something all powerful and it can be unforgiving?

We think of death and destruction, devastating storms, but also probably of great bravery. Many stories have been written around this theme. And almost everyone, I should imagine, has heard the story of the sinking of the Titanic and probably seen the famous movie based on that tragic true event.

This part of the world makes you think like this!

Vivienne Mackie is an Urbana resident who loves to travel and write about all the different experiences. She and her husband always enjoy returning to South Africa, especially if they discover something new there. Read her blog at viviennemackie.wordpress.com.

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