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Due to South Africa’s coastline of some 2500km, parts of which is dangerous, it’s no surprise that there are more than a few shipwrecks along this stretch of water. Some of these wrecks date back centuries, and they are all from a diverse range of countries and cultures. To try and prevent shipwrecks, many lighthouses have been erected over the years along our spectacular coast. In this blog post, we explore just a few of the old shipwrecks along South Africa’s coast.


São Bento 

This Portuguese vessel that was named after Saint Benedict, shipwrecked off the Wild Coast of the Transkei way back in 1554. São Bento, her captain Fernando De Alvares Cabral, and her crew had departed from the port of Cochin in India, and were on their way to Lisbon with a load of goods when they encountered severe weather conditions that badly damaged the ship. Luckily, some of the crew survived and washed up near the Mkisaba River Mouth. The ship, however, was not so lucky.


Nieuw Haarlem

Many experts believe that the Nieuw Haarlem shipwreck catalysed the creation of Cape Town, forever changing history. In March 1647, several years before the Cape Town settlement had been established, the Nieuw Haarlem ship filled with water and sunk in the shallow waters of Table Bay. The entire crew survived, and the cargo was able to be saved. Soon after the incident, 58 of the crew members were taken back to the Netherlands by other ships, but 62 men were left behind to look after the cargo for a year before they would be collected a year later. During this time they build shelters, grew vegetables, fished and bartered meat from the Khoi people living in the area. Experts believe that if these men hadn’t stayed and discovered the ideal location and living conditions, the history of colonial South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, may have turned out differently.


HMS Birkenhead

The HMS Birkenhead was travelling to Algoa Bay with British troops and some civilians on board, when it hit a submerged rock off Danger Point. Only 193 people survived out of the total crew of 643 passengers, and as per Captain Robert Salmond’s orders the women and children were given priority when it came to the lifeboats. The crew loyally obeyed their captain, and Rudyard Kipling actually wrote a poem to pay tribute to the crew’s bravery, called Soldier an’ Sailor Too. The rocks that the ship crashed into can still be seen today from the Danger Point lighthouse at Gansbaai, and the wreck lies in around 30 metres of water and is now a dive site that is only accessible by boat.


These are just a few of the many shipwrecks along South Africa’s coastline, many of them playing a role in the country’s history and discovery. It is incredible to see how far the technology on ships has come, to prevent accidents such as the ones mentioned above.


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HMS Birkenhead: By Charles Dixon – http://www.ancestryimages.com/proddetail.php?prod=f3117, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14529460

Nieuw Haarlem (Bloubergstrand/Table Bay): By SkyPixels – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40396618

São Bento: By Victorcouto – Own workBernardo_Gomes_de_Brito,_Historia_Tragico-Maritima,_tomo_1°,_p._39, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104835

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