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Cape Whale Coast

The makers of maps that show the shipwrecks along the South African coast must have struggled to deal with the coast of the Southern Overberg. Between Danger Point to the west and Cape Infanta, the outer eastern point of De Hoop Nature Reserve, about 140 shipwrecks are mapped. Most of these shipwrecks are concentrated around Cape Agulhas, Arniston and Quoin Point.

Quoin Point is the outer eastern point of the Danger Point Peninsula area and the second most southern tip of the African continent. A beautiful empty sand beach stretches from the Buffeljags-settlement to Quoin Point. On the maps it is called Jessies Bay, but locals call it “die Walle” (the walls). High straight dunes, eroded in the most fantastic shapes, tower over Jessies Bay. Despite the beauty on shore, the ocean around Quoin Point is the burial place of numerous ships and hundreds of sailors.

The history of Quoin Point and its shipwrecks is closely connected to that of Elim, the Moravian mission village on the road between Baardskeerdersbos and Bredasdorp. Over the years, residents of Elim have often provided assistance to victims of shipwrecks. Accounts from 1838 already mention that men and women of Elim collected the valuable cargo of the Duke of Northumberland, a troop ship that stranded near Cape Agulhas. Of the people on board the ship only a few survived. When the Cape Agents of the shipping company arrived, they found that the 38 bodies that were washed ashore had already been interred. Food was brought in from Elim to feed the starving survivors.

After people from Elim provided assistance at the wrecking of the Jessie in 1829 at Quoin Point, Queen Victoria granted the right to use the land at Quoin Point to residents. This was a clever move since it assured people would be present to assist shipwreck survivors at this treacherous point were shipwrecking was more the rule than the exception. Today there is still a small light-tower surrounded by some cottages owned by the Schipper- and October-families of Elim.

Originally, Quoin Point was named Ponta de sao Brandoa by Bartolomeu Diaz when he rounded Quoin Point in 1488 on the nameday of the Irish monk St. Brendanus. Later the name changed to Quoin Point, but the locals call it Jessie se Punt (Jessie’s Point).

Below are the stories of seven of the unfortunate vessels that wrecked at Quoin Point.

1. Joanna | 1682 (Johanna)

The Joanna was the first English East Indiaman that wrecked on the South African coastline. She was on her way from England to the East when she stranded just east of Quoin Point. Ten people drowned but a group of 104 reached Cape Town. Rumours of a treasure on board spread through town, causing Governor Simon van der Stel to send the Dutch East India Company official Olaf Bergh to investigate. Bergh found a few bodies, which he buried, but also several bottles of brandy and wine and -more interesting for Bergh’s mission- a few hundred Spanish coins. Bergh and his group got onto the wreck of the Joanna and recovered numerous other coins before he returned to Cape Town; mission successfully accomplished.

Exactly 300 years after the Joanna went down, her remains were re-discovered. Over 23’000 coins and a few hundred kilograms of silver were salvaged.

2. Nicobar | wrecked 1783

A day of fishing off Quoin Point in 1987 brought good fortune for Louis Groenewald and Wilfred Chivell, both born and bred Gansbaaiers. Hanging over the side of their boat, they spotted something on the ocean floor. The dived down to check it out and found a canon and a box with money. Back in Gansbaai they realized that they had found the wreck of the Nicobar, a Danish ship with an enormous cargo of copper-plate money. The Nicobar had not been seen since it went down in 1783 taking all aboard, except 11, with her.

Louis and Wilfred returned to the wreck and took 4 months to salvage what turned out to be the biggest find of copper-plate-money in the world.

Chivell, a conservationist, now owns Dyer Island Cruises, a company organizing whale watching boat tours from Kleinbaai, a small harbour on Danger Point Peninsula.

3. Doncaster | wrecked 1836

The Doncaster was on her way from Mauritius to England when she found her premature last resting place at the mouth of the Ratel River, east of Quoin Point. There were no survivors. Local witnesses described how bodies were continually washed ashore as well as limbs and other body-parts. In one account about the incident it was stated that the local field-cornet and his men buried “38 men and boys, 18 women and one coloured woman” (Apartheid clearly, was not restricted to the 20th century).

The bodies of the victims, mostly naked, were too disfigured to be identified and in a letter to the shipping agents in Cape Town it was almost apologetically mentioned that “some two or three had rings on, but their fingers were too swollen to take them off”. “A more melancholy sight is scarcely to be witnessed”, states the same account.

A man with the name of Hans Aventure (A person likely to be of Khoi-descent since he is described as “Hottentot”, as the Dutch called the Khoi-people in imitation of their click language) witnessed the ship perish after she had been “ten or twelve days standing in and off the shore before the disaster happened, sometimes so near to shore that the voices of the crew could be heard”.

The beach was covered with parts of the ship, uniforms of different regiments (some of the people aboard were invalid soldiers from the hospital in Mauritius, sent back to England), music-, prayer- and hymn- books. The most curious find was a box with part of a stomach of a soldier which was meant for the Chief Medical Officer in London.

Though not much of value was found amongst the items washed up, 1000 persons were present at the sale of the remains of the Doncaster. Of the proceeds of a little over R 3000, R 700 was used to pay the field cornet and other men that had patrolled the shores for weeks and another R 700 for labour and miscellaneous expenses.

4. Teuton | wrecked 1881

On route from Cape Town to Port Elisabeth, the English steamer Teuton struck a rock off Quoin Point. The rock was known and charted.

Although the Teuton was making water, Captain Manning decided that the Teuton could still reach the port of Simons Town in False Bay. He ordered to man the pumps and -just in case- to ready the life boats. Not much later the propeller came out of the water and the bow went down. Manning now realized the ship could not be saved and ordered to abandon ship. Captain and crew must have made a secure and relaxed impression: the first life boat parted from the ship with a lot of laughter and cheering. The second life boat was however never launched as the Teuton suddenly and immediately went down before anyone on board could say “oops”. Captain Manning never had to answer for his deadly error; he perished with the ship together with 235 other crew and passengers. Only the 36 that made it to the first life-boat survived.

5. Avala | wrecked 1938 or 1939 (sources differ on the exact date)

In 1938 the 17 year old Samuel Schippers from Elim was catching fish with Herman October and other Elimmers at Quoin Point when he spotted the Avala drifting to shore. Mr. Samuel Schippers has told his story in 2000 to Liane van der Hoven of the University of Stellenbosch who has wrote it down in her thesis “Elim : a cultural historical study of a Moravian mission station at the southern extreme of Africa”.

While drinking morning-coffee the group of Elimmers watched the Avala go down close to shore. The Elim-men saw in horror how the two lifeboats that moved away from the Avala headed for a reef, invisible to the crews. The Elimmers made a fire and hoisted a flag on some improvised poles to warn them for the dangers ahead and to direct them towards a safe landing place. Once safely on shore, the crew -instead of being grateful for their lives- treated Samuel and his companions with mistrust. They feared that the Elimmers would rob them of their belongings. Communication was an issue. Samuel stated that it was impossible to understand their language. Luckily one of the Elimmers spoke some English and so did one of the crew members. A certain level of trust was established and Samuel and his companions helped the shipwreck survivors to get their belongings to shore. Although the Avala carried coal for delivery in Rangoon, Samuel remembers how 22 barrels of wine floated ashore from the wreck.

6. City of Lincoln | 1946

Jan Fourie, famous Gansbaaier and local historian, describes in “Duskant die Duine”* how as a child he witnessed the salvaging of the City of Lincoln:
A fishing boat was used by the custom officials to transport the valuable cargo from the wreck to the settlement of Buffeljag. Apart from a cargo worth 2 million pounds, there were 13 new Dodge and Plymouth cars on board. These cars were purchased for the visit of the English Royal family that was to take place in 1947. Several of these cars had been thrown overboard. Jan remembers how many years later he spotted a car-engine in the water at the same place; the only item remaining of what should have been a proud car serving a royal visit.

Custom officials clearly did not have all under control. Jan Fourie writes how custom officials only became suspicious when domestic staff showed up at the local cinema in expensive fur-coats. A Caterpillar earth-moving machine was salvaged from the City of Lincoln and has ploughed the local fields for many years.

The propellers of two salvage ships, the Swona and the Fynd got tangled with the cables and both vessels shared the fate of the City of Lincoln and end up on the beach. Their remains can still be seen there today.

And the reason for the disaster? Simple: three of the officers on duty were drunk.

*Duskant die Duine is a collection of stories about people and events in and around Danger Point Peninsula written by Jan and his wife, SD Fourie. Duskant die Duine was first published in 2005. ISBN number 0-620-34044-4. Jan and SD also run the private Strandveld Museum on the cliffs of Franskraal. The Strandveld Museum harbors the largest collection of relics of the legendary HMT Birkenhead.

7. Esso Wheeling | wrecked 1948

In modern days, marine oil spillage is one of the main threats for seabirds. The Esso Wheeling wrecked in 1948 at the west side of Quoin Point and its oil drifted towards Dyer Island, home to 10’000ths of African penguins and other seabirds. The subsequent oil spillage killed an estimated one third of the colony of African penguins on Dyer Island. In 1952 an oil slick of unknown origin was spilled in South African waters. Bob Rand, leading South African ornithologist at the time, described this incident as follows: “Soiled penguins died on the beaches or lingered on the islands to perish of hunger. Where nesting birds were affected, chicks also died. No matter how small the contamination, the birds refused to take to the water.”

As from 1968, due to the closure of the Suez Canal, oil tankers, not designed to cope with the waters around the Capa de todos Tormentos (The Cape of all storms, as the Cape of Good Hope was firstly named) were forced to take the long route and round Cape Point. In 1968 the Esso Essen, rounded the Cape illegally within the prescribed 16 km safety zone (it was 5 km from shore) and struck an object. After the oil spillage of 4000 tonnes, thousands of sea birds were found oiled and virtually all died. After the Esso Essen incident, the Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB in short) was established. Over the years suitable facilities have been developed to deal with oiled seabirds, especially penguins. After the Esso Essen, there were 5 other oil spills that affected more than 1000 penguins. The worst incident on the South African coast was the sinking of the iron ore carrier Apolla Sea near Dassen Island, which resulted in the oiling of more than 10’000 penguins. The last oil spill that affected more than 1000 birds was off Danger Point in 1995. Still, each year, about a 1000 oiled penguins are brought to SANCCOB due to small oil spillages.

Source : Les Underhill / Avian demography unit / University of Cape Town.

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