Witness to the sinking of the Brig Tilly - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Witness to the sinking of the Brig Tilly

Avatar of inke inke - 05. February 2016 - Discover Namibia

The brig Tilly under full sail. Source: Lüderitz Museum

It was in April 1884 that Ludwig Conradt, a Berlin specialist for water drilling, heard about the ‘ventures of Lüderitz’ for the first time. Adolf Lüderitz, a merchant of Bremen, was determined to establish a German colony in the south-western parts of Africa. Conradt was thrilled by the idea and offered his services to Lüderitz. Subsequently he wrote down his experiences which were later published as ‘Recollections of a trader and farmer living 20 years in German South West Africa’. 

In 1883 Adolf Lüderitz laid the foundation for the colonization of South West Africa. He instructed his employee, Heinrich Vogelsang, to meet Nama Captain Josef Frederiks and acquire from him a small bay, which had been named Angra Pequeña by the early Portuguese seafarers, as well as the land surrounding it at a radius of five miles. The deal was sealed with 100 Pounds Sterling in gold and 200 rifles plus accessories. In August of the same year Vogelsang also bought the entire coastal strip between the Orange River mouth and 26 degrees of latitude, extending 20 miles inland, on behalf of the company F.A.E. Lüderitz for another 500 Pounds and 60 rifles. The German flag was hoisted at Angra Pequeña on 7 August 1884.  

As it turned out, colonial enthusiast Ludwig Conradt got to play only a minor role in the development of the German colony of South West Africa. When he learnt that a settlement had been started at Angra Pequeña he wrote to Lüderitz and offered his help. He had to wait several months before Lüderitz asked him to come to Bremen for an interview, after which he was indeed hired to drill for water in South West Africa. Later Conradt made a name for himself in the German colony, not only as a trader but also because of his humorous attitude towards life and his fellow men.

But back to Conradt who was on his way to Bremen to introduce himself to Lüderitz: He arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning when nobody was at work yet. As he had to wait for two hours he fortified himself with two bottles of wine. “After all”, he wrote later, “it’s no trifle to travel to Africa and face an uncertain future”. 

Lüderitz and Conradt signed a contract and started with the preparations. Staff was hired and drilling equipment was bought, including a ram drilling machine which became the first one to be brought to Africa. 

On 15 October 1884 everything was ready for departure and Conradt boarded the Tilly, a two-master brig. Her heavy cargo consisted mainly of tools, weapons, gunpowder and dynamite. They had 101 days at sea ahead of them, and for the first quarter of the trip they battled against a storm in the North Sea. More than once Conradt thought that his end had come. He conquered his fear and the monotony of the sea voyage with various bottles of red wine of which Lüderitz had provided a generous supply. 

“From the day on which we sighted Land’s End, the furthest south-westerly headland in Britain, we played skat non-stop from early morning until late at night. A helmsman was on duty on deck, while the captain, the other helmsman and I were on card duty in the cabin. I won against all of them. Regrettably we never tallied the score because the scorebook was irretrievably lost....”

On the morning of 1 February 1885 Conradt had his coffee when he suddenly heard the cry ‘surf ahead’. The Tilly had made it to the coast slightly south of Angra Pequeña, just as captain Teschmann had intended. Entering the bay was difficult and only possible from the south. Early in the morning the coast was still covered by thick fog and the Tilly cruised close to the shore until the fog cleared. But when the brig finally sailed into the islands off the coast, the wind suddenly started to die down. The captain did not want to take chances and ordered “ready to drop anchor”. He planned to wait for the south-westerly wind which would spring up later. Right then a light northerly wind came up and the captain decided to sail on. 

“‘Good by [sic], Tilly, now the ship is lost,’ said José Sebastiani, the coxswain, (...) who knew the wind conditions very well and happened to stand next to me. How right he was. It was too late to drop anchor because the current had already taken us too close to the shore, the breath of northerly wind had come and gone and – rrrr... we slowly glided onto the rocks.”

Captain Teschmann and his crew tried everything to get the Tilly afloat again and save her. Conradt also helped as best he could. He stood at the helm, trying to hold the ship steady, until he was completely exhausted. But the Tilly was stuck. Conradt recalls that Captain Teschmann told him all he could do now was to attempt to take the ship to a sandy spot nearby for salvaging part of the cargo. He had to carry out his duty to the utmost, the captain said. To which Conradt replied, “I also have to attend to my duty, I have to go to the cabin now and fortify myself, I can’t take it anymore.” 

Conradt went down to the cabin, where the water was already ankle-deep, and finished one-and-a-half bottles of red wine. Then he returned to the deck. In the meantime a boat had been dispatched from Angra Pequeña. Captain Teschmann decided that Conradt should be taken ashore with various important documents, such as the ship’s papers, and the chronometer. 

Conradt had almost reached the beach when he noticed that the Tilly came free from the rocks. She was lifted by a wave but was smashed onto the reef again. The rudder broke and the ship drifted out to sea. The captain tried in vain to keep her on course with the sails. The Tilly sank 15 nautical miles off the coast, taking her entire cargo with her. She is still there today. The crew made it safely ashore in lifeboats.

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