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Ship wrecks – reminder of ancient times

Avatar of inke inke - 26. December 2017 - Discover Namibia

The wreck of the "Eduard Bohlen" that was stranded in 1909 in thick fog. More than 100 years later it is situated several hundred meters away from the sea shore in the Namib Desert. (Anagoria 2011, Wikimedia)

Brigitte Weidlich

The sun penetrates the mist, aided by the wind, the sky becomes visible. The cold and harsh wind hits the windbreakers of the small tourist group. The angry sea throws its waves against the rusty metal ship wreck stuck between huge rocks. “It is quite scary here at the wreck,” says a young woman. “It must have been horrible for those shipwrecked here at the Skeleton Coast, meeting their death.” The tour guide silently points at white bones, half exposed by the ever shifting sands. The tourists walk in the deep sand back to the vehicle parked near the beach…

Fascinating history 

Many people worldwide are fascinated by ship wrecks. Finding wrecks and their debris on beaches are a direct link to long forgotten times. It is like directly touching history. The shipping route from Europe to the Cape of Good Hope along Africa’s southern most point to India and Asia – discovered some 500 years ago – brought a lot of traffic. Many sailing ships of different nations travelled this route past Namibia. Accidents happened, stormy seas and hash winds led to shipwrecks. They were either stranded on beaches, sank or were smashed and shattered by rocks. Still today, waves along Namibian beaches uncover antique coins, porcelain shards and drift wood from wrecks. Strong winds lay bare old anchors and remnants of thick ropes.  

The Namibian coast stretches along 1,600 km from the Orange River in the south to the Kunene River in the north. The Namib Desert forms the natural eastern border of the harsh Skeleton Coast. 

Those who think only Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch sailing ships used the Cape route to India and Asia, are wrong. The Phoenicians and the Chinese are said to have already known this passage way. In 1421, some fifty Chinese ships sailed from east to west past the Cape of Good Hope, says Gunter von Schumann, a Namibian expert in maritime archaeology. Von Schumann’s fascination for shipwrecks along the Namibian coast made him an expert over the years. He researches their history in international archives and he co-founded a working group on local shipwrecks.

“The Chinese Fleet sailed as far as the Cape Verde islands, research has proven”, says Von Schumann. “Scientists and lay archaeologists alike show great interest in shipwrecks here, apart from the sensational find of a fully loaded Portuguese shipwreck in 2008.”

Whaling and guano harvesting 

From 1780 onwards North-American whaling ships came to Namibia to hunt. The name ‘Walvis Bay’ for Namibia’s largest port was created in those days. Sometimes up to 40 ships were counted hunting for whales. They replenished their fresh water reserves at Sandwich Harbour, a spot south of Walvis Bay. They and Dutch ships acquired fresh produce form the Topnaar people of Khoi-San origin. In 1804 the whaling ship Hope capsized at Sandwich Harbour. The Hope originated from Salem near New Bedford in the US State of Massachusetts. In 1846 the American Whaler from Salem had a similar fate south of Walvis Bay.

In 1844 the big international rush for guano began. Guano is faeces from seabirds and till today is a highly sought after fertiliser. Ships from the United Kingdom and the USA made good money with Namibian guano, which was removed with shovels from the small islands. The list of ships that capsized between 1845 and 1850 in front of the small Ichaboe Island is long with interesting names like Ann of Bristol, Kate, Daphne, Ann Mondell, Orion and Lord Keane.  

The Bom Jesus

In 2008 Namibian diamond miners of Namdeb, a De Beers subsidiary, discovered a wooden shipwreck, some 480 years old, believed to be a Portuguese trading ship, probably the Bom Jesus. The site is near the beach in the vicinity of Oranjemund. The sensation was perfect as it still carried its full load. Some 2,500 gold and silver coins were found, copper balls for ballast with stamps of the Nuremberg Fugger trade company; ivory, guns and canons. News of the remarkable, quite accidental find made international headlines, Spanish and Portuguese archaeologists arrived and jointly uncovered the treasures with local experts. The wreck is the oldest found – fully loaded - along the African coast south of the Sahara. In their book The sunken treasures of the Bom Jesus, Wolfgang Knabe and Dieter Noli describe in detail the 7000 artefacts unearthed at the site. The gold and silver coins are kept at Namibia’s central bank. 

The Bom Jesus sailed in 1533 from Lisbon, Portugal and was to sail around the Cape to India. “It is however not [yet] proven with absolute certainty that this ship is the Bom Jesus”, says Gunter von Schumann, “many pointers indicate that it could well be this particular ship.”

The Vlissingen                                                              

Some 180km south of Walvis Bay in a hidden bay in an inaccessible beach area rests a Dutch shipwreck for nearly 300 years now. Only now and then a rare expedition disturbs it at Meob Bay. Those lucky enough who were there, report of some antique coins, called “doits” washed up on the beach. These copper coins bear the letters “VOC” (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie” – Unified East-Indian Company). The Dutch VOC existed from 1602 until 1799 and traded with India and Asia. In 1652 it started a storage station at the Cape of Good Hope, today’s Cape Town. One of the VOC’s ships called “Vlissingen” probably capsized in 1747 at Meob Bay, according to Bruno Werz. He wrote an article about it in the Journal of Namibian Studies, 2008. Werz led an expedition to Meob Bay. About 900 copper “doits” engraved with VOC were found there, many of them bearing their manufacturing year of 1746. Research proved they were coined that year in Middelburg, Netherlands.        

German ships  

On 5 September 1909 the German ship Eduard Bohlen stranded in misty weather at Conception Bay along the Namibian coast. It was on its way to Cape Town. It could not be rescued, though all passengers and crew plus most of the cargo could be saved. About eight German ships found their end on Namibian shores.

During World War II, British ships were allegedly scared for German submarines in the area, there are sailors’ tales of such incidents, but unproven. It is said however, that the Captain of the ship Dunedin Star was scared of German submarines. He steered the ship too close to the northern coastline on 29 November 1942. A rock rammed a gaping hole into the ship, it landed on a sand bank. A very costly rescue operation had to be set in motion.   

Two museums planned

At Lüderitz, Namibia’s second port, the old power station of the German colonial times is undergoing a total revamp. Its future purpose will be among others to host a shipping museum. The main driver of this project is Dr Angel Tordesillas, former Managing Director of the Spanish fishing group Pescanova with fish factories at Lüderitz and in Cape Town. The energetic octogenarian owns the largest private collection of (sailing) ship models worldwide! “I will donate my collection to this new museum to make it accessible to the broader public”, says Tordesillas.

Just 200 km south at Oranjemund another museum is planned – for the Bom Jesus to showcase its many treasures. Since 21 October 1917 the former isolated diamond town in the Sperrgebiet is open to the public. By latest 2022, all diamond mining on land around Oranjemund will end. Oranjemund is carving out a new future. From 2022 onwards the gravel road between Lüderitz and Oranjemund via Chameis will be open to the public, if all goes well.  

This is good news for those interested in ships and shipwrecks.

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