His­toric trove buried in Ta­ble Bay

Hi-tech gad­gets are be­ing used to pin­point De Haar­lem, a ship which was grounded in Ta­ble Bay in 1647, in­flu­enc­ing the Dutch to es­tab­lish a re­fresh­ment sta­tion at Cape Town in 1652, writes JAN CRONJE

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

THE RID­DLE of the fi­nal rest­ing place of the Dutch ship De Haar­lem could be closer to be­ing solved af­ter a search party car­ried out a geo­phys­i­cal sur­vey on a stretch of beach in Blou­bergstrand this week. The Dutch East In­dia Com­pany ship ran aground in Ta­ble Bay in 1647, strand­ing half its crew for a year at Mil­ner­ton, where they es­tab­lished a “sur­vivors camp” be­fore be­ing res­cued the fol­low­ing year.

For decades the for­mer Dutch Navy diver and se­nior lec­turer in marine ar­chae­ol­ogy at UCT, Bruno Werz has been search­ing for the ship. He is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of African In­sti­tute for Marine and Un­der­wa­ter Re­search, Ex­plo­ration and Ed­u­ca­tion (Aimure).

Werz said the stretch of Blou­bergstrand where mem­bers of the in­sti­tute were search­ing prob­a­bly held the wrecks of 20 to 25 ships, now cov­ered in me­tres of shift­ing sands. But De Haar­lem was unique. “To find a wreck here is no strange event. But we are look­ing for a wreck that is spe­cial,” he said.

Werz said 62 of his 120 crew had man­aged to sur­vive a year at their camp in the dunes of Mil­ner­ton, a fact that in­flu­enced the Dutch de­ci­sion to es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent re­fresh­ment sta­tion at Cape Town in 1652.

On Wed­nes­day the team gath­ered at the Dol­phin Beach Ho­tel to start a geo­phys­i­cal sur­vey. Af­ter re­search­ing Dutch and South African ar­chives, Werz nar­rowed down the search area to a stretch of beach a few kilo­me­tres long.

The key was read­ing the jour­nals of the crew that stayed be­hind, as well as that of Jan van Riebeeck.

But the real find was an old Dutch sketch of Ta­ble Bay that pin­pointed the lo­ca­tion of the wreck, which Werz tracked down in the Dutch Na­tional Ar­chives in The Hague.

Pre­lim­i­nary sur­veys of the area had thrown up “three ma­jor con­tacts” which could be the wreck­age of the ship’s can­nons, said Werz. Wed­nes­day’s sur­vey would help pin­point sites for test ex­ca­va­tions.

Lead­ing the search was geo­physi­cist Billy Steenkamp, who strolled along the beach with a mag­ne­tome­ter – which picks up mag­netic anom­alies – on his back.

The mag­ne­tome­ter “sees a lot deeper than a metal de­tec­tor”, said Steenkamp.

The ship was wrecked with 19 can­nons and four large an­chors in its hold.

These would pro­duce strong read­ings, said Steenkamp.

“You al­most don’t need an in­stru­ment, your hair will stand on end (when you find it),” he said be­fore he started.

While some of the mag­netic anom­alies may be old buried metal pipes, Aimure hopes one will be the ship, buried un­der three to 10 me­tres of sand.

Steenkamp said the team would an­a­lyse the mag­ne­tome­ter read­ings and cre­ate charts of the area.

These would help pin­point ar­eas where test ex­ca­va­tions can start. But be­fore any dig­ging can be­gin, the team would have to un­der­take an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment.

It also needs to ap­ply for a per­mit from the the SA Her­itage Re­sources Agency.

De Haar­lem was one of a fleet of three Dutch trade ships en route from Batavia, now Jakarta, to the Dutch Repub­lic via the Cape of Good Hope when it ran aground in Ta­ble Bay.

It was car­ry­ing a cargo of Chi­nese porce­lain, guinee cloth, black pep­per and cin­na­mon from the East to Europe.

Its sis­ter ships, Witte Oli­fant and the Schiedam, con­tin­ued on up the African west coast to the Dutch Repub­lic. Werz said it was un­likely there would be trea­sure like gold sov­er­eigns for sal­vage. “It’s not the cargo, it is the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance,” he said. jan.cronje@inl.co.za


Geo­physi­cist Billy Steenkamp checks for mag­netic anom­alies on a sec­tion of beach near the Dol­phin Beach Ho­tel in Ta­ble View on Wed­nes­day.


A paint­ing of Dutch trade ship De Haar­lem run­ning aground in Ta­ble Bay in 1647, based on an ear­lier sketch.


A sketch from a Dutch East In­dia Com­pany re­port shows the sup­posed lo­ca­tion of De Haar­lem.

Steenkamp checks his in­stru­ments for signs of mag­netic anom­alies.

Bruno Werz, head of the African In­sti­tute for Marine and Un­der­wa­ter Re­search, Ex­plo­ration and Ed­u­ca­tion.

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