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
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.