LAHS talk by ex­pert backed by years of in­ves­ti­ga­tion

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con­sider just how dan­ger­ous our stretch of coast­line re­ally is.

Urquhart has long been fas­ci­nated with the ship­wrecks along this stretch of the coast and has vis­ited many of the sites, car­ried out years of in­ves­ti­ga­tion and au­thored and co-au­thored sev­eral books on the sub­ject.

As the for­mer chief pho­to­jour­nal­ist for The Her­ald, Urquhart had the op­por­tu­nity to ac­tu­ally wit­ness and take pho­to­graphs of some of the wrecks at the time they oc­curred.

His slides showed his­tor­i­cal pic­tures and records, as well as pho­to­graphs he had taken him­self.

Lynette, the edi­tor of his books, helped show the slides as Urquhart ex­plained the pic­ture’s sig­nif­i­cance.

He told the 100-plus mem­bers of the LAHS who had come to lis­ten to the talk of how, in the mid- to late-16th cen­tury, the only maps avail­able for sailors were those used by the Por­tuguese, which were not ter­ri­bly ac­cu­rate, es­pe­cially around the coast­line, and that ac­ci­dents were inevitably go­ing to hap­pen. It was not just the haz­ards of scut­tling the ships on the many rocks along the coast­line that caused prob­lems.

“There were a num­ber of dan­gers. Fire aboard ship, out on the open wa­ters, was the worst night­mare for any sailor,” he said. “But piracy and mutiny were also dan­gers the crews feared.”

Urquhart also men­tioned great waves, also known as rogue waves, that pro­duced a wall of wa­ter that could crash down on a ship and sink it.

By the mid-19th cen­tury, there was a group of peo­ple based in Port El­iz­a­beth known as the Rocket Bri­gade that would fire rock­ets to alert those on shore that an ac­ci­dent at sea was oc­cur­ring.

He ex­plained how wrecks are iden­ti­fied. Up un­til the Bri­tish ar­rived, there were no for­mal records of ship­wrecks but, in 1795, the gov­ern­ment gazette posted a ship­ping col­umn that made it eas­ier to iden­tify wrecks.

“But you must be careful as some of the data avail­able prior to the gazette are in­ac­cu­rate,” said Urquhart. “The gov­ern­ment gazette was the only author­i­ta­tive source for iden­ti­fy­ing ship­wrecks un­til the dawn of news­pa­pers and the Lloyds Regis­ter in the early 1860s.”

Urquhart showed many pic­tures of ships lost along the coast and ex­plained why hunt­ing for them was dif­fi­cult. He said that a ship might break up as it sank, and there­fore could be widely spread out on the ocean bot­tom. Added to this tides, gales and other nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena can also scat­ter wreck­age far and wide and make it dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish the lo­ca­tion of the wreck. The dearth of ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion prior to the gov­ern­ment gazette and the Lloyds Regis­ter also ham­pers in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“You might be lucky and find a ship’s bell and so iden­tify a ship that way, or you might find one of the many an­chors dis­cov­ered along the coast,” said Urquhart, who then ex­plained some of the dif­fer­ent an­chors, in­clud­ing the old Ad­mi­ralty an­chors, that help to iden­tify the ships they come from.

“These an­chors were used on ships af­ter the Por­tuguese sail­ing ships,” he said. “Of course, if you find a boiler, then this would in­di­cate it came from a wreck from a mo­torised ship.”

Urquhart has dis­cov­ered lots of wrecks off the coast­line and showed pic­tures of them, ex­plain­ing where the ships could have orig­i­nated, and thus the name of the ships, but a lack of re­li­able in­for­ma­tion in the 17th cen­tury, be­fore the gazette and regis­ter were es­tab­lished, means iden­ti­fi­ca­tion can still be a prob­lem.


SHIP­WRECK IN­VES­TI­GA­TOR: Speak­ing at the Lower Al­bany His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety meet­ing last week, for­mer The Her­ald chief pho­to­jour­nal­ist Colin Urquhart ex­plained why there are so many ship­wrecks along the Eastern Cape coast­line and why it is not al­ways easy to iden­tify them

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