LAHS talk by expert backed by years of investigation
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