The Shipwreck That Gave Birth to South Africa

Jan 15, 2020 0 comments

On 16 January 1647, a fleet of three Dutch ships—the Nieuwe Haerlem, the Olifant and the Schiedam—left Batavia, which is now Jakarta, for the return voyage to The Netherlands. The ships were richly loaded with cargo from the East. En route, the ships encountered a storm and got separated from each other. Now alone, the Nieuwe Haerlem reached Table Bay, on 25 March 1647, where it became stranded on the shallow water.

Because the cargo was precious, mostly spices, textile, Chinese porcelain and indigo, the captain of the Nieuwe Haerlem ordered a junior merchant, Leendert Janszen, to remain behind with approximately 60 crewmen to look after the cargo until a larger fleet could give them and their cargo a lift back home.

Dutch East India Company fleet

A 17th century oil painting by an unknown artist depicting a fleet belonging to the Dutch East India Company returning from Batavia.

The stranded crew established a camp among the sand dunes on the shore, and using salvaged wood built a small fort which they named Zandenburch, or “Sandcastle” in English. The men lived off fish caught along the Diep River, and penguins, penguin eggs and cormorants caught on the nearby Robben Island. They bartered livestock and fresh meat from the indigenous KhoiKhoi. They also grew vegetables.

Janszen and his men stayed on the Cape for about a year, before they were taken aboard by a homeward-bound fleet.

Back in The Netherlands, Janszen wrote a feasibility report called Remonstrantie to VOC or the Dutch East India Company, in which he recommended that a supply station be founded on the Cape where ships could resupply before sailing onto India. In this report Janszen pointed out the Cape’s strategic location, the fertility of the land, the abundance of fish and livestock, the availability of timber necessary for repairs, and most importantly, the friendliness of the locals towards strangers.

The Directorate of the Dutch East India Company approved the plan, and in 1652, sent Jan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck, who was on the fleet that repatriated Janszen and his crew, to establish the refreshment station at the Cape. On 6 April 1652, five ships sailed into what would later become Cape Town.

arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Table Bay,

A romanticized depiction of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Table Bay, by Charles Davidson Bell.

In time, the Cape became home to a large population of “Free Burghers”, or free citizens. They were former company employees who received permission to retire in Dutch territories overseas as independent farmers. As their numbers swelled, the settlers ventured further and further inland. Farmland grew and hands became short, and the Dutch traders imported thousands of slaves to the fledgling colony from Indonesia, Madagascar, and parts of eastern Africa. The colonist gradually acquired all of the land belonging to the indigenous Khoikhoi people by raging war against them. Aside from warfare, many tribesmen died from epidemics brought by the Europeans. A few remaining tribes maintained their independence, but the majority of the Khoikhoi took jobs with the colonists as herdsmen.

After the British invasion of Cape Colony at the turn of the 19th century, the Dutch settlers abandoned their land and migrated into the interior of South Africa where they established the Boer settlements. The discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 19th century intensified British efforts to gain control over the indigenous peoples, leading to a series of wars with the Boers. The immediate outcome of these wars was the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire and the predecessor to the present-day South Africa. However, it wasn’t until 1961, that South Africa became full independent republic.

 view of Cape Town city centre, with Table Mountain

View of Cape Town with Table Mountain in the distance. Photo: Andrea Willmore/

The Shipwreck

Dr. Bruno Werz, a Dutch marine archaeologist in the African Institute for Marine & Underwater Research, has been looking for the wreck of the Nieuwe Haerlem for the past three decades, since he moved to South Africa from his homeland. From the state archives, he found several documents, including Leendert Janszen’s journal which he kept during his stay at Cape Tow after the wreck. The journal provided Werz great detail about the hardships the men faced, as well as clues as to the exact location of the wreck.

In 2016, Werz teamed up with geophysicist Billy Steenkamp and began searching the area he believes the wreck lies in. Excavations of the site yielded several objects belonging to more recent shipwrecks, as well as hand-forged nails of an older date. He also found a necklace made from copper, which Werz thinks was crafted by the KhoiKhoi people and possibly bartered with the Nieuw Haarlem survivors.

Werz believes the ship lies underneath the intertidal beach, or in very shallow water at the foot of the beach close to Rietvlei. Although there are dozens of ships wrecked near Table Bay, Werz is positive that the Haerlem can be identified based on its location and by the fact that its hull was not fitted with copper sheeting.

“The ultimate proof will be the discovery of the 19 iron cannon and four iron anchors that were left behind in the hold,” he beamed.

# BBC,
# Searching for a symbolic shipwreck in Table Bay: Haarlem (1647),
# South African History Online,


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