Shipwrecks of the Cape Whale Coast

Notable Shipwrecks between Danger Point & Cape Agulhas

The makers of maps that show the shipwrecks along the South African coast must have struggled to deal with the coast of the Southern Overberg. Between Danger Point to the west and Cape Infanta, the outer eastern point of De Hoop Nature Reserve, about 140 shipwrecks are mapped. Most of these shipwrecks are concentrated around Cape Agulhas, Arniston and Quoin Point. 

The history of Quoin Point and its shipwrecks is closely connected to that of Elim, the Moravian mission village on the road between Baardskeerdersbos and Bredasdorp. Over the years, residents of Elim have often provided assistance to victims of shipwrecks. Accounts from 1838 already mention that men and women of Elim collected the valuable cargo of the Duke of Northumberland, a troop ship that stranded near Cape Agulhas. Of the people on board the ship only a few survived. When the Cape Agents of the shipping company arrived, they found that the 38 bodies that were washed ashore had already been interred. Food was brought in from Elim to feed the starving survivors. 

After people from Elim provided assistance at the wrecking of the Jessie in 1829 at Quoin Point, Queen Victoria granted the right to use the land at Quoin Point to residents. This was a clever move since it assured people would be present to assist shipwreck survivors at this treacherous point were shipwrecking was more the rule than the exception. Today there is still a small light-tower surrounded by some cottages owned by the Schipper- and October-families of Elim. 

Originally, Quoin Point was named Ponta de sao Brandoa by Bartolomeu Diaz when he rounded Quoin Point in 1488 on the nameday of the Irish monk St. Brendanus. Later the name changed to Quoin Point, but the locals call it Jessie se Punt (Jessie’s Point).  

Joanna | wrecked 1682 (Johanna)

The Joanna was the first English East Indiaman that wrecked on the South African coastline. She was on her way from England to the East when she stranded just east of Quoin Point. Ten people drowned but a group of 104 reached Cape Town. Rumours of a treasure on board spread through town, causing Governor Simon van der Stel to send the Dutch East India Company official Olaf Bergh to investigate. Bergh found a few bodies, which he buried, but also several bottles of brandy and wine and -more interesting for Bergh’s mission- a few hundred Spanish coins. Bergh and his group got onto the wreck of the Joanna and recovered numerous other coins before he returned to Cape Town; mission successfully accomplished. 

New world cob coinsExactly 300 years after the Joanna went down, her remains were re-discovered. Over 23’000 coins and a few hundred kilograms of silver were salvaged.  

Nicobar | wrecked 1783

A day of fishing off Quoin Point in 1987 brought good fortune for Louis Groenewald and Wilfred Chivell, both born and bred Gansbaaiers. Hanging over the side of their boat, they spotted something on the ocean floor. The dived down to check it out and found a canon and a box with money. Back in Gansbaai they realized that they had found the wreck of the Nicobar, a Danish ship with an enormous cargo of copper-plate money. The Nicobar had not been seen since it went down in 1783 taking all aboard, except 11, with her. 
Copper plate moneyLouis and Wilfred returned to the wreck and took 4 months to salvage what turned out to be the biggest find of copper-plate-money in the world.
Chivell, a conservationist, now owns Dyer Island Cruises, a company organizing whale watching boat tours from Kleinbaai, a small harbour on Danger Point Peninsula.  

Doncaster | wrecked 1836

The Doncaster was on her way from Mauritius to England when she found her premature last resting place at the mouth of the Ratel River, east of Quoin Point. There were no survivors. Local witnesses described how bodies were continually washed ashore as well as limbs and other body-parts. In one account about the incident it was stated that the local field-cornet and his men buried “38 men and boys, 18 women and one coloured woman” (Apartheid clearly, was not restricted to the 20th century).  

RMS Celt 1875

The bodies of the victims, mostly naked, were too disfigured to be identified and in a letter to the shipping agents in Cape Town it was almost apologetically mentioned that “some two or three had rings on, but their fingers were too swollen to take them off”. “A more melancholy sight is scarcely to be witnessed”, states the same account. 

A man with the name of Hans Aventure (A person likely to be of Khoi-descent since he is described as “Hottentot“, as the Dutch called the Khoi-people in imitation of their click language) witnessed the ship perish after she had been “ten or twelve days standing in and off the shore before the disaster happened, sometimes so near to shore that the voices of the crew could be heard”. 

The beach was covered with parts of the ship, uniforms of different regiments (some of the people aboard were invalid soldiers from the hospital in Mauritius, sent back to England), music-, prayer- and hymn- books. The most curious find was a box with part of a stomach of a soldier which was meant for the Chief Medical Officer in London.

Though not much of value was found amongst the items washed up, 1000 persons were present at the sale of the remains of the Doncaster. Of the proceeds of a little over R 3000, R 700 was used to pay the field cornet and other men that had patrolled the shores for weeks and another R 700 for labour and miscellaneous expenses.  

Teuton | wrecked 1881

On route from Cape Town to Port Elisabeth, the English steamer Teuton struck a rock off Quoin Point. The rock was known and charted.

Although the Teuton was making water, Captain Manning decided that the Teuton could still reach the port of Simons Town in False Bay. He ordered to man the pumps and -just in case- to ready the life boats. Not much later the propeller came out of the water and the bow went down. Manning now realized the ship could not be saved and ordered to abandon ship. Captain and crew must have made a secure and relaxed impression: the first life boat parted from the ship with a lot of laughter and cheering. The second life boat was however never launched as the Teuton suddenly and immediately went down before anyone on board could say “oops”. Captain Manning never had to answer for his deadly error; he perished with the ship together with 235 other crew and passengers. Only the 36 that made it to the first life-boat survived.  

Avala | wrecked 1938 or 1939 (sources differ)

In 1938 the 17 year old Samuel Schippers from Elim was catching fish with Herman October and other Elimmers at Quoin Point when he spotted the Avala drifting to shore. Mr. Samuel Schippers has told his story in 2000 to Liane van der Hoven of the University of Stellenbosch who has wrote it down in her thesis “Elim : a cultural historical study of a Moravian mission station at the southern extreme of Africa”. 

While drinking morning-coffee the group of Elimmers watched the Avala go down close to shore. The Elim-men saw in horror how the two lifeboats that moved away from the Avala headed for a reef, invisible to the crews. The Elimmers made a fire and hoisted a flag on some improvised poles to warn them for the dangers ahead and to direct them towards a safe landing place. Once safely on shore, the crew -instead of being grateful for their lives- treated Samuel and his companions with mistrust. They feared that the Elimmers would rob them of their belongings. Communication was an issue. Samuel stated that it was impossible to understand their language. Luckily one of the Elimmers spoke some English and so did one of the crew members. A certain level of trust was established and Samuel and his companions helped the shipwreck survivors to get their belongings to shore. Although the Avala carried coal for delivery in Rangoon, Samuel remembers how 22 barrels of wine floated ashore from the wreck.  

Avala ship

City of Lincoln | 1946

Jan Fourie, famous Gansbaaier and local historian, describes in “Duskant die Duine”* how as a child he witnessed the salvaging of the City of Lincoln: 

Dodge carA fishing boat was used by the custom officials to transport the valuable cargo from the wreck to the settlement of Buffeljag. Apart from a cargo worth 2 million pounds, there were 13 new Dodge and Plymouth cars on board. These cars were purchased for the visit of the English Royal family that was to take place in 1947. Several of these cars had been thrown overboard. Jan remembers how many years later he spotted a car-engine in the water at the same place; the only item remaining of what should have been a proud car serving a royal visit.1946 Plymouth car

Custom officials clearly did not have all under control. Jan Fourie writes how custom officials only became suspicious when domestic staff showed up at the local cinema in expensive fur-coats. A Caterpillar earth-moving machine was salvaged from the City of Lincoln and has ploughed the local fields for many years. 

The propellers of two salvage ships, the Swona and the Fynd got tangled with the cables and both vessels shared the fate of the City of Lincoln and end up on the beach. Their remains can still be seen there today.  

And the reason for the disaster? Simple: three of the officers on duty were drunk.  

*Duskant die Duine is a collection of stories about people and events in and around Danger Point Peninsula written by Jan and his wife, SD Fourie. Duskant die Duine was first published in 2005. ISBN number 0-620-34044-4. Jan and SD also run the private Strandveld Museum on the cliffs of Franskraal. The Strandveld Museum harbours the largest collection of relics of the legendary HMT Birkenhead. 

Esso Wheeling | wrecked 1948

In modern days, marine oil spillage is one of the main threats for seabirds. The Esso Wheeling wrecked in 1948 at the west side of Quoin Point and its oil drifted towards Dyer Island, home to 10’000s of African penguins and other seabirds. The subsequent oil spillage killed an estimated one third of the colony of African penguins on Dyer Island. In 1952 an oil slick of unknown origin was spilled in South African waters. Bob Rand, leading South African ornithologist at the time, described this incident as follows: “Soiled penguins died on the beaches or lingered on the islands to perish of hunger. Where nesting birds were affected, chicks also died. No matter how small the contamination, the birds refused to take to the water.”

Esso Wheeling

As from 1968, due to the closure of the Suez Canal, oil tankers, not designed to cope with the waters around the Capa de todos Tormentos (The Cape of all storms, as the Cape of Good Hope was firstly named) were forced to take the long route and round Cape Point. In 1968 the Esso Essen, rounded the Cape illegally within the prescribed 16 km safety zone (it was 5 km from shore) and struck an object. After the oil spillage of 4000 tonnes, thousands of sea birds were found oiled and virtually all died. After the Esso Essen incident, the Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB in short) was established. Over the years suitable facilities have been developed to deal with oiled seabirds, especially penguins. After the Esso Essen, there were 5 other oil spills that affected more than 1000 penguins. The worst incident on the South African coast was the sinking of the iron ore carrier Apolla Sea near Dassen Island, which resulted in the oiling of more than 10’000 penguins. The last oil spill that affected more than 1000 birds was off Danger Point in 1995. Still, each year, about a 1000 oiled penguins are brought to SANCCOB due to small oil spillages.

Source : Les Underhill / Avian demography unit / University of Cape Town.

Le Centaur | wrecked 1750

Le Centaur was a French ship carrying 300 crew, 100 passengers and a cargo which consisted solely of “peppercorns”. She was commanded by Captain Monsieur de la Butte and bound from Mauritius to France, when on the 19th January 1750, she ran aground a little west of Cape Agulhas in fine weather.

Quote: “All would have been well had the Captain kept his head, but a few hasty decisions led to faulty manoeuvres. Before he quite realized the risks he was incurring, his ship was caught in an inshore current and carried ashore, grounding gently on a sandy bottom, the succeeding waves pushing her in further, until she was so tightly held that the men labouring in the boats could not haul her off again. The order to abandon ship brought the 400 people, including several woman and children, crowding to the side. In an orderly fashion they jumped down, or were lifted down, to the beach in safety. They were several days trek from the Castle, but to attempt that heart-breaking journey was preferable to camping on the beach in the remote hope of eventual deliverance from the sea.
Lines of seamen passed the bags and barrels in which provisions and water were taken from the ship to dump on the beach. As the last man leaped from the canting deck, the captain gathered the people and spoke of the ordeal before them and of the need for faith and courage so that at last they might arrive safely. He portioned out the supplies, each according to what he could carry. 
Thus burdened, the trekkers started hopefully, along a coast of precipitous cliffs, resounding river mouths and wide loose beaches, a distance of a few hundred miles that in the absence of even elementary footpaths became a torture of the damned even for tough seamen, let alone for the pitifully faltering women and children. So passed the days of agony, of bleeding feet, blistered heels and torn, weary limbs, days of depleted rations and little water, of hot sun and stinging wind, until finally there was nothing to eat and drink and the Cape still far away. The weak dropped out to die their lonely, neglected deaths on the bitter trail. But when at last news of the wreck reached the Castle, relief wagons were hurried out to pick up the survivors.” 

Aqua Exploration discovered the “Le Centaur” wreck-site in 1984 while searching for another treasure ship named the “Nossa Senhora dos Milagros“. Until positive identification could be established, they drew up a site plan and started with the excavation using their Blower for the sand removal. Their main artefacts for identification came in the form of a huge bell and a small corroded coin. After a couple of weeks a coin expert identified the coin to be a French “Double Sol” which dated the wreck between 1738 and 1770. The bell belonged to a Jesuit Priest. As the Blower removed the overburden sand, so peppercorns were seen everywhere. Charles looked up in his records and came across the French ship named Le Centaur 1750 and on doing further research, found out that her cargo consisted solely of “peppercorns!” Other artefacts found were complete wine “onion” bottles, a gold earring, parts of a pig’s skeleton which had parts of a wooden cage around it and shards of thick porcelain.

HMS Birkenhead | wrecked 1852

HMS BirkenheadIn January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond RN, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth conveying troops from ten different regiments, including the 74th Regiment of Foot and Queen’s Royal Regiment, to the 8th Xhosa War (then called the “Kaffir War”) against the Xhosa in South Africa. On 5 January she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland and conveyed some officers’ wives and families.
On 23 February 1852 Birkenhead docked briefly at Simonstown, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses, several bales of hay and 35 tons of coal were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.

She sailed from Simon’s Bay at 06:00 on 25 February 1852 with between 630 and 643 men, women, and children aboard, the number being in some doubt. In order to make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course that was generally within 3 miles (4.8 km) of the shore. Using her paddle wheels she maintained a steady speed of 8.5 knots (15.7 km/h). The sea was calm and the night was clear as she left False Bay and headed east.

Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February, when she was travelling at 8 knots (15 km/h), the leadsman made soundings of 12 fathoms (22 m). Before he could take another sounding she struck an uncharted rock, with 2 fathoms (3.7 m) of water beneath her bows and 11 fathoms (20 m) at her stern. The rock lies near Danger Point. Barely submerged, it is clearly visible in rough seas, but it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions.
Captain Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths.

The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers’ orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps, and sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, while the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were placed in the ship’s cutter, which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them.
The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers.

Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice: The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon

Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.

Just before she sank, Salmond called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”. Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore.

The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure or were taken by sharks.

Other Shipwrecks

“(British steel screw ship, 1850 tons, built in 1890), en route from Glasgow to Mauritius; cargo: government stores, explosives and railway material; struck a sunken wreck and sank 2,5 km off Brandfontein, 28/02/1895.”  (Eastern Province Herald, 2/03/1892; Lloyds Register of Shipping, 1891-92)

“(British wooden barque, 338 tons, built in 1836), en route from Adelaide to Swansea and London; cargo:  338 tons of copper ore and 181 bales of wool;  wrecked on a reef east of Ratel River, 5/05/1853; 6 survivors and a few crew members, 5 passengers and one crew member survived.”   (Cape Town Mail, 14, 17/05/1853; Lloyds Register of Shipping, 1853-54; Shipping Register, Cape Archives, C.C. 2/18)

“(British vessel, 250 tons, built in 1811), en route from Port Jackson to London;    cargo:  wool and grain oil; wrecked near Ratel River after catching fire and abandoned on 4/6/1822; no lives were lost.” (Cape archives, C.O. 2640 No 53)

(British wooden barque, 404 tons, built 1843), en route from Calcutta to London; cargo:  indigo, rice, sugar and silk; run ashore on a sandy beach close to the Ratel River mouth, 13/06/1850. (Cape Town Mail, 15/06/1850; Lloyds Register of Shipping, 1850-51; Shipping Register, Cape Archives, C.C. 2/17)

(Italian barque, 977 tons), en route from Singapore to Falmouth; cargo: rice and rattans; wrecked on a reef in front of the Ratel River, 19/06/1882; 15 survivors. (Cape Argus, 3, 5/07/1882; Shipping Register, Cape Archives, C.C. 3/7/2/3)

(British iron barque, 1022 tons, built 1863), en route from Manilla to New York; cargo:     17 424 bags of sugar, 355 000 cigars, 43 cases of pearl shells, 128 bales of hides,    5070 bales of  hemp or jute; wrecked in vicinity of the Ratel River, 13/12/1872,    (Rietfontein strand); all on board survived, total unknown. (Lloyds Register of Shipping, 1872-73; Shipping Register, Cape Archives, C.C. 3/7//2/2)

(American barque, 926 tons), en route Robalingo to Falmouth; cargo: sugar; wrecked 24 km west of Cape Agulhas near the Ratel River, 4/04/1877; no lives were lost. (Shipping Register, Cape Archives, C.C. 3/7/2/2)

Otori Maru 8
Japanese fishing trawler grounded at Shell point, Bantamsklip in 1984. Wrecked in dense fog. Still visible

Un Hung  Taiwanese fishing vessel 1989  Hall bay Pearly beach. Still visible


Seven shipwrecks surround Danger Point Peninsula and 140 wrecks are dotted along the shores between Danger Point and Cape Infanta. Yet Danger Point was given the most impressive name. Perhaps it is an applicable name for the spot where the legendary “Flying Dutchman” was first seen. Local historian SD Fourie has recorded the story of the unfortunate Captain van der Decken:

The Flying Dutchman

Ghost ship“……..the captain is driving his ship mercilessly off the Cape in heavy weather. Sails are lost, decks are flooded, and the seamen beseech him to give up the attempt to round the Cape. Van der Decken lashes himself to the wheel and carries on, swearing that even God will not force him to change his mind. His blasphemous oath is heard. Out of the dark and ominous sky falls a brilliant shaft of light, and the Holy Ghost steps on to the deck. Van der Decken draws a pistol from his belt and fires. His arm falls withered at his side, and the Holy Ghost delivers sentence: “You have defied the wrath of God, and now you will sail these seas until the end of time. You will know thirst and hunger, but never will you know calm seas again. Henceforward you will bring misfortune to all who sight you.”

Captain Owen, R.N., who charted long stretches of the South African Coast, declared that he saw the flying Dutchman. The encounter appears in the logbook of H.M.S. Leven, dated 6 April, 1823. Owen was near Danger Point and bound for Simon’s Bay when he thought he saw his consort, H.M.S. Barracouta. This appearance surprised him as Barracouta had been ordered elsewhere. The Leven did not attempt to make close contact. When she reached Simons’s Bay she waited for a week before the Barracouta arrived. They compared log-books, and it was found that the two naval ships were three hundred miles apart when Owen intercepted the mystery ship.

Far more famous was the encounter near Danger Point witnessed by Prince Albert Victor and Prince George of Wales, later King George V. The young princes were both midshipmen, cruising in H.M.S. Bachante. The meeting was entered in the log-book as follows:
“July 11, 1881. During the middle-watch the so called Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. She first appeared as a strange red light, as of a ship aglow, in the midst of which light her masts, spars and sails, seemingly those of a normal brig, some two hundred yards distant from us, stood out in long relief as she came up.” The report in the log-book went on, describing the ship in the smallest detail. Thirteen people saw the ghost-ship, but whether it was the Flying Dutchman or one of the other few alleged phantom ships which are reputed to haunt this area, must remain unknown.

London newspapers in 1911 published a message describing an American whaler off the Cape that had almost collided with a sailing ship believed to be the Flying Dutchman. Cape Town papers early in 1939 described a queer experience in False Bay, when people on the beaches saw a sailing ship beating up towards Muizenberg. It seemed that the ship would run into the breakers, but just before reaching the shallows she vanished. They all swore they had seen the Flying Dutchman.

Koen Kano, the baron Von Münchhausen of Gansbaai, was one of the best storytellers in the Strandveld. He used to tell that he met Captain Van der Decken and his fateful ship while fishing off Dyer Island. He thought they might like to have some fish and approached the ship. Van der Decken asked him to fetch anybody in Gansbaai who could beat him at swearing. Maybe such a man could help him round the Cape of Storms. Koen fetched a well known fisherman, full of grog at the local bar and between the two of them they helped the Flying Dutchman round the Cape. “For keeps. That devil would not dare to fish again in Gansbaai seas!” said Koen. (Almost forgotten, never told, Lawrence G. Green. Wisselstrale oor die Strandveld, Jan Fourie.)