Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Discovery of the Sacramento

Of all the ships which were wrecked along the Port Elizabeth and adjacent coastline, only two were noteworthy but for different reasons. Of the two, the saga of the Sacramento’s sinking on 30 June 1647 culminated in two stirring tales. One involved the dramatic 1400km trek by the survivors to the Portuguese Port at Delagoa Bay. The second and equally dramatic saga is that of the subsequent discovery and recovery of the numerous cannons by a local diver, David Allen.

Both make for compelling stories but as this is a potted history of Port Elizabeth, the focus will be squarely fixed on the latter escapade.

Main picture: David Allen-left-with Gerry van Niekerk making notes of the most perfectly presevered of the 40 guns lifted from the wreck site.

David would be introduced to the charms of the sea by his father, an ex-merchant navy seaman. This interest grew into underwater diving using elementary items such as snorkel and flippers. David rapidly graduated to using an aqualung and wet suit. In 1972, David, like all other South African boys of that period, had to undergo National Service. Fortunately he served it in the South African Navy. After completion of his service as a national serviceman, as they were known, he met Gerry van Niekerk with whom he forged a lasting friendship. It was during this period that David’s interest was piqued in the nascent pioneering field of marine archaeology as opposed to the more prosaic salvage diving.

Portuguese map of South African coast line

For David, diving had merely been a hobby, with his job at a tyre manufacturing plant providing the pecuniary wherewithal to pursue his external interests. It was a severe car accident which was to change his life’s priorities irreparably. David had suffered indeterminate brain damage which left him continually drowsy. Having established that this injury was permanent and irreversible, David refocused his life. Instead of skulking around at home or in bed, he would focus on marine archaeology. But there was an imposing caveat and impediment. With his existing ailment, he would require a partner in all his underwater expeditions. Who would spring to mind but his diving companion Gerry van Niekerk. The basis of this partnership would be that David would perform all the research using Alf Porter of the Port Elizabeth Library and the harbour engineer, Hans Huisman, as references.

A badly corroded gun hangs as the crew prepare to heave it onboard

It was one such discussion with Hans Huisman about the illusive “Gordon’s wreck” which piqued David’s interest. Gordon’s wreck referred to a wreck marked on a hand-drawn map, sketched by Colonel Robert Gordon, a Dutch explorer, soldier, artist, naturalist and linguist of Scottish descent and who commanded the Cape garrison between 1780 and 1795. This map was compiled in 1778 after Gordon had discovered skeletal remains as well as two rusty anchors and a single cannon. From the map, it was clear that the wreck, if it was the Sacramento, lay west of Schoenmakerskop but east of Sardinia Bay. Confounding this theory, was the wreck of the Zeepaard which was in the vicinity.

Sometime during the mid-1960s, the McCleland clan, about 20 or so of us, trudged along the beach from Sardinia Bay towards Schoenmakerskop. Our feet sank into the soft yellow sand as the assortment of demijohns of water, tarpaulins, blankets, pots and primus stoves weighed us down.

On the morning of 29 January 1977, David and Gerry loaded down not with household equipment but diving gear, were making that self-same journey to the same destination: Gordon’s Beach. Upon arrival, the McCleland clan erected their bivouacs from the tarpaulins and made cooking fires whereas the Allen – Van Niekerk team were more interested in putting on their diving gear and getting into the water whereas the McClelands focused on having fun in the water and on the beach.

The plan of the diving team was to swim 100 yards apart parallel to the shoreline ensuring that the water depth was at least 15 feet. In their favour was the clarity of the water which allowed visibility to the sea floor. What they were not aware of would also work to their advantage. Being located in the sea sand and not amongst the rocks, the accretion of sea creatures such as mussels, sea weed and urchins on the metal had not occurred as the sea sand acted as sand paper continually cleaning the bronze like Brasso. It was that glint from the shiny bronze barrel which alerted David to the location of a barrel. Lying on a huge bed of sea sand was a 330-year-old barrel glinting bright gold in the filtered sunlight. David spat out his snorkel, raised his head and yelled for Gerry.

A heavy naval gun covered in a crustacean known locally as red bait

En route to an incoherent David, Gerry too was startled when a glint from the seabed caught his eye. After the briefest of examination, Gerry realised that he too had discovered a cannon. Elated, the two men were too overjoyed to formulate a clear plan of action. As so often happens, all the schemes, plans and stratagems had revolved around step one: finding the item. Regaining their composure, they swam out to sea. As they did so, in a classical zigzag pattern, they discovered one cannon after the other, all in a straight line out to the depths. They cast aside such banalities such as their safety in this dangerous cove. In total, they were to count a total of twenty-one cannons on that day, a probable world record. From elation, they now berated themselves for not bringing their cameras along to record this auspicious occasion, but more importantly, the precise location of these guns. That would have to wait for the following day.

Overawed by their pioneering finding, the duo probably had little sleep that night as they pondered the unthinkable. The flimsy evidence and the bewildering palette of possibilities, percolated through their minds, hindering the sandman from casting his sleep potion into their eyes. Was it really the wreck of the Sacramento or was it an unknown lesser vessel? By morning, the weather had deteriorated. A south-easter was blowing which would churn up the sea floor. Without the veracity of their find being determined scientifically, they were certain that it could only be the Portuguese man-o-war. The evidence tallied with Feyo’s description of the wreck. He noted that the fatal wave struck the vessel a considerable distance offshore and it “quickly went to pieces”. However the bow was carried ashore on the succeeding wave so that some of those who had remained in the prow, had escaped ashore by clinging to the yard and other pieces of timber. All indications were that they had found the Sacramento. If so, the contours of their lives would veer dramatically off course.

The imponderables of the salvage operation
It was now time to lay the groundwork for this operation and possibly many more to come. The problems faced to salvage these cannons, appeared to be insurmountable. David had little or no money, no boat and crucially, no idea how to lift what was estimated to be two to three tons of cannon apiece. As regarding the salvage operation, lifting the cannons would require a powerful yet fast boat, small enough to reverse right into the dangerous surf line.

Gerry van Niekerk cleans the ornate touch hole on a cannon sold to the PE museum

David also registered that the standard technique of using lifting bags was out of the question. In utilising this modus operandi, these bags are attached to a wire strop. While underwater, they were then filled with air from a compressed air supply, so that they rose to the surface carrying the object with them. As the co-authors state in their book, The Guns of the Sacraento, The possible dangerous “consequences of this approach were too ghastly to contemplate. David could imagine the hefty cannon breaking free from the vacuum of the sea floor, only to lash out in all directions as it did so. As it swung violently and uncontrollably , any diver supervising the salvage was, at best, likely to be injured. Moreover, simultaneously the cannon was also either being sucked inshore or offshore as the waves alternatively rushed in and then receded”.

Distilling all the lessons learnt in diving, the marine environment and salvage operations and grounded in the realities of the situation, David posited an unconventional yet unique solution. Instead of lifting the cannons directly out of the water, the cannons would be released from the vacuum of the sand by dragging it forward and then lifting them off the surface. They would then be dumped in deeper water together with the other cannons. By bifurcating the task of removing the gun from the glutinous sand and lifting the object into the vessel, David had conquered the enormity and hazards of the task. In a bare-knuckled fight, David had been victorious.

Embracing the Scout’s maxim, “Be prepared”, David spent considerable time reviewing the boats and crews at his disposal. As Geoffrey Allen noted, “There are usually few boats of substance in Port Elizabeth harbour, and those that are there, tend to be full-time fishing trawlers which cannot be hired. The choice therefore rapidly narrowed to one, the thirty-five-foot, twin-engined, single-hulled pleasure cruiser, Marlin, owned and skippered by Arthur Perry.”

Gerry van Niekerk inspects some of the cannons salvaged from the Sacramento

Unable to provide this service gratis, David agreed to pay Arthur Perry for the hire of his vessel at commercial rates with the proviso that he would do so once he had sponsors on board. Not literally of course. Luckily the garnering of sponsors proved to be less problematic than finding a suitable boat. “Two local businessmen, George Swain, a retired Royal Naval officer, and Harry Toon, a garage owner, retired from the Royal Air Force” agreed “to advance R6,000 for an agreed share of any future profits.” Then David was off to Customs where he deposited R2,000 for the licence to work the Sacramento. In accordance with the stipulations of this licence, Customs would receive a 15% share of any future profits.

The bald fact overriding these considerations was the question of secrecy. The need for stealthiness was two-fold. “He had to acquire a licence from the customs officials before he could go near the wreck with a view to salvage, and he [David] could not afford – nor did he wish – his find to be poached by other diving teams who would be keen to cash in once they knew that the valuable guns had been found.”

Moving the cannon was an expensive and problematic process requiring heavy lift mobile cranes and heavy duty vehicles

With his relentless focus, David had one final hurdle to jump. How exactly was he going to free the cannon from the sand and the rocky bottom? According to Geoffrey Allen, “he knew that most of the cannon had become attached to the rocky bottom because of the calcium build-up during the 330 years under water. They were also in most cases covered with a shell and sand encrustation as well. It would therefore need some force to break the guns loose, and, in addition, some of the cannons were buried up to eight feet in the sand. He decided to make a giant pair of plate steel pincers weighing fifty pounds. He hoped [that] the pincers could be put in place round the cannon barrels and pulled tight by ropes tied to the end of each pincer. It would then be up to the Marlin’s engines and the momentum of the surf to get the guns free. As a fail-safe, he had a second idea which would take longer if it had to be used. This was a giant forty-pound steel hook, which could be slid under the barrel, once he had cleared it of sand and concretion by using a crowbar. The idea would be to use the Marlin to break the cannon free with the hook, and then to fit a steel strop round the gun and move it to the storage area in forty feet of water.”

Final preparations
With few working days when the weather was suitable, David had been using all his spare time to swim over the site and measure the cannons one by one, noting their exact locations against shore markers. He also found a suitable reef on which there was little sand to cover the cannons to serve as a storage area.

On February 23, after only three weeks of preparation, David and Arthur stealthily loaded the wire strops, air bottles and other equipment aboard Marlin at the dead of night. As much as possible was stowed out of sight below decks. A crew sworn to secrecy had already been selected, and after midnight David sat aboard the Marlin and told Arthur what they would be working on, and how he proposed to go about the job. They had already selected two deckhands, Cyril Gladwell and Gerry Schultz, and both were sworn to secrecy.

On the following morning, Arthur, Cyril and Gerry put to sea ostensibly on a normal fishing expedition. While the boat was sailing towards Sardinia Bay, David drove in his car to the same destination. From the parking lot beside the sand dunes, David removed his basic diving kit from the boot and proceeded along the sandy beaches to Gordon’s beach. Using only his snorkel, as his full diving kit was aboard the Marlin, David commenced the task of marking the location of the cannons by attaching buoys to each cannon. In the murky churned-up water, visibility was only of the order of two to three feet. Despite this, David was able to mark three cannons before swimming far out to sea to await Arthur’s arrival.

The oriental, half human, lifting dolphins for lifting the gun onto a mounting and to aim the gun

Once the Marlin had arrived, Arthur backed her gently into the surf and the pincers were lowered to David. They proved [to be] useless at once. He turned instead to the hook and eventually got it into the barrel of one of the cannons.”  Then in the throes of success, the unexpected happened. At the agreed signal of two tugs on a line between Arthur and David, which indicated that Arthur could proceed, the Marlin’s  engines spluttered and failed. Blissfully unaware of the drama on the boat, David was ecstatic as the cannon broke free from centuries old resting place. This exuberance was short lived as the boat stopped about a hundred yards further on. David surfaced to find Arthur virulently cursing his engines while attempting to repair them. As can be imagined, an anti-climax despondency set in. In their mood of disgruntlement, they ignored the fact that by using the hook, they had dislodged a three-ton cannon from its secure lodgings. Reluctantly, they abandoned the salvage attempt and returned to port.

With the change in the weather, suitable days were sparse. But first the boat had to be repaired. The next suitable date was Monday 7th March 1977. The same clandestine procedure was employed so as not to arouse suspicion. In his log, David records that Dive Number 506 experienced excellent conditions with “temperature warm, weather excellent, visibility twenty feet. Used barrel hook on cannon nearest the shore. Broke it loose, stropped and towed into deep water pile. Duration of dive thirty minutes.” This clinical language belied the drama unfolding underwater. “The cannon came loose easily enough as Arthur gunned the engines to full speed ahead. But underwater David who had to hold the barrel hook in place, suddenly found that he had to deal with a three-and-a-half-ton bronze cannon swivelling wildly in the surf. To add to the trouble [that] he was in, he was in the direct line of the turbulence from Marlin’s propellers, which rose and crashed just above his head in the shallow water.”

“Clinging to the three-quarter inch steel cable of the strop, David managed to get the cannon ready for moving. He attached the rope to the strop so that Arthur could move ahead and gave two tugs on the line for go-ahead. The cannon surged forward, taking the top off a rock on the bottom – and sliced through the three-inch nylon rope inches above where David was holding it. As the canon crashed to the bottom, he saw that part of it had corroded and, with over three centuries of sandblasting by grains suspended in the surf, had been given a razor-sharp cutting edge. This had fouled the rope and sliced it. But David found a place on the barrel where the strop could be placed, and the cannon was moved underwater almost half a mile out to sea.”

The ravages of 330 years shows clearly on these badly corroded cannons

During the next eight hours underwater, David worked like a Trojan stropping and moving four cannons to their deep-water repository. Apart from this, he prepared a fifth for lifting and by using a hammer and chisel together with a crowbar, cleared a further three for their next attempt. The day’s work came to an abrupt end when David went down to clear a line from a propeller only to find that the other propeller was missing. After their dismal first attempt, on this occasion they were extremely elated by their success.

Once again, the weather precluded any further dives. Finally, a fortnight later, on Friday 18th March 1977, they could make their next attempt. The grim reality of their operation was once again evident. This time there was an even greater danger to David than on the previous occasion. As Arthur applied power to the engines, the ten-ton breaking strain cable snapped. After it did so, it slashed past within inches of David’s head. Visions of his being decapitated flashed through his head. Regaining his composure, David berated Arthur for applying the power too quickly. By now, the underwater visibility was too poor to locate the guns lying inshore.  Instead David used the time to photograph the cannons already deposited in the “vault”, their fancy sobriquet for the dumping ground. The rest of that day was not without its hurdles, hiccups and misfortunes. While fitting a barrel hook to a cannon, David sliced his wrist badly, but given that they could not afford to lose time, David was obliged to continue with the recovery operation. Another mishap occurred when the barrel hook was thrown overboard without a line attached to it. In the end, it was located but not without some gnashing of teeth.

The site plan of the locations of all the cannons. One marked 00 discovered & salvaged by Hal Harraway. The rest were found by David Allen and Gerry van Niekerk

Phase 1 was now complete. The eleven guns that they had uncovered, were now safely in the “vault” and ready to be taken ashore.

Bringing guns to the shore
The first part of phase 2 was to arrange for reporters and TV crews to be in attendance once the eleven guns were lifted off the seabed and placed in a fishing trawler. One of Arthur’s drinking partners was a local news photographer, Evert Smith, of the Evening Post. As such, Evert was informed that they required a discreet local journalist who could communicate their story to the local media. What David now discovered, was that Arthur had already leaked the fact that the Sacramento’s cannons had been found to Evert, but David was pacified by Arthur who classified Evert as trustworthy. In order to obtain maximum exposure, David even contacted the embryonic SABC TV service to provide a camera crew.

Finding a suitable trawler was proving to be problematical. On being told the approximate location of the wreck site, the owners claimed that it was too dangerous, or that they required special insurance.

What was even more disconcerting was the fact that the discovery of the Sacramento was becoming common knowledge. To some extent this was discounted as being irrelevant as the TV crew and  reporter would be on the trawler when the recovery operation was undertaken. Eventually they were introduced to Gerrit Botha, the owner of a stout green-hulled trawler, Etosha. Gerrit, or Gert as he was known, insisted on a daily hire cost of R500. Given that he would be steaming for six hours per day, that rate was deemed to be reasonable. Equitable it might have been, but given the state of David’s finances this would place inordinate pressure on him not to miss any deadlines. Under duress, David spent all his waking hours and as well as much of his sleepless nights planning and replanning for all eventualities. As he was the key to the smooth execution of this operation, David bore the brunt of the strain.

White barnacles and sea growth visible on the uncleaned muzzle of the gun

It was in the early dawn of Tuesday 22nd March that the Etosha sailing from the fishing jetty. They slid past the brick-red berth and across the mill pond of a harbour to the signal station where they turned to starboard. Aboard, as they slipped past Port Elizabeth’s premier bathing beaches, hotels and suburbs, were a whole array of people involved with this project. They included the sponsors, Swain and Toon, the Marlin’s owners and crew, the Evening Post’s  reporter, Geoff Bird and photographer, Evert Smith as well as Gert Botha, the owner of the Etosha.

After rounding Cape Recife and Thunderbolt Reef, they sailed parallel to the coast past the Willows Resort and then they all smelt the heather and bracken as they passed Schoenmakerskop. Finally at Gordon’s beach, it was time for the Etosha to stop so that David could line up his shore markers and manoeuvre the boat closer to the vault. Instead of using the heavy lifting gear over the stern as is usual when fishing, it would be used over the side. This procedure was employed so as to prevent the hefty cannon from crashing through the trawler’s wooden hull.

With the TV cameras rolling and Evert’s camera clicking, David dived down with the steel strops and the cable. As the water was murky, David had to use hands after removing his gloves to place two strops on a gun. This gun only comprised a barrel  as the rest had already corroded away. After connecting the strops to the cable with a shackle, he indicated that the lift could commence. The

The coat of arms of Macao atop the rampant lion, the monogram of the governor of India who ordered the guns to be cast in 1640

Etosha lurched from side to side as the huge barrel broke free of the bottom. The mast creaked and groaned in protest as it had taken much of the weight. George and Gerrit were concerned that it might break as the winches slowly wound in the steel rope and the barrel rose to the surface. As it broke the surface, the barrel changed colour dramatically as oxidation immediately occurred. From being bright blue underwater, it suddenly changed to green.

Both the owner and the skipper of the Etosha expressed reservations about continuing with the lifts. Neither they nor David had appreciated that the cannon would weigh anything like it actually did. As Geoffrey notes, “Furthermore, the swell was increasing, and a strong current was pushing the Etosha inshore. Gert told David that he was not happy. If a barrel alone weighed so much – perhaps three tons – he thought, how much would a whole gun weigh? David was keen as mustard to attempt another lift. Under duress, reluctantly George and Gert acceded to his request.

This time David chose as his guinea pig, a whole gun albeit badly corroded. It took fifteen minutes before David surfaced and indicated that the lift could commence. David recorded in his log that they “Pulled second cannon onto gunwale, and skipper and owner very dubious about more lifts as current and swell strong. Lowered the gun onto the deck and decided to try for another.” Even though neither specimen was well preserved, this exercise had proven was that the cannons could be lifted with comparative ease. Now David wanted to perform the ultimate test – to raise a complete gun – which implied a much heavier object. Instead of the previous time taken of fifteen minutes, this gun took thirty minutes prepare for raising. If proof was ever required that the vessel was the Sacramento, this was it. Geoffrey Allen notes that “Quite clearly visible on the dripping barrel were the crest of Portugal and the legend that the gun had been cast by A.G. Feyo, a gunsmith in Portugal, not related to the diarist.”

“Frozen with the cold water, but unable to contain his excitement, David went down for a fourth cannon which was also found to bear the Portuguese crest. By now, George and Gert had overcome their nervousness and were as excited as everybody else on board. The decision to lift a fifth and last cannon for the day was mutual. That safely aboard, they decided that it would be unseamanlike to load Etosha any further for the long trip to port.”

On the next day, The Evening Post covered the story extensively, giving it three quarters of the front page. Entitled, Historical East Cape Find,  Geoff Bird’s report began, “Eleven bronze cannons dating back to before Van Riebeek’s arrival in the Cape were recovered yesterday from the site of what is believed to be the wreck of the once proud Portuguese galleon, Sacramento, off the Eastern Cape coast. The re-location of the wreck and the recovery of the cannons…………… is the most significant marine archaeological discovery ever off the South African coast. It is also believed to be the greatest number of bronze cannons found at the site of a wreck anywhere in the world.”

That night David and Arthur used a low-bed lorry to transport the guns to Arthur’s home where they were immediately put on public display.

Embroiled with rivals
Geoffrey Allen continues “That night the S.A. television news led with the story of the Sacramento and David found himself plunged into a whirl of publicity, newspaper rivalry and its attendant jealousies. What was worse, he soon became embroiled in an attempt by others to salvage the guns for himself.”

When the news editor of The Eastern Province Herald saw the headline, he was livid but what their report did was to sound the first warnings of possible poaching which was to prove prophetic. It was only after the weather improved sufficiently that the Etosha could again undertake salvage activities.

The first opportunity arose only on Monday 28th March 1977 when, despite thick mist and freezing cold water, the remaining seven cannons were raised with very little fuss. It was on this trip that they found the longest of the guns, seventeen feet from breech to muzzle. In the mist, the TV crew was there at the quay side to record their return. This gun too was added to the collection at Arthur’s home.

It was now that treasure fever gripped some people involved in the project and even some not involved in the salvage operation. In their greed, for them treasure denoted  money and wealth rather than the historical significance of the find. Perhaps David was too naïve in not recognising this reality, but it was a foregone conclusion that somebody would use the privileged information of the location for monetary gain. For R2,500, a Cape Town diver named Brian Clark was tipped off about the position of the site. Exactly who sold this information to him is still unknown. Moreover he was informed that there were more bronze waiting to be salvaged. As Clark’s motive for the salvage was for its sale as scrap, David was incandescent with rage. He was informed that Brian had left Cape Town armed with a salvage licence and two crew members – Peter Mason and Brian MacFarlane. They were aboard a converted trawler, Gavin, to profit from the find by David Allen.

It was now that David set out to neutralise the danger posed by these interlopers. At a meeting with his lawyers, sponsors and the crew of the Gavin, it was agreed that Clark’s crew would be absorbed by David as well as hiring Brian’s boat. The scheme which was finally agreed to amounted to R23,000. Being smaller and hence more manoeuvrable, the Gavin would be used to go right into the surf where the cannons would be slung beneath her and then ferried out to sea where there would be lifted onto the deck of the Etosha.

The following attempt to recover the remaining eleven cannons was scheduled for the 18th April. In order to acquaint the new team with the procedure, Arthur Perry of the Etosha would sail with Clark’s men on the Gavin. As per usual, David would drive to Sardinia Bay, walk to Gordon’s Beach where he would mark the location of the cannons with marker buoys and then finally guide the vessel in.

In an unexpected turn of events, after marking the location of all the remaining eleven cannons, David had swum further out than on previous occasions. It was due to this serendipitous event that he noticed the glint off a badly corroded cannon. On checking his shore markings, none indicated the presence of cannons in this location. On closer inspection, he made the discovery of the century; thirty cannons packed neatly muzzle to breech on the sea floor. This was exactly as they had been stored in the hold of the Sacramento.

David’s woes do not abate
After his elation at the discovery of these additional cannons, David would still experience a torrid time as exultation was turned into fresh tribulations. His first misfortune was when the first of these newly discovered cannons was raised onto the deck of Clark’s vessel. It was found to be an iron cannon which would rapidly disintegrate once removed out of the water. With no means to stem this destruction, the only solution to preserve these cannons, was to reinsert this iron cannon back into the cool salty water. This put paid to the notion that all the cannons could be salvaged.

The boat, the Gavin, was quite another matter. It was patently unsuited to the task at hand. Whereas the Etosha had handled the task with ease, the Gavin had strained to accomplish the same task. David deemed it to be completely inadequate for the task at hand. A confrontation was now overdue. David could no longer play the role of Mr Nice Guy. He tackled Brian about the fact that he was unable to fulfil the terms of their agreement. The disagreement was settled by a marine surveyor who declared the Gavin unseaworthy. This action would get Clark off David’s back temporarily but only until repairs could be effected by Clark. From David’s perspective, any reprieve however temporary, was gratefully accepted.  

Slightly less disturbing was the attitude of the local Press. Jealousy between the editors of the Evening Post and the Eastern Province Herald culminated in what can only be described as mischievous or inaccurate reporting. As rumours and “treasure fever” abounded in the town by not objectively reporting the facts as enunciated by David, he felt that the staff of the newspapers was fuelling the speculation. As if this was not enough, various interested organisations and individuals such as the PE Museum, the Library and the PE Historical Society got involved in the fray. Most disconcerting was a Mrs Dee Nash of the PE Historical Society who adopted a disbelieving attitude to the veracity of the possibility that the wreck was the Sacramento. David felt particularly slighted as, in his belief, he had satisfied  himself sufficiently about the origin of these cannons.

Beset by problems on all fronts, from financial to interlopers, and from sceptics to inaccurate speculative reporting, David was feeling the anguish and woes of fame. In any event, there was no escape for David. He just had to persevere.

Proof of origin
In order to substantiate the origins of these guns, David enlisted the support of local organisations interested in the salvage such as the museum, the library, the Historical Society and the Portuguese Consul, Mr Viera.

More disturbing was the behaviour of Clark who was hell-bent on sabotaging David’s salvage efforts. His first shot across the bow was to lodge a complaint that the Etosha was only registered to fish and not licensed to perform salvage operations. It was under this cloud of suspicion and rancour that the Etosha spent another two days at David’s behest. On day two, the hit paydirt, retrieving the biggest cannon yet, a monster of four tons. It was the most perfect of the lot. With elaborate scroll work and lotus bud cascabel, it was one of the finest Bocarro cannons to survive. David had now salvaged 21 guns.

Having satisfied himself beyond reasonable doubt that the wreck was that of the Sacramento but it was quite another matter to convince the secretary of the ad hoc committee, Mrs Dee Nash, of its veracity. But ultimately her blessing was bestowed upon the find

Earlier discoverers
Even though David Allen is touted as the earliest discoverers of the guns of the Sacramento, there are in fact two earlier claimants to the prestigious title. The first, from the 1920s is a family connection and then there is another undated one but probably from the 1930s or 1940s. I will let you be the judge of that.

Family connection
This is definitely a case of might-have-been. My grandmother, Granny Mac, raised her six children at Schoenmakerskop. As such the three young boys spent every free hour exploring the coast. This was their entertainment. According to my cousin, Rosemary MacGeoghegan, now 88 years old, one day while walking along what today is known as the Sacramento trail at low tide, they noticed some cannons half-buried under the sea sand in the water. On their return home that day, they notified the authorities at the Museum, then located at Bird Street, of their find. Instead of checking the tide tables for another low tide, the officers performed an in loco inspection on a day convenient to themselves. It happened to be high tide. Naturally they dismissed the objections of these youngsters and proceeded to attempt to find these artefacts in the sea. The inevitable occured. Nothing was found and nothing further was heard from the museum.

Lawrence Green
In his book, The South African Beachcomber, Lawrence Green recounts the story of the discovery of cannons near Sardinia Bay. As he does not provide the date, I am unable to substantiate whether Mr H.G Harraway discovered these guns before my father and my uncles but it certainly was long before David Allen made his discovery in the 1970s as Green’s book was published in 1954.

This is what Green has to say about this discovery

A man who deserves to find a chest of gold is Mr. H. G. Harraway of Port Elizabeth, a most determined treasure hunter. He has preserved many records and relics of the 1820 settlers, and this taste for history led him naturally into the field of wrecks and their stories.

Per Dale Poulter, on the left is Bunny Hodges and on the right, bending over to obtain a closer look, is the elderly Louis John Poulter. Presumably the person in the middle is Harraway

First he secured a licence from the Commissioner of Customs to salvage four wrecks along the coast near Port Elizabeth. Then he searched the archives and other sources of information. Among his helpers were “Bunny” Hodges and other ex-soldiers, keen fishermen who knew the coast well; and they reported a strange object in a deep pool at Sardinia Bay near Cape Receife. They were puzzled because, unlike most submerged objects, this one was not encrusted with shellfish.

Harraway formed a theory that it must be of brass or bronze. Divers were sure it was a cannon. It was a most difficult salvage operation, for the sea was rough; but in the end the cannon weighing six thousand pounds was hauled up the beach and hidden in the dunes. Unfortunately the effort had been watched, and rumours of a treasure-chest went round the district. Vandals attempted to cut up the cannon with hack-saws for scrap metal, and the valuable old piece was mutilated.

Photo from Dale Poulter

Mr. Vernon S. Forbes, senior lecturer in geography at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, identified the cannon as one mentioned by Colonel J. R. Gordon, the Dutch explorer, while returning in 1778 from his famous Orange River journey. Gordon drew a panorama of the coast, and noted on it that he had found traces of a wreck at the very spot where the cannon was found. The survivors had built huts in the dunes, but had evidently died of hunger and thirst, for Gordon and his Hottentot servant buried a number of skeletons. “Two rusty anchors and a cannon lay in the sea, which I could not identify because of the waves,” Gordon wrote. Not far away Gordon discovered a beautiful carved ivory box which appeared to be a Roman Catholic symbol.

Harraway sent all the available information to the curator of the artillery museum at Woolwich. Experts who examined the photographs described the cannon as a Dutch brass naval gun about three hundred years old. It is a rare specimen, possibly the only existing relic of the work of that fine craftsman, Conraet Wegt Woert. This historic cannon has been presented to the Port Elizabeth municipality. Harraway still hopes to recover further objects from the wreck.


The Guns of the Sacramento by Geoffrey and David Allen (1978, Robert Garten, London)

The South African Beachcomber Lawrence Green (1958, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)


Two photos per Dale Poulter


  1. Dear Dean
    I was recently introduced to your website by friends. What an amazing find for me! Thank you and congratulations. I had not seen so much fascinating historical detail – and old photographs about PE before now. A veritable treasure trove!
    I would very much appreciate your contacting me by email, please.
    I have a strong suspicion that our families’ paths crossed at some point.

    Briefly: I was born in PE in February 1954 – lived in Walmer till I was 16 and then lived briefly in Summerstrand. I attended Grey Junior and Grey High Schools from 1960 to 1971 and went to Rhodes University from 1973 to 1976.

    I left SA in 1978, settled in London and lived there for 16 years before moving to Sydney NSW Australia in 1994. I live in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

    My Mom was Doreen Loveday nee Keil, born in PE in 1920. Mom’s best friend and bridesmaid was Auret. My “Aunty” Auret married Bryce McCelland (I note the spelling of your name is McCeland) … and I note in your entry on the PE Floods of 1968 that your father’s younger brother was Bryce – a keen fisherman – used to rock fish at Skoenies. So did my “Uncle” Ma! (Bryce).
    Auret and Mac / Bryce had 5 children: Barry, Graham, Jenny, and twins Roy and Faye.

    Further, a friend of mine, David Allen – we were at Grey High School together in 1971 – says that he was “best mates” with Dean McCleland when aged about 8 or 9 years. Dave lives in Melbourne, Australia. Is that you? If so, Dave would like to get in touch with you.

    There’s a third coincidence: I was in SA on holiday for 6 weeks from 23 Dec 2019 to 3 Feb 2020. I spent 3 glorious days in PE, visiting old haunts and reminiscing with a good friend (also ex-PE) who I was traveling with. But when in Cape Town, I stayed at the holiday home, in Rooiels (what a stunningly beautiful place that is) of a Cape Town friend of mine – also a former PE chap and school friend from Grey. Who should I bump into but Graham McClelland / McCleland, who lives there. I last saw Graham in the 1960s, I guess, when we were kids. We had not had any connection since those childhood days.

    If you could drop me a line please, Dean, I would appreciate that very much.
    Thank you
    With best wishes

    • Great to hear from you & it is super that you enjoyed my blogs

      I have written over 350 blogs on PE & am in the process of printing Volume 1 of 4 on PE

      The spelling of all the McCleland’s to whom you mention are spelt McCleland

      Bryce is my uncle & Graham is his son

      I have lived in Joburg since 1980 after I finished my articles with Price Waterhouse in PE

      As you can guess,I am always scavenging for photos & stories on PE

      Or even your family’s history

      I would really appreciate anything that I could insert in a blog

      Often people will let me have family stories from over 100 years ago.

      They are so fascinating and bring PE to life

      Dean McCleland
      082 801 5446

  2. Greetings Dean
    Great website and very informative
    I will confirm your doubts of Dave Allen discovering the Sacramento, My parents, who trained him and Gerry van niekerk to dive, showed him the site on condition he never raised the canon, the site was well known to spear fisherman in PE according to my father, the person that showed my parents the site was a gentleman named Vernon Du prez an avid spear fisherman and diving partner/friend of my parents at the time, and they in turn showed him.

  3. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back
    to your site? My blog site is in the exact same
    niche as yours and my visitors would truly benefit from some of the information you
    present here. Please let me know if this okay with you.


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