On Saturday 29th March 1823 the Dutch corvette Zeepaard HNMS, en route from Batavia to Holland, was wrecked in fog off Sardinia Bay, Port Elizabeth. This is the story of that tragedy.
Main picture: The Zeepaard in 1819
Account by J.B.N. Theunissen
Theunissen was a sailor aboard the Zeepaard. This account is extracted from the introduction to his book Aanteekeningen eener reis door de binnenland van Zuid Afrika.
In the year 1823, coming from Batavia to go on leave in the Netherlands, I was unfortunate to suffer a shipwreck off the coast of Africa, about 20 miles west of Cape Recife. [In fact, the sinking occurred off Sardinia Bay, close to Port Elizabeth]
To describe the circumstances leading up to the abovementioned fateful occurrence is not easy, and has nothing to do with the main purpose of my book. I shall therefore only relate how we first struck the rocks and how the following day we were fortunately able to reach the shore, in order to explain the reason for my journey.
On the evening of 29th March , between six and seven o’clock, there was poor visibility, and because of this, all of the plans that we had made for enjoying our leave in the Fatherland [Holland], were brought to nought on the rocky coast of Africa. Our ship struck the rocks with such force that the topmast, sails and rigging came down with a crash. One can imagine the plight of the 180 men thrown together in a heap on the quarterdeck of a war corvette. In a few seconds, the ship took a list of 60 to 70 degrees and we were unable to stand upright. Everybody slid down to windward, grasping anything that he could get hold of. A rising moon shone down on our desperate situation.
We were somewhat relieved to see that the shore lay only about 200 German roods distant, but we were still too far out to reach it. Everybody tried to find some sort of shelter but no one was safe from the breakers. These broke with hellish force against the ship and almost every second a great waterfall thundered down on us, a grim reminder that the rough weather of the South African winter had begun.
As the men began to take heart, they began to discuss a means of rescue. Some stated that the danger was only imaginary, and everybody had a number of plans of rescue, which each gave voice to at the same time. These were obviously so impossible and some so preposterous that it was obvious that they were inspired by deep terror or sheer ignorance. Someone suggested – and others agreed with him and even broached it with the Commandant – that the masts should be chopped down and placed end to end in order to form some sort of bridge. Perhaps this was some vague memory of Xerxes’ bridge across the Hellespont.
However, that plan was thrown out and it was resolved to see if a line could be taken from the rocks to the shore, a very dubious plan in view of the fierceness of the breakers. A few good swimmers managed to reach the nearest rocks but came back half-drowned with the report that the distance was too great. Some of the planners were still not satisfied, but it was resolved, because of the lack of equipment, to wait for daybreak and then try again.
Not being able to do anything is the worst trial men can suffer when they are not even able to sit anywhere in comfort. Because of this, a few rascals went below to break open the passengers’ chests which were floating about, to get their loot before it was too late. To think that men should dare to rob and plunder even when death was staring them in the face! Finally, this scum began to fight over the loot and attacked each other with swords. During this uproar, a candle which had been placed in one of the cabins fell over and the curtains caught fire. An immediate shout went up: “Fire down below!”
The Commandant ordered one of the sea officers below with orders to use force against these rogues. He routed them all out and nipped the danger in the bud. It is in circumstances like these that the difference between the honest man and the scamp can be most clearly seen. This was only a brief episode, but we had abandoned all hope of getting our possessions back.
By about 3 o’clock, the surging seas had damaged the ship so badly that the men began to fear a total break-up. Everyone kept asking what the time was and gazed longingly eastwards for the break of dawn which was not due for another two hours. How they wished that the earth would spin faster. At last, we saw the first rays of the sun behind the mountains. Never was daylight more keenly awaited. The longboat was lowered with great difficulty on the lee side. The first officer, the surgeon and no more than the necessary number of oarsmen set off for the shore which they reached after a difficult and dangerous passage. Everybody on board waited for the boat to return. The men dragged the boat up on shore and hugged each other. Then arose a general cry of dismay at this inhumanity. However, shouting and even screaming did not help. The distance was too great. Someone exclaimed that something unfortunate must have occurred [It was leaking and could not be launched because of the heavy surf] but this suggestion was dismissed by the desperate crowd. All hope of ordinary rescue was gone. Rafts were made by a few, but these soon broke up. The pinnace on its cradle and the long boat slung in the davits could not be loosened due to the heavy list. At last, however, the pinnace was freed by a few of the desperate men, but landed upside down in the water. A few men were drowned but others climbed on the keel and fortunately reached the shore. Many swam out clinging to pieces of timber but most were washed ashore in an unconscious state. The poor women and children suffered the worst. One of the naval officers was badly injured; two passengers were crushed to death. On the faces of those who were alive could be seen the figure of death, brought on by the cold and peril. Briefly, it was a ghastly scene with no sign of speedy relief. However, it does happen that when one can see no way out of one’s misery that Providence intervenes.
At about 9 o’clock, the davits from which the boat was suspended broke. It fell into the water and drifted ashore. Our fellow sufferers on shore righted it and by twelve o’clock, we were all out of danger, thankful to have dry sand under our feet. Although the boat, in addition to the oarsmen, could only take seven or eight passengers at a time, the rescue proceeded in an orderly manner. First went the sick and the injured, followed by women and children, and finally the rest. Two naval officers were in charge and carried out the task in as orderly a fashion as if it were a normal disembarkation from a man-of-war.
What a thanksgiving there was among those who had pictured a far different fate. A roll call was made and it was found that six members of the crew and two passengers were missing, the two already mentioned.
Even the problem of shortages of provisions was solved for us in the afternoon. The entire port side of the ship was smashed and barrels of fresh water, arrack, flour, butter etc drifted ashore. A food depot was quickly organised and rations were issued at regular intervals. Although without clothes except those that we wore, we were in excellent spirits compared with those gloomy moments at dawn. On everyone’s face was now cheerfulness and contentment.
Towards dusk, some farmers, who lived within five or six English miles of this spot, came to look for us. They had heard of our disaster from a sailor, who had gone in search of water, and came to offer us any assistance that we might need. Imagine our joy on seeing these people! We all crowded around them and heard with gratitude their offer. These kind English people returned the next day and brought us some provisions. During the afternoon of the 31st, the majority of the crew had moved in with one of the farmers, and the remainder of the party followed two days later.
The farmer enlightened us as to the circumstances. Having learnt that Port Elizabeth was only twelve English miles from here, and that what we needed could be sent to us, our Commandant informed the Commander there [Captain Francis Evatt] of our condition, and a few days later he sent us bread and tents, although the latter were not very suitable for the winter season. He also reported that a British warship was about to sail for the Cape and could take fifty men. Accepting this offer, the first officer departed with fifty members of the crew.
After having stayed there for a few days, we all left for Port Elizabeth where the men were accommodated in a camp and the officers were accommodated in lodgings.
To compensate in some measure for the ordeal which I had experienced, I decided to make an overland journey from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town in order to see something of the interior of Africa.
Contemporary Local Actions
This saga involved the generous actions of the local inhabitants especially a local farmer from Bushy Park, Henry Lovemore. The loss of the Zeepaard was equally distressing to the Cape Government, as is evident from contemporaneous reports and letters of its officials, and extracts from these may be of interest as additional background to the story.
The crewmember who had gone to seek assistance found a Bushy Park farmer, Henry Lovemore, on whose land the survivors had come ashore. Lovemore, his family and staff, offered what shelter they could and provided food and water. Captain Reyns and his officers were taken into the family homestead and the remainder had to camp out as best they could. Doubtless, with the minimum of delay, Henry Lovemore alerted local government officers about the wreck, but his letter to Captain Francis Evatt, the Commandant at Fort Frederick, did not reach the Landdrost, Lt. Col. Cuyler, until late at night on Tuesday, 1st April. He sent off a brief report next morning to the Colonial Secretary in Cape Town giving the bare facts as known.
On that same morning, the Landdrost rode over to see the situation for himself. In a letter to the Colonial Secretary, which he dispatched on Friday, 4th April, he wrote. “I proceeded on Wednesday morning to Mr Lovemore’s where I found Capt Reyns and his people with the exception of a few, who were picking some of the Articles washed on shore from the wreck, which I found to be stranded on a rocky part of the coast 2 or 3 miles west of Cape Recife. From what I can collect, it was just dark of the evening and foggy on Saturday last when they did not discover the land till they found the ship in the breakers not possible to haul off. “I never saw so complete a Wreck made in so short a time, the Shore lays covered for some miles with thousands of small pieces of the Vessel, the masts which I believe were cut, appear to be still fast with the Rigging on the Rocks”.
On Thursday, 3rd April, the day after his visit to the wreck site, Lt. Col. Cuyler wrote to Captain Evatt. “I have ordered Field Cornet Kok [J.J. Kok, the field cornet for Zwartkops Rivier, who lived on a farm near to Bushy Park] to go to Mr Lovemore and see what number of wagons may be required to bring the unfortunate crew to this Bay.” It would seem that the survivors were at Bushy Park for about a week before being able to move into Port Elizabeth. No mention was made in correspondence as to how 160-plus people were to be fed and supplied with necessities but probably those not accommodated by the Lovemores survived by and large on the salvaged quantities of salted meat and other preserved foods from the wrecked frigate.
The Landdrost had been giving some thought to the next stage of the rescue operation. In his letter to Captain Evatt he went on to say, “Since I saw you I have been thinking whether it would not be best to encamp these people at or near the Burial Ground for if they were at Mullers or further off they would be fully or perhaps more troublesome and the camp being near the villages will afford the Officers who may wish or can get lodgings to be handy to their peoples”.
On the same day, the Landdrost answered a letter he had received from Captain Reyns. After expressing regret over the loss of the frigate, Lt. Col. Cuyler wrote: “I recommend your immediate Removal with all persons landed … to Port Elizabeth where Comdt. Capt. Evatt will point out a convenient place to encamp your people and furnish you with Tents and Provisions in a similar way as we accommodated some years ago the unfortunate Officers and Crew of Your Majesty’s late Ship, the Amsterdam”. [The Amsterdam had run ashore in Algoa Bay on 16th December 1817]. The Landdrost went on to suggest that a small party should be left near the ship and added that a public sale notice would be placed in the Cape Gazette for disposing of the wreck and what was left of the fittings and cargo. On 9th April 1823, the Landdrost issued authority for Henry Lovemore to be the sole agent for the disposal of the wreck and for whatever items were washed up or brought to the shore. All other persons were required to keep away.
From Cape Town, the Colonial Secretary, Colonel Christopher Bird, replied on 17th April to a letter that Captain Reyns had addressed to the Governor in which he regretted that no warship was immediately available to pick up survivors but said that he understood H.M. brig/sloop Barracouta (235 tons, built at Woolwich in 1820 and named after the large predatory Pacific fish) had already embarked one officer and about 50 ratings and was taking them to Simon’s Bay. Two privately owned ships, the Mary and the Salisbury, would take what numbers they could and the Government brig, Locust, had been sent to Algoa Bay. Colonel Bird added that the firm of Muntingh and Woutersen in Cape Town would be glad to assist with the defrayment of expenses.
The Barracouta arrived in Simon’s Bay on 19th April, followed some five weeks later by the ships Albatross and Salisbury on 28th and 29th May, respectively, the former carrying 37 survivors and the Salisbury, 88, including Captain Reyns. By the time the last of the survivors reached Simon’s Bay, the wreck and its contents had been auctioned. A notice in the Cape Town Gazette of 3rd May 1823 announced the sale on 16th May of “the wreck of the above ship with everything saved from her”. There is no known record of what was sold, or to whom or for what, except that Thomas Oldham, an 1820 Settler, bought the hull and used it to build a 9-ton schooner which he named Perseverance. The schooner was licensed in 1825 and employed on fishing and coastal trading. On Thomas Oldham’s death in 1827, the schooner was sold and what was left of the Zeepaard’s timbers disappeared from history.
Comment by Theunissen on Port Elizabeth
Port Elizabeth under the name of Algoa Bay had already been established under the Dutch Government, but this establishment obtained its present name under the British government.
It contains about forty homes.
Besides the officials, our hosts and three or four merchants, the population is poor. A tailor, who charged me three times his [normal] rate, admitted that poverty forced him to take the opportunity to do so. These and other similar observations made me lament the fate of these unfortunates.
Contemporary comment by George Thompson
In his travelogue, Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa, George Thompson has the following to say about this calamity. “Reached Port Elizabeth late this evening [7th May 1823], and found lodgings at one of the two inns now established there. The other was crowded with the officers of a Dutch man-of-war [the Zeepaard] which a few days before had run ashore in the fog on Cape Recife and was totally wrecked. The crew were saved not without difficulty, eight men having been drowned and about twenty hurt by being dashed by the surf upon the rocks”.
It had been a near-run thing but on that fateful day, fortune smiled on the passengers and crew of the Zeepaard. It could well have been an unmitigated disaster if the davits of the lifeboat had not broken.
The Wreck of the Zeepaard in Looking Back – March 1974
Aanteekeningen eener reis door de binnenland van Zuid Afrika by J.B.N. Theunissen
Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa by George Thompson
The loss of the Royal Netherlands frigate Zeepaard (seahorse) in Sardinia Bay by Gweneth and Bernard Johnston
Eastern Province Herald dated 11th July 1978
Letters relating to the loss of the Zeepaard are in the Cape Archives Department among the Records of the Landdrost of Uitenhage, call numbers 1/UIT/10/9 and 1/UIT/15/8; shipping arrivals are included in the shipping reports in the Cape Town Gazette and Africana Advertiser in the South African Library, Cape Town