Monday, February 8, 2016

Shipwreck survivors and other arrivals 15

If your ancestor was part of a crew on board ship arriving at a South African port in the 19th c there is little chance of finding him mentioned in shipping registers. In the 20th c, with the large liners making regular calls in South Africa, records were kept of crew members usually at the port of embarkation. The crew list of Waratah, for example, is available. All of the latter went down with the ship.

Crew of Waratah

I have sometimes received queries from family historians who say their ancestor 'jumped ship' in South Africa. This wouldn't be a good place to start a search. Better to go to NAAIRS and see if there is a deceased estate file held for him at archives. If the man was divorced or was involved in a court case of any kind during his sojourn in South Africa there may well be evidence of that among the references. It helps if the ancestor had an unusual name: Joe Smith would bring up an avalanche of hits.

If the ancestor travelled to South Africa by ship but for some reason leapt overboard and was lost at sea, the only hope is the Deaths at Sea records.
These include names of passengers and crew of the Titanic and Lusitania, incidentally.

Records at sea are online at  
These  cover over 150, 000 individuals (previously only searchable on microfilm) who were born, married or died on ships between 1854-1908. They are definitely not all-inclusive.

Union Castle Ship crew

Friday, February 5, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 14: Titanic, Waratah, American

In more recent times, if an ancestor was shipwrecked on a large liner there is a good chance that the event was well-documented, even that a passenger list was published in the press. I am thinking of the obvious famous vessels like Titanic and Lusitania, though there are less publicised wrecks such as that of the American in the1880s. The survivors of the latter ship had to undergo a second shipwreck immediately after the first, on the ship which was supposedly taking them to safety. Not a good day for those on board.

The Waratah, which mysteriously disappeared off the South African coast in 1909, was the topic of numerous  reports in local and international press for many months and the list of her passengers was published several times. Despite these facts being to hand, there are frequent claims made by alleged descendants that their ancestor was among those on board the fated ship.

It is evidence of a strange desire to be associated in some way with a famous and tragic incident - rather like descendants who hold to it, buckle and thong, that their forebear fought at Rorke's Drift in 1879 when it is perfectly clear from documentary evidence that he was not among that small courageous band of British soldiers. 

What particular claim to fame it might be for an ancestor to have been lost on the Titanic or the Waratah remains nebulous, but there's no doubt that a certain glamour attaches to such an ancestor.

I sometimes receive queries from family historians who ask why shipwrecks are relevant to the topic of genealogy. Clearly the loss of an individual in a wreck certainly was relevant to his or her family and undoubtedly changed the course of the latters' lives. Also, the mere fact of an ancestor dying in this manner means that information will be available - on the more well-known vessels at least. All grist to the family historian's mill. 

On rare occasions details may emerge about an ancestor wrecked on a little-known vessel. An example was finding mention of Sturges Bourne Bell, son of Captain William Bell, who was shipwrecked off a collier near the coast of Spain in 1873. This reference led to the discovery of further information on this obscure and elusive forebear.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 13: Hercules 1796

The Hercules, commanded by Captain Benjamin Stout, is remembered in the Captain’s own Narrative of the Loss of the Ship Hercules, published in 1798. In this account the author states that the ship was wrecked on 16 June 1796 in a violent storm, at no great distance from the spot where the Grosvenor was lost in 1782. This is dubious as it rests mainly on eye-witness reports by local tribesmen. If the site had been near the Grosvenor the rate of progress of the Hercules' survivors to Cape Town on foot would have been 25 miles per day, possibly more allowing for unavoidable detours, a speed impossible to maintain. Other details given by the Captain muddy the water, so to speak, even further, and his narrative is therefore reduced in credibility. Nevertheless, Stout managed to get 60 of his men to the Cape without losing a single life.

A traveller named John Barrow states that the Hercules was wrecked between the mouths of the Keiskamma and the Beeka (Bira) Rivers, near Madagascar Reef. He says ‘we saw the wreck of the Hercules on the coast of Caffraria at the precise spot indicated by the Captain’. But he also mentions that he met Stout and some of his crew at the Cape, which is impossible as the Captain left the Cape in September 1796 and Barrow did not arrive in South Africa until May 1797.

However there was a wreck at the site Barrow refers to, near the Umtana. This has been accepted as being that of the Hercules but may not be. According to various experts, the guns found at the spot had been reported years earlier and that pottery found there is too early. The latter could be explained by the theory that Chinese porcelain is not always a good indication of date for a wreck as this material was often used as ballast and could be of earlier origin.

There might have been more than one wreck in this vicinity. Some researchers have claimed that the so-called Hercules wreck might be the Bennebroek.

Another maritime mystery left for us to ponder. The name Hercules appears on maps of the area, possibly from the wreck.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 12: the Dodington 1755

Staying with the 18th c, the Dodington (499 tons commanded by Captain James Sampson) was wrecked in July 1755 on Bird Island (Algoa Bay), at night, while outward-bound for India from England. 

A south-west gale was the cause of the disaster. Of a crew of 270 only 23 survived the wreck. But these proved to be hardy and imaginative survivors, who built a vessel they named The Happy Deliverance from bits of timber left by the wreck. In this they sailed to Delagoa Bay.

Before that these survivors lived on Bird Island for several months. It was far from a Robinson Crusoe idyll, the island being covered in guano from the many visiting birds. However they were fortunate in salvaging items from their wrecked ship, including gunpowder and flints, candles, water casks, beer, flour, salted pork and seven live hogs. A blacksmith among their number was able to use tools to improve their lot. They also had navigational aids washed up on shore.
It was this combination of factors which led to the men's being able to construct the boat which would be their lifeline. On reaching Delagoa Bay they sold the boat and were taken on board another ship. A Happy Deliverance indeed.

Later salvage attempts brought forth tons of copper, guns and lead as well as many silver pieces of eight. It is thought that this treasure, or part of it, had belonged to Robert Clive (Clive of India) who had intended sailing on the Dodington and sent some of his possessions aboard, but then had taken another ship. thus changing the course of history.

Bird Island

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 11: the Bennebroek

To be shipwrecked off the Natal coast in the 19th c was unfortunate but one's chances of survival were reasonably good, given help from those ashore. In the 18th c, when most of the coast of southern Africa was uninhabited or sparsely so, there was usually no assistance in the vicinity and the survivors could not avoid a long walk to the nearest civilized place.

In 1713 the Dutch ship Bennebroek returning from Ceylon came to grief on the Natal coast, possibly near the mouth of the Umtana river, or somewhere north of the Umzimvubu. The ship broke up, many drowned, 57 Europeans and 20 Malabar slaves reaching land. They started to walk for the Cape but were stopped by a large river, perhaps the Umzimvubu, and turned back. 

Others continued the journey but of these only one slave actually reached the Cape. Seven who had remained behind were found by a small trading vessel but only four were taken to the Cape. They reported having been well treated by the local tribesmen. The three left behind may have been the three shipwrecked Englishmen found by Hubner's party in 1716 living in Pondoland with wives and children. If not from the Bennebroek their origins are a mystery.

The wreck was found in 1985 and some pieces of Chinese porcelain recovered as well as some bronze swivel cannon bearing the Amsterdam mark.

A dark unfriendly shore awaited the survivors of the Bennebroek

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 10: a controversial photo

This photo is said to be of the Minerva, wrecked at Port Natal in 1850. However, there is some controversy about it largely because of the date - 1850. If it is indeed of the Minerva it would be the first exterior photograph taken in Natal. Photography was in its infancy and most pictures were taken inside the photographer's studio. There were photographers in Natal in the 1850s but not many of them.

It is more likely that this photo shows the Defiance, wrecked in 1871, but that took place near the Umzimkulu.

For more on this topic see

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 9: William Hartley and Ariosto

Its an ill wind that blows no good. 

When the American barque Ariosto 361 tons was wrecked on the Back Beach, Durban, on 31 July 1854 while on her way to Boston from Sumatra, carrying a cargo of pepper, a local Byrne settler, William Hartley, saw an opportunity. He knew that pepper did not deteriorate when wet and he dried out the peppercorns then sold them at a satisfactory profit.

The Captain (Balch) had mistakenly kept the ship on course believing their position to be some miles from the Bluff. The sound of breakers alerted the deck watch but it was too late. The vessel struck, bumping over the Bar, and ended up on the beach. The crew of 17 landed in their boat. The ship became a total wreck but no lives were lost. Durban's inhabitants rushed to the scene and William Hartley began to have ideas about the cargo.

Hartley and his wife Isabella had emigrated on the Sovereign, one of Byrne's vessels, which arrived at Natal in March 1850.  Hartley was prompted to go to Natal by James Methley's book The New Colony of Natal. He and Isabella were married a fortnight before they sailed, Isabella sewing into her corset William's parents' gift of a hundred pounds in sovereigns - a bank from which they would withdraw funds as the need arose.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 8: the Waldensian 1862

The Waldensian,  built on the Clyde in 1855, continued the coastal service alone (after the Madagascar her sister ship was wrecked) but was herself wrecked on Struys Point in October 1862 on a voyage for Cape Town. The ship broke in two, but the approximately 100 souls on board were safely landed, most going overland to Cape Town by wagon via Bredasdorp. Some returned in Barry's coaster Kadie and the Cape Town tug Albatross which had responded to news of the disaster.

More about the Waldensian wreck can be seen at:

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 7

Because of the enormous number of shipwrecks which have occurred along the coast of South Africa over the past five centuries, it is impossible to trace an ancestor who was shipwrecked unless a close date parameter and location, plus preferably a ship name, are known.

This doesn't seem to deter numerous descendants from attempting to identify a relevant wreck based on absolutely minimal information about the event. A regular blog visitor has just asked me about her own 19th c ancestor, said to have been wrecked off the Namaqualand coast or possibly near Algoa Bay, but no further details are available.

That the man survived is proved by the existence of his Death Notice some years later. However, there is nothing found concerning the wreck in which he was said to be involved.

The question is asked about newspaper reports of the wreck but the ship may have been a small schooner or other craft with not many crew or passengers on board, so it is unlikely to have made the local press.

In this case, the descendant would do well to pursue other lines of enquiry and leave this ancestor to one side until, with luck, more information about his shipwreck comes to light. It may prove to be an apocryphal family anecdote which has been embellished over the generations. These red herrings crop up in every family tree. They add to the general interest but are frustrating unless taken with a pinch of salt.