“No account or tradition, how or when they came there!” – the cannons and anchors at Cannon Rocks
ES Grossman, January 2015
Early mariners who rounded the Cape to explore and exploit the lucrative Eastern trade regarded the voyage with mixed feelings: fear, superstition and anxiety of what was to come and joyful anticipation of the riches they would receive on their return, should they survive the journey. Their apprehension was well-founded: it is estimated that Portugal sacrificed the lives of 10% of her population during the 15th and 16th centuries through maritime exploits, to achieve her colonial and commercial ambitions. Survival depended upon a combination of factors: the seas they traversed; prevailing weather conditions; the ships themselves; the skill and health of their crewmates and notably the avarice of the companies and captains they sailed for, among others.
The South African coast – especially the Cape coast – is notorious for its stormy weather, making it one of the most treacherous in the world. A combination of strong winds, unpredictable currents, freak waves and hidden shoals or reefs come together to give our coastline its hazardous reputation. In early times, the rudimentary barometers used on ships were able to give a short term weather forecast. However, there was no long-term nor predictable means of weather forecasting which meant the voyagers did not know what weather systems they were sailing in to, nor what systems were coming up behind them.
When faced with a storm, which required a full complement of strong, motivated, skilled men to bring the ship through, the crew was not up to the task. The lack of proper food and consequent scurvy, horrible living conditions, and constant exposure to the sea, led to general ill health, contagious disease, high mortality and poor morale. Psychologically many of the old medieval superstitions persisted and had a strong hold on the crew’s imagination together with religious anecdotes of hellfire and damnation in the face of death. Thus the often superstitious crews, decimated by disease and beset with health problems, were short-handed when challenged in a storm crisis.
The trading vessels themselves were vulnerable. Bulkily built for cargo hauling, they were sluggish with limited manoeuvrability. Sailing ships had to rely on the winds for propulsion, which in turn was a consequence of the wind blowing too strongly or not at all. Thus the speed of the vessel was unpredictable and the ability to move out of dangerous conditions severely compromised. The inaccuracy of available charts and maps, should any charts and maps be available at all, together with unsophisticated navigational equipment, left the ships of that era, to coin a phrase, very much at sea.
The materials with which ships were constructed, although the best at the time, were very flimsy by current standards and a poor match for the vast distances, the many seas and the sailing conditions they had to contend with. A particular hazard was wood-borer (Teredo navalis) a type of saltwater clam which could bore through a ship’s wooden hull in six months. This was a particular hazard in the Indian Ocean, with the worm reproducing so rapidly that once a ship became infected it was virtually doomed.
Wood, tar and rope caulking required ongoing maintenance to contain leaks and damage. Often the holds were so overloaded, the crew could not get to the site of the leak to repair it. Sails and rigging needed mending, the barnacle and algal growth encrusting the hulls required careening to scrape the surface. All this meant time consuming maintenance and in the profit driven spice route, which equated time with money, was avoided unless extreme. To add to this, the riches possible from the trade route meant captains and the companies that owned the ships took risks. The ships were overloaded, maintenance not done, un-seaworthy vessels were used and navigational decisions were often based on profit motive rather than safety issues. Since a return voyage to the East took the best part of two years it is understandable why time factors were prominent in decision-making.
Unfortunately seas, weather and avarice were not the only hazards the early voyagers had to face. Fire could overwhelm the old wooden vessels and burn it down to the waterline in minutes. Sinking occurred when water shipped into the damaged hull, leaving the crew no alternative but to abandon ship. Fires could be started by lighting sources or mishaps during cooking. Spontaneous combustion of cargo also took place, tightly packed jute being particularly prone to bursting into flame. Pirates were a noteworthy menace for trading ships of the time, lying in wait on established routes to plunder well stocked barques. To defend themselves against pirates as well as warring nations, onboard mutinies and to subdue local inhabitants when replenishing water and food, the carrying of cannon became indispensable for protection. Of course cannon also served a commercial purpose. They often formed part of the cargo, frequently also serving as ballast to stabilise the vessel on it’s voyage. Thus cannon were routinely on board sailing ships of the time.
Shipwrecks Contending for the Cannons and Anchors at Cannon Rocks
There are a number of contenders for the originators of the Cannon Rocks cannons and anchors, these are summarised below. Unfortunately the salvaging took place without specialist oversight which meant much of the archaeological context was lost. This has been especially unfortunate in the case of the anchor at 8 Alice Road for which no information has been obtained, except that the anchor was recovered from Kabeljou Draai.
Sáo Joáo Baptista 1622
The larger of the two cannons mounted in Cannon Rocks is traditionally believed to come from the Sáo Joáo Baptista. While the exact site of the Baptista has never been established, this is allegedly in the Cannon Rocks area. This Portuguese carrack was homeward bound having left Goa in India on 1st March 1622 with a cargo of pepper, Chinese porcelain, cloth, carpets and “other treasures”. On 19th July, off Cape Agulhas, she encountered two Dutch warships which engaged in battle. Fighting continued on and off for 19 days and despite utilising the 18 small calibre cannon on board, the Baptista was badly damaged. Virtually helpless she was largely at the mercy of the currents and eventually sighted shore on 29th September, 72 days after first engaging with the enemy. Two hundred and seventy nine people survived the wreck and camped at the wreck site in Cannon Rocks, for a month to recuperate. On 6th November they set off to walk to the fort at Sofala in Beira, Mozambique. After a grueling nine month journey and 1152 km, only 28 crew and passengers reached their destination on 28 July 1623.
Tantalising support for Cannon Rocks being the site of the Sáo Joáo Baptista wreck comes from a few other sources. Firstly, the Chinese Ming-era porcelain shards which have been picked up on Cannon Rocks beaches have been identified as coming from the same time period as when the Baptista wreck occurred. Then, while on a tour of the Eastern Cape in 1778, Col Robert Jacob Gordon, Commander of the Dutch East India Company garrison at the Cape, was led by locals to the site of a shipwreck where he found two very rusted and unidentifiable iron cannons lying among the rocks to the west of the Bushman’s River. He writes “…there were iron cannons, an 18 and a six or eight pounder. They were badly rusted so that it was impossible to make out any of the letters. ” A similar report by Lieutenant TH Bowker on 26th December 1834 indicates that an 18 pounder (9 foot long) and another, shorter gun (four foot) were pointed out to him on the rocks in approximately the same locale. [Note: Cannon Rocks cannons are 3.2m/10.4ft and 2.5m/8.2ft long]. Bowker further notes that “No account or tradition how or when they came there”. It is a moot point whether cannons, as badly corroded as reported, and purportedly from the Sáo Joáo Baptista, would have survived a further 150 years of weathering prior to finally be in a fit state to be mounted at Cannon Rocks.
“Genoese vessel” 1796
Little is known about this wreck which occurred in February 1796 and was mentioned by Bennie in a 1982 letter found in the Howard collection. (Also see Ann and Eliza below).
Betsy and Sara 1839
This Dutch barque hit an outlying reef off Bird Island in a gale and drifted to her doom on a beach at Cape Padrone, close to Cannon Rocks on 19th April 1839. A 900 tonner, she was laden with tin, arrack, coffee, rice and sugar on her way to Amsterdam from Batavia. She was under command of the Chief Officer, her captain having died at sea earlier in the voyage. Nineteen lives were lost and 32 saved.
HMS Nerbudda, 1855
On 9th June 1855 the British brig, HMS Nerbudda, left Algoa Bay and was never seen again. Under the command of Capt HA Kerr, with a full complement of officers, men and crew, she was caught in a storm after leaving Algoa Bay and disappeared at sea with 132 lives lost. No trace of her has ever been found.
Jupiter T 1875
Under the command of Captain Guiseppe Luigi Ivancich this Austrian 689ton barque was returning from Singapore, fully laden with a cargo of peppers, buffalo hides, tin ingots, nutmeg, gamboges, copal and rattans among others. Wrecked on a reef about half a mile off Cape Padrone in dense fog on 19th April 1875, she drifted onto the rocks in windless calm conditions and started breaking up. Miraculously there was only one casualty, a cabin boy, who drowned from severe injuries when his lifeboat capsized in the surf. The mounted anchor and smaller cannon as well as the anchor at 168 Alice Road are said to come from the Jupiter T. The wreck of the Jupiter T lies close to that of the Roma.
The above five wrecks have been named as originators of the cannons and anchors. Other wrecks recorded as having occurred in the vicinity of Cannon Rocks, which would have had cannons and anchors on board are:
Ann and Eliza 1796
It is not know whether this ship is the “Genoese vessel” referred to in the Bennie letter above. The Ann and Eliza was a British ship under the command of Capt Haldene, which ran aground on 22nd January 1796 in the Cape Padrone area while en route from Bengal to England with a cargo of rice, and arrack. Six of the 42 on board survived.
A large upturned hull was spotted drifting off Cape Padrone by the Captain of the Delhi on 18th July 1843. There were no reported survivors or bodies found and the wreck is classed as origin unknown/unidentified.
The Gladiator left Bombay bound for Liverpool laden with cotton, wool, linseed and rape seed under the command of Capt RC Jefferies. In a gale she was swept aground near Grootvlei in the Cape Padrone area on 12th November 1860 with a loss of six lives.
A vessel on fire was spotted by HMS Orantes close to Cape Padrone 4th July 1869. She burnt down to the water’s edge with no report of the fate of the crew. It is not known where the ship ultimately went down. This wreck is classed as origin unknown /unidentified.
A ship on fire was sighted off Cannon Rocks on 13th June 1871. She must have been abandoned by her crew but there was no trace of survivors or bodies and this wreck is also classed as origin unknown /unidentified.
John Booth 1884
Information has been hard to obtain about this wreck which occurred on 1st January 1884 close to Bushman’s River.
The Idra went down on 6th July 1884 at the Bushman’s River mouth. No further details of this wreck have been found.
A mass of flotsam, which included a mast, barrels of biscuits oranges and a tub among others, was washed up at Woody Cape near Cape Padrone in November 1889. It is not known where the flotsam came from: whether wreckage of a ship or from a ship whose decks were swept clean during a storm. Origin unknown /unidentified.
This 503 ton Norwegian barque sank with all 13 hands. The ship was identified from wreckage washed up on Cape Padrone beaches on 22nd June 1892.
Ran aground near Grootvlei in a storm and went down close to the Jupiter T on the 19th August 1892. She was on her way to Hull from Bombay with a cargo of palm-nut oil. All 14 aboard perished with only seven bodies recovered. A brass plate was erected by Sarah Harwood and Patrick Geoghegan, a widow and a brother of two of the dead in memory of their dear ones. The two travelled all the way from Britain to make the tribute. The plaque can be seen attached to the wall on the inside of the Alexandria Anglican Church.
This French steel sailing vessel was a German barque which foundered 30 miles south of Cape Padrone on 30th January 1898.
These are some of the known ships which have gone down in the Cannon Rocks/Cape Padrone area. Of course the numbers of ships lost without trace in the area will never be known and can only be speculated upon as being unfortunate victims of our seas. In addition, flotsam of any sort does not necessarily imply a shipwreck. Anchors and cannons were often lost at sea, having broken loose from the ship during a storm. Anchors could have also snagged on the sea bottom and were then cut loose if deemed irretrievable.
The state of preservation of a wreck depends on many factors, one of which is the material from which the vessel is built and it is rare to find an intact wooden sailing vessel. Heavy surf would smash it to pieces, while marine organisms cause further deterioration of the wooden structure. Metal objects such as cannons and anchors are often the only indication of the wreck site.
Anchors are an important part of a ship’s equipage to prevent helpless drifting at the mercy of the elements. In addition they are vital for steadying the vessel in a fixed position, and in windy conditions, avert possible wrecking on a lee shore. Ships of the time carried anchors, of different types (and spares in case of loss), for use under specific conditions. Navy ships were required to carry set numbers of bower, streamer and kedge anchors, each which had a particular function. The size and weight of the anchor was determined by the size and weight of the ship. Thus the dimensions of the anchor can provide clues to size of the ship which carried it. For instance the length of the anchor shaft can be used to estimate the breadth of the midship beam.
The two large anchors in Cannon Rocks appear to be of the “bower” type, the main anchors carried at the bow of the ship. These anchors are permanently attached to cables and always ready to drop in case of an emergency. According to Royal Navy stipulation of the time, the shaft length of the largest anchor on board should be two fifths of the vessel’s extreme breadth. This rule was loosely applied to other ships as well and if extrapolated to the two large anchors at Cannon Rocks, which are three meters in length, it implies they come from a ship 7.5m wide. Unfortunately this measure is too generalised and is insufficient to assist in identifying the origins of the anchors.
Both Cannon Rocks cannons were salvaged from the reef on the western side of the Swimming Bay in 1962. Their numbers on the National Register of Muzzle Loading Cannon in South Africa are 656 and 657. The cannons are made of iron and from their condition, spent a lot of time immersed in sea water. As a result they are so rusty that they do not yield much information on their background. All the usual details have been obliterated, but from the shape they appear to be of Swedish origin as are many of the old cannons in South Africa. Iron filings derived from the cannons (it is not clear which one or both) were analysed by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The findings suggest they could be of American or German origin, pre-1860.
Anecdotally the two large anchors were retrieved at about the same time as the cannons, but incontrovertible evidence has not been forthcoming.
The scantiness of hard facts means that the origins of the cannons and anchors at Cannon Rocks remain a mystery. The cannons, mounted as they are flanking the anchor, with their corroded barrels pointing to the sea, no longer roar in defence. Instead, they keep silent and watchful vigil over the wind-whipped sea which holds their perpetual secret.
* Porcelain was often used as ballast in ships returning from the east. It was a popular trading item, being readily available, did not suffer water damage and there was a ready market in Europe. There is a noticeable difference in the motifs on porcelain emanating from the wrecks of the mid-16th century and that of the 17th century. This was because of European tastes and preferences influencing the style of the Chinese potters. Therefore the design on porcelain shards, found on various beaches on our coastline, are an important factor in dating the origin of wreck sites and correctly identifying the ship. In further twist, research has shown that for the 700 years prior to the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the Chinese were producing and exporting porcelain in their own vessels throughout the Far and Middle East, Indian Ocean and East African coast, well before the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of Africa. The implication is that some porcelain shards, found off our shores could be from wrecked Chinese junks, not from Europe-based sailing vessels.
**The Swedish were at one time among the world’s great cannon manufacturers. Swedish iron contained less phosphorous which made it easier to work with when hot. Thus iron filings from cannon with low P are identifiable as probably of Swedish origin. In addition the early charcoal used in Swedish furnaces reduced sulphur contamination of the smelt, further improving the handling qualities of the metal. The introduction of coal as smelting fuel introduced higher S levels into the smelt, thus S can be used as a marker to date Swedish manufactured ironware to post-1780’s onwards.
- Anonymous. The earliest wreck on the Albany Coast. Toposcope, Journal of the Lower Albany Historical Society 2005; 36: 79-80.
- Brandt, Paul. Collection of Cannon Rocks papers.
- D’Almada, Francisco Vaz. Wreck of the ship Sáo Joáo Baptista on the coast of the Cape of Good Hope, in the year 1622. Toposcope, Journal of the Lower Albany Historical Society 2005; 36: 81-91.
- Erasmus MC. Lower Albany in Days Gone By. Pp 1-201. Self published. 2003.
- Esterhuizen LV. Dit kom van ver af – it came from afar. Chinese porseleinskerwe op die Suid-Afrikaanse kus. Chinese porcelain shards on the Soth African coast. Unpublished booklet. Undated.
- Howard Pam. Collection of Cannon Rocks papers.
- Jobling HJW. The history and development of English anchors: ca 1550-1850. MA Thesis, Texas A&M University, 1993 pp 1-151.
- Turner M. Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa ~ 1505 to the Present. Cape Town. C Struik, 1988.
- Urquhart C. Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail (1488-1917). A Maritime Story. Port Elizabeth, Bluecliff Publishing, 2007.
- Vernon Gillian. A new light on the pre-colonial history of South-East Africa, where the ‘Other’ is the European and the ‘Silence’ has a voice, based on evidence from shipwreck survivor narratives: 1552-1782. PhD Thesis, University of Fort Hare, 2009.
Note: This posting is meant to inform visitors to, and residents of, Cannon Rocks about the cannons and anchors in our village and some of the history of the shipwrecks in the area. I hope that readers find it achieves this aim. If so, and particularly if it does not, do send me your comments, additional facts or corrections of error via the Cannon Rocks Village website, their contact details can be found on their website. http://www.cannonrocksvillage.co.za