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'No Account Or Tradition, How Or When They Came There'

Professor ES Grossman


It was the promise of vast riches which propelled early mariners to round the Cape to explore and exploit the lucrative Eastern trade

This was a voyage regarded with mixed feelings: fear, superstition and anxiety of what was to come, and joyful anticipation of substantial profits on their return, this is if they survived the journey

Their apprehension was well-founded: it is estimated that Portugal sacrificed 10% of her population to achieve her maritime colonial and commercial ambitions during the 15th and 16th centuaries

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, dense fog, unpredictable inshore currents, uncharted rocks and hidden shoals and reefs come together to give our coastline its hazardous reputation. In particular the great waves known as rogue waves are feared: these produce a wall of water that could crash down on a ship and sink it without trace

Meteorology as we know it did not exist in those times. The rudimentary barometers used on ships were able to predict short-term weather conditions, but there was no long term means of weather forecasting. This meant the voyagers did not know what weather systems they were sailing in to, nor what systems were coming up from behind

When faced with a storm, which required a full compliment 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 consequent 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 winds for propulsion, which ranged from 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 charts and maps, should any be available, 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 ships wooden hull in six months. This was a particular threat in the Indian Ocean, with the borer 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. Sails and rigging needed constant mending, and the barnacled algal growth encrusting the hulls required careening to scrape the surface. All this meant time consuming upkeep, which in the competitive and profit-driven spice route, was avoided unless extreme

To add to this, the riches possible from the trade route meant Captians and the companies that owned the ships took risks.

The ships were filled to capacity, maintenance not done, un-seaworthy vessels used and navigational decisions were often based on profit motive rather than the safety and security of those onboard

Since a return voyage to the East took the best part of two years, it is understandable why time factors ruled decision making

Often the holds were overloaded to maximise profit, preventing the crew from getting to the site of the leak for repair. Fire at sea was every crewman's nightmare and the flames could overwhelm the old wooden vessels and burn it down to the waterline in minutes. Fires were ignited by cooking or lighting mishaps. Unfortunately, spontaneous combustion of cargo also took place with tightly packed jute being particularly prone to bursting into flame. Filled to the brim, there was no room in the hold to get to, and extinguish a fire. Sinking occurred when seas flooded into the fire-damaged hull, leaving the crew no alternative but to abandon ship, and in all likelihood, perish at sea

Even more disturbing was the danger of a cargo of dry manure getting wet. Not only did it become heavier but it also initiated fermentation and the build-up of methane gas. Should anyone go below decks with a naked flame the ship could explode and disappear without trace

Sadly, seas, weather and avarice were not the only hazards the early voyagers had to face. Human error, faulty navigation, gross negligence, mutiny, barratry, fraud, shifting cargoes, ill-discipline and drunkenness all played their part in contributing to the countless wrecks along our coasts

Pirates were a noteworthy menace for trading ships of the time which were often scuttled after looting. Lying in wait, on established routes, to plunder well stocked barques, piracy was rife between the 16th and 18th centuries around the Southern and East African coastline. To defend themselves against pirates, 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 serving as ballast to stabilise the vessel on its voyage. Thus cannon were routinely on board sailing ships of the time

Up until the 1764 establishment of the London-based Lloyds Register of Ships, there was no publicly available information of marine traffic. The purpose of the Register at that time was to give both underwriters and merchants an idea of the condition of the vessels they insured and charted. Obviously not all sea-going vessels were insured with Lloyds, so any uninsured ship remained unrecorded as it travelled the globe. Until the British arrived at the Cape Colony in 1795, there were no authorised accounts of shipwrecks off our coast. Presciently, the British initiated a shipping column, gazetting marine traffic off the Cape, which enabled missing or wrecked ships to be tallied

Thus, with the Lloyds register in place and marine traffic gazetted, it was easier to trace shipping movements around the tip of Africa. However, the lack of reliable information before the gazette and register were established, means wreck documentation prior to that time remains problematic

1 It is against such a background that a contextual interpretation of how the Cannon Rocks cannons and anchors arrived on our shores and the identification thereof needs to be considered

PART 2 to follow

There are a number of contenders for the originators of our cannons and anchors...

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