A maritime archaeologist is narrowing his search for the final resting place of a wrecked 17th century Dutch trading vessel to a spot near the Dolphin Beach Hotel, on the western seaboard.
Dr Bruno Werz has spent more than 30 years researching the Nieuw Haarlem, which has been credited with shaping the course of South African history.
In 2017 the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) granted Dr Werz a “disturbance permit” allowing him to do limited probing and excavation at several sites, including areas near the Dolphin Beach Hotel, along Bloubergstrand, close to Sunset Beach and the parking area at Rietvlei.
Excavations at the site, “Anomaly F”, located a few metres away from Dolphin Beach, yielded among other things, a 19th century shipwreck, an old marine engine, nails and a big semi-circular object that Dr Werz believes to be part of a ship.
He gave a talk at the Dolphin Beach Hotel, on Friday January 17, about the wreck and said he hoped this year to do an additional magnetometer survey to check the western (seaward) side of the site.
“In the meantime, we are waiting for the outcome of the lab analyses of some of the artefacts found there.”
More than 350 recorded shipwrecks in Table Bay had added to the difficulty of locating the Nieuw Haarlem, Dr Werz said.
A further obstacle, he said, was the 30 shipwrecks buried in the stretch of coast where he believes the Nieuw Haarlem sank. But 19th century ships were built for speed while those from earlier centuries were made to hold as much cargo as possible. This difference in design has helped him narrow his search.
Since the late 1980s, Dr Werz has pored over journals, maps, and documents in both Cape Town and the Netherlands to piece together the story of the Nieuw Haarlem, which foundered on March 25, 1647.
The ship was on a return voyage to the Netherlands from Asia and had been carrying textiles, porcelain, spices and more.
“The ship never reached the beach,” Dr Werz told the crowded conference room last Friday.
It hit shallow waters about 60 metres from the beach and sank across salt banks now called Rietvlei. While some of the crew returned to the Netherlands, 62 men remained to guard the Nieuw Haarlem’s cargo until it could be transported home.
They set up camp in the sand dunes for a year, and it was during this time that they realised the potential of establishing a refreshment station in Cape Town.
Fresh water, food and a successful barter system with the locals were among the notes documented, said Dr Werz.
The 19 iron cannons and four anchors the crew was not able to salvage from the wreck would provide the “conclusive evidence” needed to identify the Nieuw Haarlem, said Dr Werz.
Although a large chunk of his life has been dedicated to finding the wreck, Dr Werz said that once unearthed he would only remove the necessary samples for analyses.
He hoped the cannons and anchors would find a home in a museum but the rest would be covered up again for preservation, he said.
“The information will be published not only for scientific audiences but also for the general public.”
Asked what had driven him to search for the wreck, he said: “The ship had an impact on the history of a whole nation.”