Shipwreck novella is a tribute to friendship

A Sea Point resident wants to pay tribute to his late childhood friend who he spent many hours treasure-hunting with on the seaboard in the 1980s.

The fondest memories that Michael Smorenburg has of Francois Hugo, who passed away on March 10, have been captured in his book, The Praying Nun, which was published in 2015.

The book is about the true story of how Mr Smorenburg and Mr Hugo went in search of sunken treasure in the ocean and Mr Hugo ended up finding the wreck of a slave ship called Sao Jose Paquete Africa, which had sunk near Clifton Second Beach during the late 1700s.

The book is divided into two parts, part one being non-fiction and part two being a summary of the author’s imagination about what happened during the Atlantic slave trade.

Mr Hugo is given the pseudonym Jacques in the book as Mr Smorenburg was unable to find him before it was published.

Part one takes readers back to the 1980s when Mr Smorenburg and Mr Hugo were teenagers growing up in Sea Point.

They met at Camps Bay High School and the book tells of how their friendship and trust for one another grows over a period of time when they spent most of their days in rough oceans searching for crayfish to sell to the Sea Point community to earn extra money.

However, daily they discovered many different strange looking objects floating around on the seabed at Clifton Second Beach behind Cherry Rock.

In the story Jacques begins to believe that a gold carrying vessel had sunk in the ocean and begins to do research.

Technology in the 80’s was not advanced as it is today and doing research meant going to the library.

Mr Smorenburg said he and Mr Hugo pored over books and spent long hours searching in the ocean for the “gold on the shipwreck”.

He said they dived for almost a year and he had given up hope but knew Mr Hugo would not surrender until “something” was found.

“One day Francois said he had found the wreck. I was in awe because I had given up on the investigation but he refused to do so, this is just the type of person he was.”

To their surprise, research showed it was a slave ship which had been carrying 420 slaves and 80 crew members.

The sad history revealed 212 slaves went down with the ship and drowned as their shackles were too heavy, while the remainder of slaves were sold in Cape Town.

Mr Smorenburg said: “These were exciting times for me as a kid to sit quietly and do research but it was devastating to find out what had happened to these slaves.”

He said Mr Hugo registered for a salvage permit and the Iziko South African Museum confirmed that he was the discoverer.

Colonial archaeologist at Iziko South African Museum, Professor Jaco Boshoff confirmed that Mr Hugo had found the shipwreck behind Cherry Rock, however, his intention was to find “treasure”, said Professor Boshoff.

“Mr Hugo indeed found the wreck in the 1980s. He did not, however, identify it as a slave shipwreck, but rather as a Dutch merchant vessel. This was in the heyday of treasure hunting in South Africa and Mr Hugo mistakenly thought that there would be treasure on this wreck because it was old.

“This is not unusual as Mr Hugo was not a professional archaeologist or historian. It was our research and in-depth knowledge of old shipwrecks that clarified the identity of the wreck as that of the Portuguese slaver Sao Jose and not the Dutch East India Company vessel, Schuilenburg, as was done by Mr Hugo.”