The shipwreck that forever changed South Africa

The ship’s junior merchant, Leendert Jansz, kept a journal

By Nick Dall -

On 25 March 1647 – five years before the Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) in Dutch, had established the Cape Town settlement just north of the Cape of Good Hope – the Nieuw Haarlem foundered in Table Bay’s shallow waters.

Luckily, no lives were lost, and much of the precious cargo the ship was bringing back to the Netherlands (via South Africa) from Asia was salvageable.

Not long after the incident, 58 crew members were taken back to the Netherlands by the other ships in the fleet. But the remaining 62 men were left behind to look after the valuable spices, pepper, textiles and porcelain until a larger fleet could give them and their cargo a lift home about a year later.

If they hadn’t stayed, said Gerald Groenewald of the University of Johannesburg’s Department of History, “the history of colonial South Africa could have turned out very differently.”

Dutch and other European ships had been stopping at Table Bay and Saldanha Bay (some 130km to the north) since the 1590s to load up on drinking water and barter livestock.

But the experience of the Nieuw Haarlem survivors was the “catalyst” that determined which of the powers would be the first to settle in the region and where precisely they would settle. For the Dutch, it was Cape Town.

After 1652, according to Groenewald, “the English started to concentrate more on St Helena as a halfway station. The French continued to call at Saldanha Bay from time to time but also had their own colony in Reunion.”

Werz, who started his career as a marine archaeologist in the Netherlands, moved to South Africa in 1988 to take up a lecturing position at the University of Cape Town. Within a few weeks of arriving, a member of the public phoned to say she thought she’d found the remains of the Nieuw Haarlem.

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