Could the shipwreck site of the 1643 Santa Maria Madre de Deus have been found?

The museum has records of shipwreck material being reported from Bonza Bay, East London. A small Portuguese vessel (naveta) was believed to have sunk in the area in 1643 while on a homeward bound journey from Goa in the east. She was carrying a cargo of Chinese porcelain, spices and silk.

Although many lives were lost a number of survivors managed to walk to Cape Correntes. The ship was under the command of Dom Luis de Castelbranco when it went down.

Maritime archaeologist John Gribble drafted the following:

At least thirteen Portuguese ships from the Age of Exploration, spanning approximately 200 years between the late 15th and 17th centuries, were wrecked along what is now the South African coast.

Since the early 1970s researchers, such as the late Graham Bell-Cross of the East London Museum, have worked to identify the location of the wrecks and together with discoveries by divers, most of the sites have now been located or the approximate place of their loss identified. Only the locations of the so-called “Soares” wreck (1505), possibly the earliest Portuguese loss in South African waters, and the Santa Maria Madre de Deus (1643) remain unconfirmed.

The Santa Maria Madre de Deus was a naveta, carrying at least 28 guns, and was lost on a return voyage from the East with a cargo of spice, Chinese porcelain and saltpetre, having departed Goa in early March 1643.

Bell-Cross suggested that there was a mid-17th century Portuguese wreck somewhere off Bonza Bay on the basis of porcelain shards, carnelian beads and other artefacts that have been collected near the mouth of the Qinira River in the past. The age and type of the wreck material found on the beach and the absence of any other known wreck from this period in the area led to the suggestion that this may be the wreck of the Santa Maria Madre de Deus.

This link is tantalising but tenuous. However, the cannon recently discovered off the Nahoon River have the potential to finally give a name to this unnamed wreck, and possibly pin down the location of the Santa Maria Madre de Deus.

Portuguese and Spanish ships of the 15th and 16th centuries were the original vehicles of expansion into the East and New World respectively during the European Age of Exploration, but our knowledge of these vessels of exploration and trade is limited and based almost entirely on a small body of written records, drawings and paintings.

In the absence of documentary records, the only other source of primary information about Portuguese ships during this period is the wrecks of these ships. To date, relatively few Portuguese India-route shipwreck sites have been found, and almost all were subject to modern salvage by their finders before archaeologists had access to the sites.

Of the Portuguese wrecks previously found in South African waters, none have been subject to proper archaeological investigation. Interventions in these sites have tended to be salvage-driven with the focus on the recovery of saleable objects and artefacts with little interest in the wider site, its meaning or archaeological value.

As a possibly untouched 17th century Portuguese shipwreck, the Nahoon River Wreck is thus potentially very significant: both to our national underwater cultural heritage and in terms of what this wreck, if carefully, archaeologically investigated can add to the international body of knowledge about the ships of the Age of Exploration, the era which arguably kick started the process of globalisation which continues today.

A comprehensive drawing of timber shipwreck material exposed at Bonza Bay in 1993 was documented by retired museum maritime conservator Deon Smit (illustrated below).

This 1993 photograph illustrates now retired museum maritime conservator Deon Smit measuring up the wreck material at Bonza Bay. Photo credit: Gary Horlor

Some aspects of the project design going forward to work on the site with a permit issued by the SA Heritage Resources Agency are detailed below (listed by John Gribble, Project Leader):

  • An evaluation of previous and preliminary studies;
  • A statement of project aims and objectives;
  • A description of the methodology to be applied in pursuing the project aim and objectives;
  • The anticipated sources of funding for the proposed work;
  • An expected timetable for completion of the proposed work;
  • The composition of the project team including their qualifications, responsibilities and experience;
  • Plans for post-fieldwork analysis and other activities;
  • A conservation programme for any artefacts recovered from the site and details of the agreement and arrangements with the East London Museum as the nominated repository;
  • A project documentation, archiving and reporting policy; and
  • A programme for publication and public awareness engagement.

Members of the public that have collected heritage material from Bonza Bay or the Nahoon Beach are encouraged to contact the museum.

About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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