Ancient mariners’ tragic tale that changed the course of SA history

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Jul 3, 2019

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Durban - It’s a tragic tale from the 16th century which may have changed the course of world history - with the only traces of its existence being porcelain fragments and ancient cornelian beads washing up on beaches in Port Edward.

That’s the story of the mighty Portuguese vessel São Joao, which ran aground in 1552. While there have been different opinions by researchers as to the exact location of the landing of the survivors, primarily being Port Edward or Port St Johns, it is known as the first cargo shipwreck on the South African coastline.

Research by archaeologist Tim Maggs in the late 1970s places the wreck off Port Edward, using key evidence from records of survivors from another Portuguese vessel, São Bento, which was also shipwrecked slightly farther south in 1554.

Ahead of the annual Portuguese Festival in Port Edward next month, local history enthusiast Dave Watson said when the São Joao ran aground, Portugal was the richest nation on Earth as a result of being the world’s best mariners.

Bartolomeu Dias had rounded the African continent to link trade from East to West 50 years earlier, providing them with faster trade routes than any overland route used by other traders.

São Joao is generally depicted as a 15th century carrack, but it has also been depicted as a warship or galleon as opposed to a merchant ship.

The São Joao was travelling back to Portugal from India, carrying “a cargo worth a million in gold” and which included pepper, porcelain, beads, tapestries and other items. The master of the vessel was Manuel de Sousa, who was of royal blood, as was often the case with ships’ masters.

His wife was Leonora de Sa of the powerful, leading royal family of Albuquerque; their two sons were both potential heirs to the Portuguese throne.

Watson said according to research, “the ship was the Titanic of its era and was Portugal’s biggest galleon. It was planned as a warship but was recommissioned to be a trade galleon known as a three-mast carrack.

“The ship was hit by a storm off Mossel Bay. They were in deep sea waters and didn’t know the coastline. De Sousa knew they could get fresh water and safe anchorage in Delagoa Bay (Maputo) even though there was no settlement there at the time.

“But they were hit by another storm in southern KZN waters and lost their rudder. The ship dropped its deep anchor, with De Sousa and a small party of men going ashore as the first contingent.”

As the storm still raged that night, the ship ran aground, with 100 lives lost of the 600 on-board and, while numbers are not exact, it is believed the first thing the survivors would have done, being of Catholic faith, was to bury the dead.

“Perhaps the most precious cargo on-board was Princess Leonora and her two sons. At first, the plan was to construct a smaller vessel which could get back to Portugal to bring a rescue ship, but then it was decided to walk to Delagoa Bay.

“Their journey was the first in recorded European history. At Tugela Ferry (sic), De Sousa took some men inland to go and hunt. The princess and her sons remained on the beach, but she was stripped and they were robbed of their belongings. As it would have been an unimaginable humiliation for a Catholic princess to be seen naked, she buried herself in a hole and covered her sons.

Durban sardine netter, Goolam Essack, stands next to the São Jaoa memorial monument in Port Edward this week as sardine shoals were spotted off the beach.

“De Sousa was gone for five days and when he returned, both the princes had died and the princess refused to leave the hole, where she died.

“De Sousa sat on a rock looking out to sea and wouldn’t talk to anyone. He then walked inland and was never seen again.”

The ship’s carpenter, Vasco Das, took over as leader of the expedition and research indicated 21 survivors made it to Delagoa Bay and 12 made it back to Portugal. By the time Das made it back to Portugal, there was major consternation as to the royal family who had been on-board. As Das was a commoner, his version of events could not be taken as official and it was only when the master of the shipwrecked São Bento (1554) arrived back in Portugal, the fate of the São Joao was officially published.

While some of the survivors would have died along the way, it is believed some survived and assimilated with local tribes.

“Evidence of this is that because of the tall masts on their ships, sailors easily fell off, the Portuguese were good at setting broken bones and some of the tribes in the area became very good at splinting and setting broken bones. The lashings used to build houses were also similar to those done by the Portuguese.

“It has also been suggested that those survivors who settled told tales of the great empires overseas and these stories gave Shaka the inspiration to create his own empire.”

Watson added that the Portuguese traders were under strict conditions to create sustainable trading relationships. They were efficient and happy to pay a fair price for goods.

Because the two princes had died, the succession of the throne was interrupted.

The Hapsburg royal line married into the crown and the previously closely guarded Portuguese trade routes became known.

The Dutch and English took over the routes, with their methods of taking land for their empires leading to colonialism.

Had the princes survived and continued the concept of fair global trade, it has been argued that perhaps history could have painted a different story for the African continent.

The Independent on Saturday

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