An artist’s impression of the Sao Joao, the Portuguese galleon which sank off the KZN South Coast in 1552. Source: Mole’s Geneology Blog
An artist’s impression of the Sao Joao, the Portuguese galleon which sank off the KZN South Coast in 1552. Source: Mole’s Geneology Blog

Storms, shipwrecks and hidden treasures

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Aug 14, 2021

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A TREACHEROUS coastline, wild storms, sunken treasure and ancient relics amid heroic deeds and tragic moments make up the tales of shipwrecks along the KZN South Coast.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the Sao Joao, a Portuguese galleon, also depicted as a carrack, which sank in 1552 near Port Edward.

Known as the Titanic of its era, the 900 ton galleon was carrying “a cargo worth a million in gold” when it ran aground. The Sao Joao was originally planned to be a warship but was recommissioned to be a trade galleon. At that time, the Portuguese were famous as master shipbuilders and great explorers.

According to history reports, the Sao Joao, which had left Portugal in 1550 and was making its return journey from India, was first damaged in a storm off Mossel Bay.

The master of the vessel, Manuel de Sousa, who was of royal blood, knew they were in serious trouble but hoped they could find haven at Delagoa Bay (Maputo).

The vessel kept course up the coastline but was hit by a second storm off the KZN coastline. Although there have been differing reports on where exactly the survivors landed, the ship foundered after its hull broke into three parts. It is known as the first cargo ship to wreck on the South African coastline.

It was carrying valuable cargo including porcelain, beads, tapestries and exotic fabrics, pepper and spices.

Amid the raging storm, De Sousa dropped anchor and went ashore with a small party as a first contingent. The ship ran aground that night, with 100 of the 600 lives on board lost. Among the survivors were De Sousa’s wife Princess Leonora de Sa, from a powerful royal family, and the couple’s two sons.

De Sousa took a party of men inland to hunt. While away, the princess and her children were caught on the beach, stripped and robbed of their belongings. This would have been humiliation for someone of royal lineage, so the princess buried herself and her two sons in the sand. When De Sousa returned, both his sons had died and the princess refused to leave her hole in the sand, where she died. De Sousa was reported to have sat on a rock looking at the ocean. He then headed inland and was never seen again.

The monument to Portuguese sailors in Port Edward on the KZN South Coast Picture: Pinterest

While most of the Sao Joao survivors died from heat, exhaustion, attacks by wild animals or disease and starvation, eventually about 20 survivors made it to Delagoa Bay, with 12 returning to Portugal to relay the fate of the Sao Joao and the royal family.

In 1980, part of a bronze gun, believed to be from the Sao Joao, was found by a diver, while other artefacts found include Ming porcelain shards from the Jiajing period (1522-1566), glass beads from India and rough earthenware.

The KZN South Coast is world famous for spectacular diving conditions, particularly the Aliwal Shoal which was first dived in the 1950s.

Lying 3km to 5km offshore and about 5km in length, the Aliwal Shoal is home to many species, including sharks, manta rays, dolphins and whales.

It is named after the vessel The Aliwal, which escaped becoming a shipwreck in 1849 when it almost hit the shoal.

In January 1850, the captain of The Aliwal, Captain James Anderson was reported in the Natal Witness as saying: “About 30 miles to the south-west from Natal (Durban) and distant from the land about two miles, I observed a very large and dangerous rock, or shoal, with heavy breakers.

“I do not find this rock placed upon any chart or alluded to in any directory. I hope therefore you will speak to the captains of coasting vessels and inform them of it when opportunity offers.”

The wreck of The Produce which sank in 1974 off the KZN South Coast Picture: Pinterest

However, two vessels, Nebo and Produce, were not as lucky as The Aliwal.

The Nebo, a 2 000-ton steamship, sank just north of Aliwal Shoal on her maiden voyage from Sunderland to Durban in May 1884. The ship was carrying the Amanzimtoti railway bridge. While there were reports that she had struck an “uncharted pinnacle”, some experts believed the sheer weight of the railway bridge on her deck could have caused the ship to capsize if hit by a large wave.

This version was believed to be the more likely as The Nebo lies upside down, 28m below sea level and there has never been another reported sighting of the “pinnacle”.

The Produce, a Norwegian bulk carrier, sank on Northern Pinnacles of the Aliwal Shoal in August 1974. While the crew desperately tried to get the vessel to shore, they were unsuccessful as the hull of the 15 000-ton vessel had been ripped open and it sank soon after. The crew were rescued. The vessel is a popular diving spot, with the bridge of the vessel lying 12m under water and resting on a sand bed at about 35m.

The boiler and cylinder are shipwreck remains of The Nightingale which ran aground on Glenmore Beach along the South Coast in 1933.

Other vessels which have sunk or run ashore, and which divers can explore, include The Nevonia in 1934 off Umzumbe, The Nightingale which ran aground on Glenmore Beach in 1933, while in 1878, The Ivy ran aground in the Leisure Bay beach area (Port Edward).

  • References:,,,,, mole’s genealogy blog

The Independent on Saturday

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