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Sea Tales - The Battle of Saldanha

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The Battle of Saldanha and the Loss of the Middelburg

Articles received from: "The Cape Odyssey"

In 1781, Holland became involved in the American War of Independence by joining France and Spain in declaring war on England. All Dutch shipping at the Cape - mainly richly laden East Indiamen en route to Holland - was ordered to remain together until a well protected convoy could be assembled to escort them home.

Battle of SaldanhaAs a further precaution, given the difficulty of defending Table Bay in the event of an attack, on 16th May 1781 the Governor of the Cape, Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, dispatched five of these merchantmen, the Hoogkarspel, Middelburg, Honkoop, Paarl and Dankbaarheid, and the Held Woltemade (an Indiaman on its way to the East but in need of repairs) to Saldanha Bay, where they were ordered to shelter.

The captain of the Hoogkarspel, Gerrit Harmeyer, commanded the fleet, and had clear orders to ensure that under no circumstances these vessels should be allowed to fall into English hands. The East Indiamen were anchored in Hoedjies Bay, in the lee of Marcus Island and stripped of their sails, which were stored aboard a small local packet at the southern end of the Langebaan Lagoon, ready to be destroyed if the ships were captured. Orders were also given that the ships were to be destroyed if they could not escape capture. Each captain was instructed to load his vessel with combustibles, and if capture seemed likely, to set fire to his ship. Most of the Dutch commanders and crew did not take this order seriously and treated their time in Saldanha Bay as a holiday, socialising and hunting. Captain van Gennep of the Middelburg was the only officer to comply with these instructions by preparing his boat to be set alight.

Late in May a French frigate, the Serapis, arrived at the Cape carrying word that both French and English fleets were en route to the Cape - the former to strengthen the Dutch defences and the latter to take the Cape, if possible. After an indecisive skirmish off Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands, both fleets disengaged and sailed south. The French, under Admiral Pierre André de Suffren, reached the Cape on 21st June 1781, and within days French troops had been deployed to assist the Dutch in the defence of Cape Town. De Suffren then anchored in False Bay and awaited developments.

The English fleet under Commodore George Johnstone was also nearing the Cape. Unbeknown to the Dutch, Johnstone had decided to take his huge fleet - comprising the battleships Hero (74 guns), Monmouth (64 guns), Romney (50 guns), Jupiter (50 guns) and Isis (50 guns), the frigates Apollo (38 guns), Jason (36 guns), Active (32 guns) and Diana (28 guns) - and some twenty other supporting vessels including four troop transports carrying three thousand soldiers and thirteen Indiamen. Johnstone entered Saldanha Bay to reconnoitre, with a view to possibly landing his troops there instead of nearer Cape Town.

Meanwhile the repairs to the Held Woltemade had been completed and an ill-advised decision allowed her to proceed on her voyage to the East. On 4 July, shortly after leaving Saldanha Bay, she was approached by a 32-gun warship flying French colours, which hailed her in French when they came within earshot. The unsuspecting captain of the Held Woltemade disclosed that de Suffren was lying in Simon's Town and that a fleet of Dutch East Indiamen were anchored in Saldanha Bay. The crew of the Held Woltemade then watched in horror as the French flag was lowered and the English flag raised on the mast of HMS Active, one of Johnstone’s frigates. The Held Woltemade struck its colours without a fight and along with the valuable strategic information obtained, the captain of the Active was probably delighted to discover that his prize was carrying a fortune in bullion.

On 21 July 1781, Commodore Johnstone, at the helm of the Romney, sailed into Saldanha Bay ahead of his fleet, his vessels again disguised by flying French flags. The bored Dutch sailors were initially jubilant, mistaking the English vessels for the long-awaited reinforcements due to escort them home. They soon realised that the pre-arranged signal had not been given and they then saw the French flags being hauled down and English colours run up. Followed by the Jason, Lark, Jupiter and the rest of the squadron, the Romney opened fire on the anchored Dutch ships. Chaos reigned. The Dutch hastily tried to set their ships alight and cut their cables to run the vessels ashore before abandoning ship. The English crews, however, were prepared for fire fighting and quickly extinguished the fires as they boarded the abandoned vessels.

The only exception was the Middelburg, where the success of Van Gennep’s preparations to destroy his vessel were assured when the first mate, Abraham de Smidt, stayed behind with the steward and a sailor to light several fires deep in the belly of the ship. The vessel was soon fiercely ablaze, and the flames spread through the hull to the powder magazine, whereupon she exploded and sank. The Middelburg was the only Dutch vessel in Saldanha Bay that day not to fall into English hands. The loss of six Indiamen and their cargoes and a number of other small vessels, must have been a serious financial blow to the already struggling Dutch East India Company and may well have been one of the factors that contributed to it’s final bankruptcy in 1796.

Another loss experienced that day was by the French naturalist, François le Vaillant, later to become famous for his books on his travels in South Africa. Le Vaillant, recently arrived in the Cape aboard the Held Woltemade had obtained an invitation from Van Gennep to sail on the Middelburg to Saldanha Bay and had taken all his possessions, including his priceless collection of natural history specimens, with him.

On the morning of the attack, Le Vaillant was out hunting with one of the local farmers and upon hearing gunfire, hastened back to the coast. He arrived just in time to see the Middelburg go up in flames and explode. Burman and Levin quote le Vaillant’s reaction: “The Middelburg blew up and in a moment the sea and sky were filled with burning papers. I had thus the cruel mortification of seeing my collections, my fortune, my projects and all my hopes rise to the middle regions and evaporate into smoke.”

The Wreck of the Middelburg

In 1788, shortly after her loss, the first attempt to salvage material from the wreck of the Middelburg was made by Gerrit Munnik, a burgher of Cape Town. He managed to recover a few pieces of porcelain from the wreck, which lay in shallow water near Hoedjiespunt. A century later, in 1888, a Captain Teague recovered large quantities of tin and porcelain and in 1895, a diver working for Captain Lea and Charles Adams, recovered about 300 pieces of porcelain. The site was severely damaged in 1906 and 1907 during expeditions under Captain Charles Gardiner of the South African Salvage Association, when explosives were used on the site, ostensibly to kill a huge octopus, but more probably to break up concretion covering the site. These salvage attempts recovered three cannon, a good deal of porcelain, tea chests and a host of other material.

The most recent, and last, salvage attempts were undertaken in 1969 by the Dodds brothers of Cape Town. Their work revealed that the Middelburg’s timbers were in good condition and that because of the protected environment in which she sank and the sand covering the site, much of her lower hull structure was intact. They recovered 198 intact pieces of porcelain, but found that much of the remaining ceramic material on the site had been broken by Gardiner’s use of explosives.

Sadly, the site has never been properly recorded, and no known site plan has ever been produced. After the Dodds brothers worked on the site, Portnet built a breakwater between Hoedjiespunt and Marcus Island which effectively buried the wreck of the Middelburg, and may have placed one of our best preserved shipwrecks beyond the reach of salvors and archaeologists alike.
John Gribble
Marine Archaeologist - SAHRA

Burman, J., and Levin, S., 1974, The Saldanha Bay Story, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town

Lello, B., 1985, Saldanha Bay and the farm Geytenbergsfontein / Oostenwal, unpublished report in SAHRA Library

Turner, M., 1988, Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa: 1505 to the Present, C Struik, Cape Town

Webmaster's Note: My appreciation to Mr Gabriel Athiros, editor of "The Cape Odyssey", for permission to publish this article on "The Cape Odyssey" is a must for everyone who enjoys reading and learning about the colourful and fascinating history of the Cape.

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