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The Grave in the Dunes

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In November 1991 contractors digging foundation trenches for a new building at the public recreation site at Ganzekraal, about 60 km north of Cape Town, made a gruesome discovery - an unmarked grave containing two clothed human skeletons. So began a fascinating detective story, which brought to light the story of a forgotten West Coast wreck.

The discovery of the grave was made as workers were clearing a section of dune and noticed boots and bones protruding from the sand. As required in situations when human remains are found, the contractor stopped work and immediately notified the police in Darling. After a visit to the site they in turn contacted the South African Museum's archaeologists for help in investigating the remains and determining their age, origin and whether their being there was the result of foul play.

Although the skeletons had both been slightly damaged by the construction work, they were nevertheless still in remarkably good condition. So good was the preservation that it was immediately clear that they were wrapped together in a cloth burial shroud, that much of their clothing survived, as did some skin and hair. They were to some extent naturally mummified.

After careful, limited excavation they were transferred to the South African Museum in Cape Town, where further excavation and a rigorous investigation of the remains could be carried out. The investigation was as non-intrusive as possible and the remains were not fully excavated, nor was their clothing disturbed. Instead, both skeletons were x-rayed, an exercise which yielded a good deal of information and clues as to their origin and identity.

The investigation of the remains revealed that the skeletons were those of men, both of roughly the same stature and height - probably about 1.82m tall. One was estimated to have been between forty and forty-five years old when he died, and the other probably 5-10 years older. The older man had short curly hair and a full beard, and exhibited severe damage to the right side of his skull and upper right arm suggesting a possibly violent death. The younger individual also wore a beard and from the wear on his teeth may have been a pipe-smoker. He was better dressed than his grave partner, but also displayed pathologies suggestive of a violent death.

It was, however, the clothing that had survived on the skeletons that provided the best evidence of the age and possible origin of these remains. Some of the buttons carried makers' names, which were traced. The style of boots worn by both men and the style and fabric of the clothing itself also gave a clue as to its age, indicating that these men had died some time during the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Who were they and why did they share a grave in this remote spot on the west coast? The fact that the grave had been found on the seaward side of a dune, only about 50 metres from the shoreline raised the fairly obvious possibility that these men were shipwreck victims and the investigation turned to a search for a potential wreck.

A number of possibilities presented themselves - the brig Cottager was lost in the area in 1845, and the iron schooner British Settler was lost in 1851. While both of these wrecks were accompanied by loss of life, they were too early for the evidence of the bodies themselves.

It wasn’t long, however, before a local farmer read the initial newspaper reports of the discovery of the graves and contacted the archaeologists with information about the iron sailing ship British Peer, wrecked in December 1896 only a couple of kilometres north of where the bodies were found. This was definitely a likely candidate, and archival research revealed the following about the vessel.

The British Peer

The British Peer was a three-masted iron ship, built at the famous Harland and Wolff yards in Belfast, Ireland in 1865. Originally one of the fastest vessels in her class - she was what was termed a windjammer - alterations to increase her tonnage by lengthening her hull by 9 metres in 1877 completely spoiled her sailing powers and she was never as fast again. After these changes she measured 247.5 feet, and displaced 1478 tons.

The vessel belonged to the London shipowner, James Nourse and was captained by a 30-year-old Welshman, Jesse Jones, on her last two voyages. Excluding her master she carried a crew of 22, which on her last fateful voyage was made up of 7 Britons, 7 Swedes, 3 Norwegians, 3 Germans and 2 Finns.

The British Peer had previously visited Cape waters ten years earlier while on a voyage carrying indentured labourers from the East. In November 1894 she again stopped in at the Cape near the end of her penultimate voyage, under the command of Captain Jones. On that occasion she was described in the Cape Times as a “coolie ship” and was carrying a cargo of salt and 471 labourers.

The Wreck

On 3 October 1896 the British Peer sailed from London with a general cargo, which included liquor, cork, candles, gunpowder, pianos, baths and building materials for the Cape. By all accounts the voyage was uneventful and on 8 December the ship passed Dassen Island and had Table Mountain in sight. The sky was clear, the sea calm and the wind light. At about 8 pm all but those on watch went below and turned in for the night.

At 11pm those below were woken by the shock of an impact and were immediately called onto the deck by the second Mate, Herbert Balfour, to find that the vessel had struck a reef. By this time Captain Jones was also on deck and ordered the crew to man the pumps and round the sails in an attempt to float her off.

It was clear, though that the ship was doomed. As she sank rapidly by the bows the crew battled to launch the ship’s life boats. They got only one into the water, but only one man managed to get aboard before it was swept away by seas that had grown suddenly rough. The remainder of the crew gathered on the aft deck where they started burning blue lights and firing off rocket flares. The main and fore masts crashed over board, tearing up the decks. The deckhouse was washed away and cargo began spilling out of the holds, filling the sea with lethal, jostling spars and crates. Some of the crew sensibly chose to don life-jackets which were stored in the lazaretto and they were to be the ones to survive as one by one the waves picked men off the decks and swept them into the sea.

Caught in the longshore current that runs down the west coast the sailors were dragged south. Most were dashed against the rocks that line the shore and didn’t survive. Four managed to fight their way ashore on the only stretch of beach for miles, from whence they made their way to Ganzekraal, the farm of Albert Melck. Two days later they were put aboard a train for Cape Town, where, they were put up in the Sailors Home in Dock Road.

On 7 January 1897 a Court of Enquiry into the loss of the British Peer was held, presided over by the Resident Magistrate, Jan Cambier Faure, assisted by Captains George William Stanton of the Iolanthe, and Philip Moignard of the Garsdale. The reasons for the loss of the vessel were never ascertained as the only witnesses - the four survivors - were all below at the time she struck. However, based on the testimony of the survivors, two of whom indicated that they thought the vessel was too close to the shore, the court found that “the loss of the ship was occasioned by reckless navigation on the part of the master”.

The Aftermath

After the enquiry, the four survivors were discharged in Cape Town. The youngest, Joseph Olsen, made his way back to London and subsequently went on to captain his own vessel. Nothing is known of what happened to the others.

Back near the wreck site, bodies were washing ashore and continued to do so until early in January. Most had been so badly mutilated by the rocks that they were no longer identifiable and all were in an advanced state of decay. As a result it seems that under the direction of the local Field-Cornet they were buried pretty much where they were found. Altogether a total of fourteen bodies were recovered, including that of the Captain, although only eight were positively identified. The identity of the two Ganzekraal skeletons is not certain. The age range of the younger of the two, however, taken together with the fact that he was dressed somewhat better than an ordinary sailor might be expected to suggest that these may be the remains of George James Whyte, the ship’s steward.

Once the skeletons had been studied, they were re-interred during a simple ceremony on the nearby farm of Bokbaai. The wreck of the British Peer itself still lies in quiet obscurity in about nine metres of water off the rocky point known to local fishermen Kabeljoubank.

John Gribble
Maritime Archaeologist
Cape Argus, 12 December 1896, 7 & 8 January 1897
Cape Times, 12 December 1896, 4, 8 & 9 January 1897
Lloyds Register of Shipping 1896-7
Wilson, ML & Van Rijssen, WJJ, 1994,
Two Victims of the wreck of the British Peer, Southern African Field Archaeology.

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Article received from Gabriel Athiros, Editor, "The Cape Odyssey"

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