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Saldanha Bay coasters
and the wreck of the Nagel

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Because the raison díetre for the establishment of the Dutch settlement at the Cape was the servicing of the great East Indiamen that plied the long passage between Europe and the East, these vessels and their stories have tended to dominate the maritime history of South Africa. Generally forgotten are the many small, locally based coasting vessels that explored the South African coast, sourcing and transporting the supplies that made it possible for the fledgling Dutch settlement to fulfil its mandate and supply the trading fleets.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many of these Cape-based vessels were small VOC or ex-VOC craft - yachts, hoekers, sloops and galiots - and most plied the west coast between the Cape and Saldanha Bay.

The Dutch presence at Saldanha

From the time of Van Riebeeck, Saldanha Bay had been seen as a fine anchorage and a safe haven for vessels in need, and had proved itself to be a pantry for the settlement, a rich source of fish, seal and penguin meat and oil, birds' eggs and salt, and a source of stock bartered from the indigenous Khoi Khoi population.

The first VOC settlement of Saldanha occurred as early as December 1666 when a detachment of soldiers was despatched from the Castle with orders to establish an outpost in the bay, this after a French fleet had anchored in the Bay, under orders to investigate the feasibility of claiming the area for France. This occupation by the VOC lasted all of one month, the troops being recalled to the Cape on 13 January once the French fleet had sailed for the east.

Three years later, on 22 April 1669, based on further reports of French designs on the bay, troops were again despatched to Saldanha with instructions to occupy the two best fresh water sources in the area. This time occupation lasted somewhat longer, but ended in October 1670 when the VOC troops were captured by a French fleet, the commander of which removed the VOC flag from the buitepost, replacing it with the French flag. The Dutch soldiers managed to escape back to the Cape, leaving the bay in French hands. The French departed on 8 October, but left their flag flying over the buitepost, and a plate engraved with the name of Louis XIV nailed to a pole nearby. The Dutch made no attempt to reoccupy the buitepost until four months later when it was decided to keep a permanent presence at Saldanha to deter foreign interests in the area.

In March 1671, a new post holder, Pieter Siegfriedt and five soldiers sailed for the bay in the sloop Bruijdegom, but two years later the buitepost was again abandoned, this time as a result of an attack by local Khoi herders in which the post holder, a soldiers and two free burghers - known at the Cape as Saldanhavaarders - were killed. Two soldiers survived the attack by swimming to the fishing boats anchored nearby.

Saldanhavaarders and the coasting trade

After this latest calamity to befall the Saldanha buitepost no official presence was renewed for a number of years. During this lacuna most of the work the VOC needed carried out in the area - fishing, ferrying supplies to ships using the bay in need, fetching sheep, hunting seals and trying down their blubber, etc - was conducted by a group of free burgers who had been involved in such activities at Saldanha since the 1650's, and who came to be known as the Saldanhavaarders. This group had an arrangement with the Cape Government to supply the goods listed above and successfully met a substantial portion of the needs of the colony. This arrangement seems to have suited the authorities at the Cape since it saved them the trouble of carrying out these tasks themselves.

The vessels involved in this trade were, as mentioned above, mostly small, fast, one or two masted craft, generally of low tonnage and shallow draught - all features which allowed them great freedom to operate in the shallow Langebaan Lagoon. Some of these vessels were owned by the Saldanhavaarders, whilst others were VOC property and were rented or operated by either the free burghers or VOC personnel. From the 1650's a succession of vessels served Saldanha Bay - the yacht Robbejacht and the boat Peguijn. (c. 1657), the hoeker Gecroonde Haringh (c. 1666), the boat Bruijd (c. 1666 - 1676), the Jas (c. 1673), the sloop Haagman (c. 1676), to name but a few.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries these small coasters ran almost constantly between Table Bay and Saldanha, the largest portion of their cargo being fish - salted or dried - which was used at the Cape as rations for the slaves and prisoners. During this period too, many of the vessels used as coasters were of a type known as galiots. Generally about 60 feet in length and 16 or so feet across the beam, galiots usually carried a main and mizzen mast, a tiller arm that worked over the top of the rounded stern and because of their shallow draught they carried lee-boards, which served as their keel. Known for their speed and sailing ability, galiots could easily make the 80km trip to or from Saldanha to the Cape in a dayís sailing, although records indicate that most skippers chose to break the voyage by overnighting on Dassen Island.

The galiot Nagel - or Naald - was one of these vessels and served on the Saldanha run between 1708 and 1709. Built and owned by the Amsterdam Chamber of the VOC, the Nagel sailed for the Cape from Texel on 28 December 1707, arriving there on 10 May 1708. For the next year entries in the 'Dagregister' at the Cape indicate that she was employed as a coaster, before being lost while on a fishing expedition to Saldanha.

The loss of the Nagel

On 27 May 1709, the Nagel was at anchor in front of the posthuis at the Saldanha buitepost. At about 2pm the skipper and four crewmen rowed to the shore to repair their fishing net in their tent on the beach. Still aboard were the 'stuurman' (or first officer) and the 'meester', who were quartered in the fo'c'sle.

As night fell they lit a lamp in the main cabin in the stern of the vessel, and then returned to their quarters. A short time later the Nagelís skipper and the post holder noticed that the vessel was ablaze, and hurriedly rowed out to the vessel. It soon became clear that the fire was out of control and could not be extinguished. The only way to put the fire out was by scuttling the ship, which they did by using axes to smash holes below the waterline in her hull. Despite these efforts, the vessel burned down to the waterline and the crew and captain lost everything. The blackened hulk floated ashore where it lay exposed at low tide.

While the 'stuurman' and 'meester' were sent to the Castle with the news of the loss - and were promptly clapped in irons by Governor van Walsenburg - the remainder of the crew stayed at the posthuis waiting for orders. These soon came from the Cape. Everything usable was to be salvaged - the rudder, anchors, some guns and iron and lead ballast were collected - and kept at the posthuis until the brig Amy could be sent to fetch it.

So ended the short career of the Nagel and with her passing her story sank into obscurity, just as the stories of many of the other tireless coasters of the South African coast have been forgotten. The story of the Nagel and the other coasters is very much part of the broad and dramatic sweep of South African maritime history, in which these sadly neglected vessels ultimately played a far greater and central role than the passing trading fleets they were employed to serve.

John Gribble
Maritime Archaeologist, SAHRA

Schuler, G (ed), 1976,
De Ondekkingsreis van Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh in de jaren 1696 1697, Gravenhage, pp 7 8
VC 19 Dagregister 27 May 1709, pp 183 186
VC 19 Dagregister 31 May 1709, p 186
C 509 II Uitgaande Brieven, 6.5 (sic) 1709, pp 1129 1130

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

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