In the blackness of the hull, over 300 slaves cling to each other in fear as the old Portuguese cargo ship seems to climb and fall off mountains of water. Above, the passengers hide helplessly in their leaky compartment, mothers urging their terrified children not to worry, while praying their last prayer. The crew, malnourished and weak, fight the wind with their sails, still dreaming of a homecoming. But in a moment of devastating clarity, the nose of the ship points towards the lit sky, then back down and towards a mass of rocky land.
A small island off Msikaba, only accessible during low tide, is the final resting place of the Sao Bento sailing ship, sunk 463 years ago in April 1554. That night, around 322 survivors clambered upon the battered shore, sinking their hands into the sand of a foreign and wild land. A few days later, they made rafts using the barrels that had been washed ashore from the wreck. They crossed the Msikaba River and began an incredible year-long journey to Maputo encountering wild animals, starvation, sickness and often, extreme hostility from the local Bantu tribes. Of the original 322 castaways, only 23 arrived in Maputo. Many of the sick or weak were left behind along the way. These castaways were often killed by local tribesmen or in many cases, as with the hundreds of shipwrecks over the centuries, would be absorbed into whatever village or tribe was in the area. Most famously, the 7 year old English Castaway girl whose parents died of starvation and was rescued and named ‘Gquma’ by a tribe in Pondoland. There she lived for the rest of her days, later marrying the great chief ‘Ndepa,’ and ruling the tribe together. Here lies the unresolved beginning of the Abe Lungu (white) Pondoland clan; where European castaways were absorbed and married into local tribes.
The Sao Bento cargo of luxury goods, including Chinese porcelain, monetary cowries and red Cornelian beads, sunk to the ocean floor. Almost 500 years later, the Sao Bento’s treasure is still making an appearance on the small rocky island of Msikaba.
Interesting fact about Purple Cowrie shells : “Although live Cypraea annalus are relatively common along South Africa’s eastern coast, live Cypraea moneta are rare. Most of the Cypraea moneta shells found along our coast are believed to originate from the holds of old shipwrecks. For this reason the Cypraea moneta that are washed up at the site in Port Edward are viewed as important links in identifying it as the wreck site of the São João. – Elizabeth Burger, Re-investigating the wreck of the sixteenth century Portuguese Galleon Sao Joao.
I have fond memories of many camping trips to Msikaba as a child; of exploring the pristine Msikaba Gorge and river, the Mkambati Nature reserve, the vulture colony (as well as an ex leper colony) sandy beaches and a towering sand dune that we’d slide down. But my fondest memory, no doubt, was hunting for the Sao Bento’s treasure.
I’m not the only one. On this recent trip we met the very interesting local treasure hunter, Gilbert. We’d heard that for many years, he’d wandered up and down the coast in search of washed up treasure from the 3 famous shipwrecks in the area – the Sao Bento, the Sao Joao and the Grosvenor. Gilbert claims that as well as porcelain and Cornelian beads, he has found a precious gold pendant.
“So one day my mother sat me down and explained that I couldnt become an explorer because everything in the world had already been discovered. I’d been born in the wrong century, and I felt cheated.” – Ransom Riggs
On this recent trip, we thought it would be interesting for us and the kids to see this mystery gold pendant, so we loaded everyone onto the back of the pick-up truck and followed a two track road into the hills, eventually locating the home of Gilbert. When we got there, only Gilbert’s wife was there. She said he was out walking, but that she’d look for him. She walked down and over a hill and another, until she was only a red speck in the distance, shouting for Gilbert. Almost an hour later, the old treasure hunter arrived. He firmly stated that if we wanted to see to the gold pendant, no cameras were allowed (for security reasons) and that it would cost us R400 each to see the pendant. There were 4 of us adults and 5 children, amounting to more than the cost of the entire weekend! We tried to negotiate, but Gilbert was adamant that that was the price.
“There is all the difference in the world between treasure and money.”
― Roderick Townley,
As I looked into his unrelenting blue eyes, I was thrust into another time and I thought of the survivors of shipwrecks along the South African coast, of the 7 year old girl washed ashore, of the untold stories and the lives that were lost at sea. I saw years of scouring the beaches for treasure in those blue eyes, of many long hours sifting through sand and shells.
That day, when Gilbert named his non-negotiable price and we left having not seen the gold pendant, I saw something else that seemed not to be about making a living off his treasure, but of a possible history.
Accommodation in Msikaba
Msikaba accommodation mostly consists of rustic privately owned fishing cottages. For the Msikaba Greenfire self-catering tented camp, click on the link below. (Bookings are made through Drifters)
2017 South African Blog Awards
After many years of living outside of South Africa, I am now back! This qualifies me to enter in the 2017 South African Blog Awards, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time! The Africa far and wide blog is a very small fish in a very big pond, nevertheless, I’m going to give it my all anyway and hope for the best! Please take a minute to show your support by voting for my blog. Thank you kindly.