By Al J. Venter
Protea Boekhuis, 2014
Not everybody is aware that the ships that rounded our coast over the past five centuries are as closely linked to the history of South Africa as gold and diamonds. They were treasures then, they are all treasures today. The difference is that about 3000 ships were lost rounding the Cape of Good Hope, some centuries ago on their way to and from the Spice Islands of the East. It has taken a rare brand of adventurer to discover the undersea locations of many of them and Al Venter and his friends detail their activities.
These range from the earliest Portuguese sailing ships to more contemporary disasters like the sinking of the liner Oceanos off the Wild Coast a few decades ago. Venter has been diving for half a century, so he has a story or two of his own to relate. Contributors venture much further afield and chapters on a Roman galley sunk off a Tunisian island, a Portuguese Nao that went down in Mombasa harbour, the tragedy of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead where the phrase “women and children first” was first used and left its legacy in the annals of maritime history are included.
The first chapter is arguably the most interesting, the discovery in 2013 of the submarine HMS Otus, which lies at 110 metres off Durban. The author also tells us about diving on an old ship, a former Royal Navy Loch Class frigate, the SAS Transvaal. She now lies on the bottom of False Bay. This book covers scores of shipwrecks – East Indiamen, warships from before and after the Napoleonic era, nineteenth-century steamships, trawlers, some modern freighters that courted disaster, whalers and a handful that has never been properly identified.