Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Planned museum would pay homage to Cape Verde's maritime history


South Coast Today
By Ann Marie Lopes
February 13, 2005

The Republic of Cape Verde is planning a Maritime History Museum to be opened in Mindelo. And, thanks to an agreement signed in 1995 with the Republic with Arqueonautas, a Portuguese company dedicated to surveying and excavating historical shipwrecks with full scientific backup, the museum may well be on its way to having lots of interesting exhibits.

On its website, Arqueonautas describes its aim -- not to be treasure hunters, but rather to operate successfully as a privately funded "maritime archaeological organization".

In accordance with the agreement, important or valuable objects have been replicated for public display at the Arqueonautas Conservation Center in Praia. Eventually, the entire project archive will be moved to the Maritime Museum. In addition, Arqueonautas has been training local Cape Verdean students in the methods of maritime archaeology and conservation so that a national team can continue the work once the license agreement had expired.

After almost a year of searching the waters off the coast of Cape Verde, over 100 historic and modern shipwrecks had been uncovered. Although many of the sites have been vandalized and plundered, many artifacts have been recovered and conserved. Among these artifacts are approximately 45,000 coins and over 3,000 other artifacts and shipwreck material have been treated at this facility.

There is also talk of a traveling exhibit at which many of the more valuable artifacts will be displayed. When I read about the museum, I was excited by the prospect and hope that the numerous maritime institutions in this area can get involved with helping the government of Cape Verde catalog and display their collection. Wouldn't it be great to be able to visit the museum and discover an important part of Cape Verdean history that had previously only been reported on a superficial level?

One recently discovered wreck was the Princess Louisa, made in London and named for the youngest daughter of King George II. The ship was found in shallow but treacherous waters off the coast of the Island of Maio. Built in 1733, the Princess Louisa was designed for and owned by the East India Company, a very powerful company who had a monopoly on England's trade with Asia.

Noted for her graceful speed, the ship was also one of the largest merchant vessels in the English Fleet. In her short history, she would make four voyages to locations such as Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Persia. It was on her fourth voyage to Bombay and Persia, under the leadership of Captain John Pinson and with a crew of 100, that she would sink off the coast of Cape Verde.

In March of 1743, the Princess Louisa sailed from Portsmouth, England, to Bombay and Persia. Along with her sailed the Winchester, a smaller merchant vessel, and a naval escort, the HMS Sterling Castle. Once past the dangerous "cruising grounds of the Spanish pirates," the ships headed south to the Cape Verde Islands. Unable to match the speed of the Princess, the two other ships lagged behind.

According to ship logs, on April 17 the ships sighted the Cape Verdean Island of Boa Vista and set a course to pass through the islands. On April 18, as night fell, the two ships shortened sail as they entered an area of breakers and treacherous water currents. By midnight, the Island of Maio could be seen in the distance. About an hour later, the Princess Louisa fired her guns as a warning of danger. Shortly after that, the Winchester saw her sister ship grounded on a reef, just in time for them to avoid a similar fate.

At daybreak, the stricken ship could be seen among the rocks without a mast standing and the sea making free passage over her. Despite several rescue attempts, the Winchester was unable to save any of the crew members of the Princess Louisa. The sea was too high to get close to the reef without wrecking their ship and the Winchester had no choice but to sail on. "I am afraid," Captain Stewart wrote in his log, "there is not a man alive of them to tell their tail."

Fortunately, Captain Stewart was wrong. Forty-one crewmen, including Stephen Lightfoot, a surgeon on the Princess Louisa, survived the wreck and managed to swim to shore. Lightfoot would later write in a letter that he had saved himself by clutching onto a piece of wreckage. He arrived on shore badly cut and bruised. Survivors included the Captain Pinson and most of the senior officers. Nothing was saved from the ship except what was washed up on shore.

It's exciting to think that someday, in the Maritime Museum, we will be able to view maritime artifacts that show one of the roles the Islands played in the world's maritime history.


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