Sunday, May 14, 2006


Conference will laud Portuguese maritime success


The Herald
By Bob Hopkin
May 11, 2006

A MARITIME archaeology conference to be held in Mossel Bay is to study how Portuguese sailors in the 15th century – the first to round the Cape of Good Hope – were 100 years ahead of other European seafaring nations in gaining access to a wealth of precious Far Eastern goods which provided them with a lucrative monopoly.

Delegates from all over the world attending the conference – to be held in August – will also be visiting the wreck sites of Portuguese vessels along the Eastern and Southern Cape coast which historians have been able to date by the style of the Chinese porcelain on board.

Historians know Portuguese sailors were the first to round the Cape in 1488 before setting up regular trade routes to India 10 years later – but still a century ahead of other European sea crews.

The Pretoria-based Centre for Portuguese Nautical Studies is organising the second Maritime Archaeology Conference in Mossel Bay from August 6 to 8 and the events of that period will figure strongly in the agenda. The conference forms the mid-point of a coastal tour of South Africa for delegates to visit the wreck sites of key Portuguese vessels.

A member of the conference’s organising staff, Dr Valerie Esterhuizen, explained the significance of the Portuguese sailors.

“Although coming from a small European country, the Portuguese always had seafaring ambitions,” she said.

“And they were way ahead of the other countries in ship-building and navigational skills.”

Esterhuizen explained how, once they had passed the Cape and found the rich resources of unique artefacts, spices and cloth of the Far East, they realised that their sailing abilities could bring them and their small country a new supply of wealth that was not available to their less skilled and courageous neighbours.

One of the most valuable and unique products that they discovered was porcelain, as only the Chinese had invented the processes that could create the thin, translucent pottery with exotic blue patterns.

While European diners were still eating and drinking out of crude earthenware crockery, the Chinese and their neighbours used this elegant tableware.

Until the Dutch and the British ships ventured around the Cape 100 years after them, the Portuguese had a monopoly of this and many other unique oriental goods.

Esterhuizen explained that in current historical studies the presence of the porcelain in the ships has played a key role in dating when the shipwreck occurred.

“Whilst the Portuguese were excellent sailors, accidents and adverse weather did cause some wrecks on the African coast.

“We estimate that there are between nine and 14 along South Africa’s shores.”

Sailing records at the time were not accurately kept and, curiously, historians like Esterhuizen have been able to date the wrecks by the style of the Chinese porcelain on board which had a distinct design depending on the time that it was manufactured.

The nine known wreck sites are dotted along the coast from Port Edward through to Mossel Bay with most concentrated in the Eastern Cape.

“Historians encourage beachcombers to note, collect and report any porcelain found on local beaches as that could lead to the discovery of previously uncharted and immensely valuable wreck sites.

Maritime history is an important field for both the Bayworld museum in Port Elizabeth and the Mossel Bay museum.

Among the many exhibits at the Mossel Bay museum is the Diaz caravelle, which also called in at Port Elizabeth over a decade ago when centuries of Portuguese input in South African history were celebrated.


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