Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Shipwrecks, passenger lists and newspapers

While the earlier local press is an invaluable source for material on shipwrecks, as well as for passenger lists (though not always accurate or very detailed) the difficulty in Natal papers is that the originals have not been digitised. 

Some microfilm copies exist e.g. at Killie Campbell Library, but it is extremely hard to search for a chance reference to an event recorded on microfilm as an entire page cannot be scanned by the eye while searching. It is so much easier to tackle the original newspaper pages, especially as one gradually becomes familiar with where the shipping columns, for example, are placed in the paper so one doesn't necessarily have to plough through an entire edition - with all its distracting and irrelevant avenues.

Original Natal newspapers going back to the earliest Natal Witness, Natal Mercury etc are held in the Pietermaritzburg (Msunduzi) Library, previously the Natal Society Library. Serious researchers are allowed to peruse these though obviously you need to know which edition to order up. Some are in poor and fragile condition, though strangely enough the earlier the better as paper quality decreased as the years advanced.

Nevertheless, it would be ideal to preserve the originals whatever their condition and the best method would be to scan them digitally, This is not a priority in the present Natal and one wonders if it ever would become so. Few of the powers-that-be would consider the copying of a lot of colonial newspapers at all important. And so the originals will eventually become unusable and a great resource will be lost. Scanners of the size required are very expensive and whoever is using them needs to know what they're doing. Perhaps the Mormons might look on our plight with favour?

Meanwhile we can only look on in envious awe at online e-newspapers such as the Australian Papers Past or Trove, all free to access, searchable and wonderfully clear to read. It is something to set as a goal for our own newspapers - or is it an impossible dream?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 16: British Merchant Seamen's Records

Diverging slightly from shipwrecks, while we're on the topic of crews there are more than 2.6 million Merchant Navy Seamen records, which are being published by findmypast in partnership with The National Archives. The Merchant Navy Seamen records comprise two main sections: 

* Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1857: records of individual seamen that the central government created to monitor a potential reserve of sailors for the Royal Navy. Over 1.6 million records are available to view between these dates. 

* Merchant Navy Seamen 1918-1941: records of index cards that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman used between the two world wars to produce a centralised index to merchant seamen serving on British merchant navy vessels. There are 998,838 records available to search between these dates.

Merchant Marine World War II

The amount of information listed varies, but the Merchant Navy records usually include the following information about your ancestor:
  • Name 
  • Age or date of birth 
  • Place of birth 
  • Photograph of your ancestor 
  • Physical description including height, hair colour, eye colour and tattoos 
  • Your ancestor's signature 
  • Name and address of next of kin 
  • Rank or rating 
  • Ship names or numbers and dates of voyages 
  • Register ticket (a merchant seaman's ID) 
  • Discharge number

    As well as providing information about your ancestor's career, it should be noted that the Merchant Navy Seamen records can also reveal what he or she looked like. Many of the records include a photograph or a physical description, bringing you face to face with your ancestor. [Information from findmypast site.] What a bonus for any family researcher.
  • Monday, February 8, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors and other arrivals 15

    If your ancestor was part of a crew on board ship arriving at a South African port in the 19th c there is little chance of finding him mentioned in shipping registers. In the 20th c, with the large liners making regular calls in South Africa, records were kept of crew members usually at the port of embarkation. The crew list of Waratah, for example, is available. All of the latter went down with the ship.

    Crew of Waratah

    I have sometimes received queries from family historians who say their ancestor 'jumped ship' in South Africa. This wouldn't be a good place to start a search. Better to go to NAAIRS and see if there is a deceased estate file held for him at archives. If the man was divorced or was involved in a court case of any kind during his sojourn in South Africa there may well be evidence of that among the references. It helps if the ancestor had an unusual name: Joe Smith would bring up an avalanche of hits.

    If the ancestor travelled to South Africa by ship but for some reason leapt overboard and was lost at sea, the only hope is the Deaths at Sea records.
    These include names of passengers and crew of the Titanic and Lusitania, incidentally.

    Records at sea are online at  
    These  cover over 150, 000 individuals (previously only searchable on microfilm) who were born, married or died on ships between 1854-1908. They are definitely not all-inclusive.

    Union Castle Ship crew

    Friday, February 5, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 14: Titanic, Waratah, American

    In more recent times, if an ancestor was shipwrecked on a large liner there is a good chance that the event was well-documented, even that a passenger list was published in the press. I am thinking of the obvious famous vessels like Titanic and Lusitania, though there are less publicised wrecks such as that of the American in the1880s. The survivors of the latter ship had to undergo a second shipwreck immediately after the first, on the ship which was supposedly taking them to safety. Not a good day for those on board.

    The Waratah, which mysteriously disappeared off the South African coast in 1909, was the topic of numerous  reports in local and international press for many months and the list of her passengers was published several times. Despite these facts being to hand, there are frequent claims made by alleged descendants that their ancestor was among those on board the fated ship.

    It is evidence of a strange desire to be associated in some way with a famous and tragic incident - rather like descendants who hold to it, buckle and thong, that their forebear fought at Rorke's Drift in 1879 when it is perfectly clear from documentary evidence that he was not among that small courageous band of British soldiers. 

    What particular claim to fame it might be for an ancestor to have been lost on the Titanic or the Waratah remains nebulous, but there's no doubt that a certain glamour attaches to such an ancestor.

    I sometimes receive queries from family historians who ask why shipwrecks are relevant to the topic of genealogy. Clearly the loss of an individual in a wreck certainly was relevant to his or her family and undoubtedly changed the course of the latters' lives. Also, the mere fact of an ancestor dying in this manner means that information will be available - on the more well-known vessels at least. All grist to the family historian's mill. 

    On rare occasions details may emerge about an ancestor wrecked on a little-known vessel. An example was finding mention of Sturges Bourne Bell, son of Captain William Bell, who was shipwrecked off a collier near the coast of Spain in 1873. This reference led to the discovery of further information on this obscure and elusive forebear.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 13: Hercules 1796

    The Hercules, commanded by Captain Benjamin Stout, is remembered in the Captain’s own Narrative of the Loss of the Ship Hercules, published in 1798. In this account the author states that the ship was wrecked on 16 June 1796 in a violent storm, at no great distance from the spot where the Grosvenor was lost in 1782. This is dubious as it rests mainly on eye-witness reports by local tribesmen. If the site had been near the Grosvenor the rate of progress of the Hercules' survivors to Cape Town on foot would have been 25 miles per day, possibly more allowing for unavoidable detours, a speed impossible to maintain. Other details given by the Captain muddy the water, so to speak, even further, and his narrative is therefore reduced in credibility. Nevertheless, Stout managed to get 60 of his men to the Cape without losing a single life.

    A traveller named John Barrow states that the Hercules was wrecked between the mouths of the Keiskamma and the Beeka (Bira) Rivers, near Madagascar Reef. He says ‘we saw the wreck of the Hercules on the coast of Caffraria at the precise spot indicated by the Captain’. But he also mentions that he met Stout and some of his crew at the Cape, which is impossible as the Captain left the Cape in September 1796 and Barrow did not arrive in South Africa until May 1797.

    However there was a wreck at the site Barrow refers to, near the Umtana. This has been accepted as being that of the Hercules but may not be. According to various experts, the guns found at the spot had been reported years earlier and that pottery found there is too early. The latter could be explained by the theory that Chinese porcelain is not always a good indication of date for a wreck as this material was often used as ballast and could be of earlier origin.

    There might have been more than one wreck in this vicinity. Some researchers have claimed that the so-called Hercules wreck might be the Bennebroek.

    Another maritime mystery left for us to ponder. The name Hercules appears on maps of the area, possibly from the wreck.


    Monday, February 1, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 12: the Dodington 1755

    Staying with the 18th c, the Dodington (499 tons commanded by Captain James Sampson) was wrecked in July 1755 on Bird Island (Algoa Bay), at night, while outward-bound for India from England. 

    A south-west gale was the cause of the disaster. Of a crew of 270 only 23 survived the wreck. But these proved to be hardy and imaginative survivors, who built a vessel they named The Happy Deliverance from bits of timber left by the wreck. In this they sailed to Delagoa Bay.

    Before that these survivors lived on Bird Island for several months. It was far from a Robinson Crusoe idyll, the island being covered in guano from the many visiting birds. However they were fortunate in salvaging items from their wrecked ship, including gunpowder and flints, candles, water casks, beer, flour, salted pork and seven live hogs. A blacksmith among their number was able to use tools to improve their lot. They also had navigational aids washed up on shore.
    It was this combination of factors which led to the men's being able to construct the boat which would be their lifeline. On reaching Delagoa Bay they sold the boat and were taken on board another ship. A Happy Deliverance indeed.

    Later salvage attempts brought forth tons of copper, guns and lead as well as many silver pieces of eight. It is thought that this treasure, or part of it, had belonged to Robert Clive (Clive of India) who had intended sailing on the Dodington and sent some of his possessions aboard, but then had taken another ship. thus changing the course of history.

    Bird Island

    Sunday, January 31, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 11: the Bennebroek

    To be shipwrecked off the Natal coast in the 19th c was unfortunate but one's chances of survival were reasonably good, given help from those ashore. In the 18th c, when most of the coast of southern Africa was uninhabited or sparsely so, there was usually no assistance in the vicinity and the survivors could not avoid a long walk to the nearest civilized place.

    In 1713 the Dutch ship Bennebroek returning from Ceylon came to grief on the Natal coast, possibly near the mouth of the Umtana river, or somewhere north of the Umzimvubu. The ship broke up, many drowned, 57 Europeans and 20 Malabar slaves reaching land. They started to walk for the Cape but were stopped by a large river, perhaps the Umzimvubu, and turned back. 

    Others continued the journey but of these only one slave actually reached the Cape. Seven who had remained behind were found by a small trading vessel but only four were taken to the Cape. They reported having been well treated by the local tribesmen. The three left behind may have been the three shipwrecked Englishmen found by Hubner's party in 1716 living in Pondoland with wives and children. If not from the Bennebroek their origins are a mystery.

    The wreck was found in 1985 and some pieces of Chinese porcelain recovered as well as some bronze swivel cannon bearing the Amsterdam mark.

    A dark unfriendly shore awaited the survivors of the Bennebroek

    Saturday, January 30, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 10: a controversial photo

    This photo is said to be of the Minerva, wrecked at Port Natal in 1850. However, there is some controversy about it largely because of the date - 1850. If it is indeed of the Minerva it would be the first exterior photograph taken in Natal. Photography was in its infancy and most pictures were taken inside the photographer's studio. There were photographers in Natal in the 1850s but not many of them.

    It is more likely that this photo shows the Defiance, wrecked in 1871, but that took place near the Umzimkulu.

    For more on this topic see

    Wednesday, January 27, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 9: William Hartley and Ariosto

    Its an ill wind that blows no good. 

    When the American barque Ariosto 361 tons was wrecked on the Back Beach, Durban, on 31 July 1854 while on her way to Boston from Sumatra, carrying a cargo of pepper, a local Byrne settler, William Hartley, saw an opportunity. He knew that pepper did not deteriorate when wet and he dried out the peppercorns then sold them at a satisfactory profit.

    The Captain (Balch) had mistakenly kept the ship on course believing their position to be some miles from the Bluff. The sound of breakers alerted the deck watch but it was too late. The vessel struck, bumping over the Bar, and ended up on the beach. The crew of 17 landed in their boat. The ship became a total wreck but no lives were lost. Durban's inhabitants rushed to the scene and William Hartley began to have ideas about the cargo.

    Hartley and his wife Isabella had emigrated on the Sovereign, one of Byrne's vessels, which arrived at Natal in March 1850.  Hartley was prompted to go to Natal by James Methley's book The New Colony of Natal. He and Isabella were married a fortnight before they sailed, Isabella sewing into her corset William's parents' gift of a hundred pounds in sovereigns - a bank from which they would withdraw funds as the need arose.