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Ship Wrecks in the Cape Verdes

There are more than 70 shipwrecks from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries in Cape verde waters. For every known wreck there are probably another three or four unrecorded.
Cape Verde was an important destination for ships bound from Europe to the East and South America. It was a source of fresh water and food and a trading point for slaves, Ships sank in bad weather or sometimes because of poor navigation or charts. Sometimes a ship hits a reef off the coast at night when the pilot had no idea she was near land.

Boa Vista

The Garthpool

The Garthpool, a large four masted sailing ship from Liverpool was wrecked off Ponta Reef in November 1929. Survivors of the Garthpool came ashore at Cantao and were then taken to Sal Rei and Sao Vicente to be shipped home to Liverpool. The locals on Boa Vista and the British consul at Mindelo looked after them well until they could returned on a Royal Mail Lines steamship on the Soutn American run, which called at Mindelo in those days for bunkering.

The Hartwell

The East Indiaman Hartwell is one of 26 shipwrecks wrecked on the Rifona Reef off the island of Boa Vista . The Hartwell sank on May 24, 1784 on her maiden voyage to China. The ship was laden with 320,000 Spanish portrait dollars valued at £770,000 for trading . During two salvage expeditions in 1788 and 1789, the brothers John and William Braithwaite recovered a good deal of general cargo including over $100,000 worth of silver coins. In 1993, permission was granted by the Cape Verde government to an begin the surveying and salvaging various shipwreck sites on the Rifona Reef. In the same year, divers began the preliminary identification and excavation of the "Hartwell." This was carried out in accordance with accepted archaeological principles, with a minimum disturbance to the site. The excavation continued until 1996. Due to rough sea conditions and strong currents characteristic of the area, diving could only be done in summer.

The Norfolk

The Norfolk of 953 tons was built at Blackwall in 1857. She left Bathurst, in the River Gambia, on the 2nd of July, bound to Marseilles, having on board a crew of 19 hands all told, a cargo of rather more than 600 tons of ground nuts, and about 400 tons of ballast. Having crossed the bar she lay off the mouth of the river, expecting the pilot-boat to come off and take the pilot ashore; and on the 4th of the same month, whilst standing on and off the shore, she touched the ground.. Finding that the pilot-boat did not come off, they bore away for Goree, which is a little to the south of Cape Verde, for the purpose of landing the pilot; but it was not until the 9th that they succeeded in putting him on board a fishing-boat, and at 4 p.m. the same day they took their departure, Cape Verde bearing N.N.E. distant about 10 miles.

From this point the vessel was kept close hauled to the wind on the starboard tack. At midnight the second officer came on duty, and the vessel was continued on her course close hauled to the wind on the starboard tack until about half-past 1 a.m., when all the watch, including the look-out man, were called to work the pumps. On its being reported, however, to the second officer that the pumps would not act, he went off the poop on to the main deck to see what was the matter, and on lifting the upper box found that it was choked with ground nuts. Having cleared it, he proceeded to raise the lower box, but finding that he could not do so he sent for the carpenter, and while the carpenter was engaged in clearing it the vessel struck.

At this moment the boy, who was at the wheel, came running forward to say that he saw a light ahead, upon which the second officer ordered him to go and put the helm hard down, and he himself ran aft to assist in doing it. The captain, hearing a noise on deck, came up, but by that time the vessel had been got round on to the port tack. Before, however, her sails were properly full she struck again, and almost immediately afterwards she struck a third time. She was now fast, and soon afterwards fell over to port, and her masts having gone over the side she soon became a complete wreck.

An attempt was then made to launch the lifeboat, but in doing so a stanchion passed through her bottom, and the boat having filled with water went adrift, taking two of the hands with her. The pinnace was then got out, and two boats from the shore having come to their assistance, all the hands, including the two men who had gone away in the lifeboat, succeeded in landing safely at Boa Vista, whence they were taken to Sao. Vincente. The place where the vessel grounded and where she ultimately became a total wreck, was on the Hartwell Reef, a dangerous reef of rocks lying off the extreme N.E. point of Boa Vista at a distance of from 3 to 4 miles from the shore.f the Island of Boa Vista in 1787.

The Varandinha Wreck

Possibly an East Indiaman lost in about. 1850. It wrecked on the East Coast


The Sao Francisco Wreck

A 17th century trading vessel of which the name and home port are yet unknown, was discovered off the west coast of Santiago Island. It sank in about 1650. Historical research is presently being conducted in close cooperation with archaeologists to identify this ship.

Sao Vicente

Le Dromadaire

The Dromadaire, a French East Indiaman shipwrecked in bad weather in 1762, is was believed to be carrying a cargo of gold and silver worth at least $6.8 million,
It was lost in a crevice, just off the coast of Sao Vicente island, so its cargo is in small area. A 61-year-old retired British navy commander John Grattan, who directs operations for Arqueonautas, discovered the Dromadaire using a system whereby a line of up to 10 divers search for a wreck by diving parallel to the shore. Historians later identified the ship from the recovered objects. Divers found 20 iron cannons at the wreck site and a French gold coin with a picture of King Louis XV, minted in 1760. The ship was carrying 154 people when it was engulfed by rough seas. Only 77 survived, according to historical records. Gold, silver and other artefacts the divers expect to find, ranging from brass cannons to jewellery and Chinese porcelain, will be sold off by auction or offered to museums.


The Lady Burgess

An East Indiaman of 820 tons and 30 guns and with a crew of over 100, she sailed in a convoy escorted by naval ships during April of 1806 bound for Madras. Early on April 20 she and the Lord Melville became separated from the rest of the fleet and close to an uncharted reef. This is now known as the Leton reef and lies between Boa Vista and Maio. It lies entirely below the surface but is steep on the north side, rising out of deep water. , She was unable to avoid this and became lodged on it in heavy seas. The reef was 200 foot long but only 6 foot below the surface. As she started to break up longboats from the Lord Melville rescued the crew She broke up and sank in less than three hours. Her cargo was listed as iron. Lead, and general merchandise. So salvage was not attempted for over 200 years.

The Princess Louisa

The Princess Louisa was built in 1733 at Deptford in south-east London by Bronsdon and Wells, a famous firm of shipbuilders who built ships for the Royal Navy as well as very fine merchantmen. She was designed for the East India Company, which had a monopoly of England's trade with Asia, and so, although privately owned by a syndicate of merchants and businessmen, she had to conform to specifications laid down by the Company. At this period, this meant that she was a three-masted, two decker ship, about 104 feet in the keel, just over 33 feet in breadth and with a depth of hold of 14 feel, 2 inches. She had a pronounced rake in her bow and a smaller one in her stern, where her roundhouse and great cabin were built up from the deck, and would have been about 120 feet long overall at the level of her upper deck. She mounted 30 guns and was rated at 498 tons like all East Indiamen of this period, though this tonnage was an administrative fiction and the Princess Louisa would have been rather bigger, about 550 tons. Many of the ships built for the East India Company were named for royalty and the Princess Louisa was named in honour of the youngest daughter of King George II, an eight-years-old girl who was to become the Queen of Denmark in the same year that the ship met its tragic fate.

Ships like Princess Louisa were the largest, and indeed the most beautiful, in the British merchant marine and were exceeded in size in the contemporary world of merchant ships only by the larger galleons of Spain and Portugal. They had evolved during the 130 years that England had been trading with the east and were now big but graceful ships, strong, fast, well-armed and eminently suited for the long and dangerous passages that they had to make. Management of the ship was entrusted to one of the owners known as the ship's husband, in this case a businessman with wide-ranging interests called Thomas Hall, and he now had to fit out the ship, a process which could double her cost as sails, cordage, guns, provisions and the innumerable range of artifacts necessary for successful operation were purchased from specialists in the port of London. Once the ship was ready for sea, he made a charter-party for the voyage with the East India Company, an immensely complex document which covered every conceivable occurrence but, most importantly, laid down the amount of freight which was to be paid to the owners by the Company.

East Indiamen were designed to make four voyages to the east in their working lives, making the immense and arduous voyage from England south round the Cape of Good Hope and then into the Indian Ocean, calling at ports in Arabia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and China, depending on the vagaries of trade. The Princess Louisa set sail for her maiden voyage in November 1733 under the command of Captain Richard Pinnell. She loaded coffee at Mocha in Arabia and then sailed to Bombay to load more cargo and was back in England in April 1735, a voyage of seventeen months which was described by the young nephew of one of the owners as "very pleasant, I like the seas very well."

This was fairly short for an East India voyage which averaged between 18 months and two years. Once back in England, the ship underwent a long process of overhaul and refitting so that it was not till late in 1736 that the Princess Louisa set out on her second voyage, this time to Calcutta and back, and not till 1739 that she sailed on her third voyage to Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. These three voyages had their share of alarms and adventures, as did all voyages to the Indian Ocean, but they were on the whole successful and profitable, so that owners and crew were not particularly apprehensive when the Princess Louisa got ready for her fourth and fatal voyage early in 1743.

This time she was captained by John Pinson, his second voyage in command, and she was chartered to sail to Bombay and Persia. The crew consisted of six mates, purser, surgeon, boatswain and 91 other officers and seamen, and she also carried 14 soldiers for the service of the Company in India, a total of 115 men. This was about average for the period, though some East Indiamen carried considerable numbers of paying passengers in addition to their crews. The Princess Louisa's cargo is listed in the Commerce Journal of the East India Company and it was a typical cargo, woolen textiles for the Persia market and a mixed cargo for Bombay consisting of gunpowder, iron guns, sailcloth, cordage, iron, lead, and rather unusually ivory or "elephants' teeth", 822 tusks in all. However, the Company could never find sufficient goods with a market in Asia to pay for what they wanted to bring home and so much the most valuable part of the cargo was money, 20 chests of Spanish and Spanish American pieces of eight, a total of 69,760 ounces of silver. If this fourth voyage had been successfully completed, the return cargo would have been silk and cotton textiles, indigo, pepper and spices, saltpeter for gunpowder manufacture and a host of other things.

The Princess Louisa set sail from Portsmouth on her last voyage on 20 March 1743 in company with another East Indiaman, the Winchester commanded by Captain Gabriel Steward, 26 smaller merchantmen and, since this was a time when England was at war with Spain, a naval escort in the form of the 70-gun two-decker warship, H.M.S. Sterling Castle. However, the early stages of the voyage were uneventful and once clear of the cruising grounds of the Spanish privateers, the two East Indiamen parted from their consorts and sailed south towards the Cape Verde Islands, the Winchester struggling to keep up with the Princess Louisa who was the better sailer.

On 17 April, four weeks out of Portsmouth, Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands was sighted and the two ships set a course to pass through the islands. As night fell on the following day, both ships shortened sail as they entered dangerous water, the Princess Louisa's lights clearly visible about a miles ahead of the Winchester. By midnight, the island of Maio could just be seen to the south-west and about an hour later the Princess Louisa fired her guns as a signal of danger.

Shortly afterwards, the Winchester saw her sister ship "in or very near the breakers" on a reef, just in time to tack and save herself from sharing the same fate. At daybreak, the stricken ship could be seen "among the rocks without ever a mast standing and the sea making a free passage over her." The Winchester launched two boats to try and save the men from the Princess Louisa, but the sea was too high to get close and they had to pull away from the reef, while the men on the wreck despairingly "waved their hats and called to us, but we could not distinguish what they said."

A second attempt was equally unsuccessful and, by now, the upper works of the Princess Louisa had all been washed away and there was not a man to be seen. Reluctantly, the Winchester hoisted in her boats and set sail again, "there being no possibility of saving anything." "I am afraid", wrote Captain Steward in his log, "there is not a man alive of the to tell their tale."

This was too pessimistic, as we can tell from a letter written by Stephen Lightfoot, surgeon of the Princess Louisa. By his account, the ship ran onto the reef off the island of Maio at half past one in the morning. She struck several times before she was held fast by the rocks and, although severely damaged, she remained in one piece until nine in the morning when she broke in two, her forepart veering round to the poop. By now, the breakers were crashing over her to a very great height and, once it was clear that the Winchester's boats could not help them, there was no choice but to abandon ship and let each man try to save his own life.

Lightfoot saved himself by clutching onto a piece of wreckage, and "by its assistance and swimming got safe on shore, though not without great difficulty, for the breakers broke over my head several times; when I had got near land a large shark swam by me, but never offered to attack me." Forty other men, including the captain and most of the senior officers, saved their lives in similar ways, most of them being badly cut and bruised in their passage to land and some severely sunburned, like Lightfoot himself who had stripped naked before committing himself to the sea.

The remaining 74 men aboard the Princess Louisa were all drowned, most of them according to Lightfoot, in the forecastle where despairing of saving their lives, they had drunk themselves into oblivion, drinking off whole bottles of brandy to ease their passage into the next world. Nothing was saved from the ship, except what was washed up on the coast of Maio, and both survivors and corpses were stripped of their valuables by the islanders, even the naked Lightfoot being relieved of his diamond ring and a pair of gold buttons which he had hoped to save by carrying them in his mouth.

Soon Portuguese officials arrived to prevent further looting and the survivors made various arrangements to return to England, some taking passage on a ship sailing to Barbados and some to Virginia before they eventually got home to tell their story. Captain Pinson and his surviving officers were found not guilty of negligence in losing their ship and were seen to be the victims of unknown currents and inaccurate charts. Reports on the condition and location of the wreck convinced the East India Company that salvage was unlikely to be successful, though they were prepared to sign a contract on terms very favorable to the salvors, a private syndicate headed by the ship's own husband, Thomas Hall. The syndicate fitted out a galley and a sloop, both well-armed, in an expedition designed to combine privateering with the salvage of the Princess Louisa. However, they were unsuccessful in both ventures and one of their vessels was captured by the French on the way home and taken into Bayonne, thus leaving the treasure of the Princess Louisa to be discovered two and a half centuries later.

Grev Ernst Schimmelmann

A Danish East Indiaman of 1400 tons commanded by a nobleman of the same name. the ship was bound from Copehagen to China with a valuable cargo of cannon and Swedish coin. She was then one of the largest ships in the world. She hit a reef off the North coast of Maio on April 24 1781, the crew being saved. Many of the ships timbers were used in the construction of th new church at Porto Ingles on Maio.

An auction of part of the Swedish copper coins (approx. 25% of the over 800 coins recovered, of which half remain in Cape Verde for public display, with Thomas Hoiland of Copenhagen, ended with an excellent result of over €100,000. This was twice as much as expected, mainly due to the interest of Danish collectors in their own maritime history - well reflected by this beautiful and unique coins. The coin was recovered in 1999, north of Maio from the Danish " Grev Ernst Schimmelmann " wreck of 1780. The auction took place at the Danish National Maritime Museum in Kronborg Castle (also known as Helsingor castle in Shakespeare`s Hamlet), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

USS Yorktown

A 16-gun sloop laid down in 1838 in the Norfolk Navy Yard. And commission in 1840. Her first voyage was around Cape Horn to be based in Chile. Later she operated top protect American whalers in the Pacific. After being laid up for a couple of years she was recommissioned to the Africa squadron based at Praia. She operated off the African coast as far south as Cape Town capturing the slave-ships Pons, Panther, and Patuxent. In 1850 she was again on anti-slaving duties when on September 6 she struck an uncharted reef off Maio. Although the ship broke up in a very short time, not a life was lost in the wreck.

JC from Divernet reports

"At present it isn't possible to dive the older wrecks, but in the capital, Praia, you can see a great exhibition of items brought up from 400-year-old ships during an archaeological survey. Included are large lumps of fused "pieces of eight", and a gold crucifix with diamonds and emeralds still intact. Much more treasure lies down there, waiting for the government to allow marine archaeologists to recover it."