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stepping stones of maritime history


The DEIC ship Middelburg departed from Goeree on her first trip to Batavia on 13 december 1779. After arriving she went on to Canton in China. Her homeward bound trip started in january 1781.

DEIC ships at Table Bay
The Honkoop, Hoogkarspel and the Middelburg had already arrived from China on March 31, 1781. The Pearl also arrived from China the next day. Finally, The Dankbaarheid came from Bengal at 25-4. An escort to accompany them was necessary because the fourth Anglo-Dutch War had broken out (20-12-1780). And the threat of a British attack was very real.
In March the British sent a squadron under Commodore Johnstone to South Africa to capture the Cape Colony. The French sent a squadron under Admiral De Suffren to assist the Dutch at the Cape. And possibly escort the DEIC ships to Europe.

By May, neither the British nor the French squadrons had arrived. The five DEIC ships were ordered to sit out the coming storm season in Saldanha Bay (approx. 100 km north of Table Bay). They were given strict orders not to let the cargo and ships fall into the enemy's hands in the event of a British attack.

A chance of luck
On June 21, the French arrived in False Bay (just east of the Cape).
Commodore Johnstone received this information from the skipper of a DEIC ship, De Held Woltermade, captured on July 1. The British were too late to take the Cape colony by surprise. But Johnstone also got information from the same source that there were five large DEIC ships waiting in the relatively unprotected Saldanha bay.

Attack on Saldanha bay
Johnstone then decided to attack Saldanha Bay. On July 21, 1781, British ships entered the Bay. The Dutch were completely taken by surprise and four of the five DEIC ships were captured.

The Middelburg was the only exception. Van Gennep had the ship filled with flammable material so that in the event of a British attack he could destroy the ship himself. And so it happened. The British were still able to pull the burning ship away from the rest of the DEIC ships with boats. Ten minutes after this was successful, the ship exploded at Hoetjens point and sank (see also Saldanha bay incident)

Prize ships
The Dankbaarheid, Parel, Honkoop and Hoogkarspel and the previously taken Held Woltemade (July 1) were sent to Great Britain as a prize. (memoirs 327)

The Saldanha prizes were Dutch ships in the service of the Dutch East India Company until July 21, 1781. The ships were captured by the British Navy. This meant that they were British property according to the applicable laws of war. Prize (law of war)

A special passenger
The French naturalist, François le Vaillant, who later became famous for his books on his travels in South Africa, had recently arrived in the Cape aboard the Held Woltemade. He had obtained an invitation from Van Gennep to sail on the Middelburg to Saldanha Bay and had taken all his possessions, including his priceless collection of natural history specimens, with him.

On the morning of the attack, Le Vaillant was out hunting with one of the local farmers and upon hearing gunfire, hastened back to the coast. He arrived just in time to see the Middelburg go up in flames and explode, along with his work.


MasterJustus van Gennep
Length149.4 Amsterdam feet (42.3 m)
Tonnage1150 ton (575 last)


In 1788, shortly after her loss, the first attempt to salvage material from the wreck of the Middelburg was made by Gerrit Munnik, a burgher of Cape Town. He managed to recover a few pieces of porcelain from the wreck, which lay in shallow water near Hoedjiespunt. A century later, in 1888, a Captain Teague recovered large quantities of tin and porcelain. In 1895, a diver working for Captain Lea and Charles Adams, recovered about 300 pieces of porcelain.

The site was severely damaged in 1906 and 1907 during expeditions under Captain Charles Gardiner of the South African Salvage Association, when explosives were used on the site, ostensibly to kill a huge octopus. More likely, the explosives were used to break up concretion covering the site. These salvage attempts recovered three cannons, a good deal of porcelain, tea chests and a host of other material.

The most recent, and last, salvage attempts were undertaken in 1969 by the Dodds brothers of Cape Town. Their work revealed that the Middelburg’s timbers were in good condition and that, because of the protected environment in which she sank and the sand covering the site, much of her lower hull structure was intact. They recovered 198 intact pieces of porcelain but found that much of the remaining ceramic material on the site had been broken by Gardiner’s reckless use of explosives.

The Dodds brothers examining salvaged material.

Sadly, the site has never been properly recorded, and no known site plan has ever been produced. After the Dodds brothers worked on the site, Portnet built a breakwater between Hoedjiespunt and Marcus Island which effectively buried the wreck of the Middelburg and may have placed one of the best-preserved shipwrecks in South African waters beyond the reach of salvors and archaeologists alike.

The collection of material from the Middelburg is housed at:

- Iziko Museums, Cape Town 
- Shipwreck Museum, Bredasdorp
- Simon’s Town Museum, Simon’s Town
- Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town
- Museum Africa, Johannesburg

John Gribble
Marine Archaeologist - SAHRA


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