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stepping stones of maritime history


In 1781, Holland became involved in the American War of Independence by joining France and Spain in declaring war on England. All Dutch shipping at the Cape - mainly richly laden East Indiamen en route to Holland - was ordered to remain together until a well protected convoy could be assembled to escort them home.

 Battle of Saldanha bay

Given the difficulty of defending Table Bay in the event of an attack, five merchantmen, the Hoogkarspel, Middelburg, Honkoop, Paarl and Dankbaarheid, and the Held Woltemade  went to Saldanha Bay, where they were ordered to shelter.

Orders were given that the ships were to be destroyed if they could not escape capture. Each captain was instructed to load his vessel with combustibles, and if capture seemed likely, to set fire to his ship. Most of the Dutch commanders and crew did not take this order seriously and treated their time in Saldanha Bay as a holiday. Captain van Gennep of the Middelburg was the only officer to comply with these instructions by preparing his boat to be set alight.

On 21 July 1781, the English Commodore Johnstone, sailed into Saldanha Bay ahead of his fleet, his vessels disguised by flying French flags. The Dutch were initially jubilant, mistaking the English vessels for the long-awaited reinforcements until they saw the French flags being hauled down and English colours run up.

The English fleet opened fire on the anchored Dutch ships. The Dutch hastily tried to set their ships alight and cut their cables to run the vessels ashore. The English, however, were prepared for fire fighting and quickly extinguished the fires as they boarded the abandoned vessels.

The only exception was the Middelburg. The vessel was soon fiercely ablaze, and the flames spread through the hull to the powder magazine, whereupon she exploded and sank.

The Middelburg was the only Dutch vessel in Saldanha Bay that day not to fall into English hands. The loss of six Indiamen and their cargoes was a serious financial blow to the already struggling Dutch East India Company.

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
Length150 feet (45.7 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 and 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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