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OVERBERG’S TWO OLDEST BELLS: SAVED, SALVAGED OR LOOTED?

Some days ago while communicating about ship’s bells with a professional archaeologist the latter remarked, “A bell is probably the best evidence for positive identification of a ship” and followed with two questions, “What are the odds of finding a bell? Aren’t they looted quite easily?” These questions immediately triggered my thought processes with my first reactive opinion springing to mind, “How brainwashed we all become when studying archaeology”.

The archaeology records show that a bell’s style often helps to establish the country of manufacture – be it British, French, Spanish, German and more. Its style invariably helps to narrow down the possible date of the ship. Naturally, a date on the bell and a name is the ‘jackpot’ in the process of identification. However, such examples are not always the norm. The bell found on the Dutch porcelain ship BREDENRODE (1785), lying off Cape Agulhas, was recovered with the hope of it having a ship’s name, but no such luck! It turned out to be nothing more than a well-preserved brass bell presumably of Dutch origin. This bell is today the 2nd oldest bell from our Overberg waters. The Overberg’s oldest bell is one that was salvaged from the French Ship Le Centaur that sank in 1750. This wooden East Indiaman struck a sandbank off “Die Walle”, 6km west of Africa’s southernmost point, Cape Agulhas. There she lay undisturbed by man for 234 years until the diving group Aqua Exploration discovered her in May 1984. During our first reconnaissance of the wreck site a large bronze bell was discovered. The bell proved to be the most significant artefact recovered.  Today this bell is proudly the Overberg’s oldest known bell, and safely in the custody of the Auret family.

To the question concerning the probability of a ship’s bell being saved (at the time of sinking), salvaged at a later stage or even discovered and recovered many years later, was next to jar my thoughts. The ship’s bell hangs on the ship’s forecastle deck. When a vessel hits a shallow reef, it is speedily smashed to pieces by a stormy sea, or it remains stranded in this position for some time before the sea and elements eventually completely break it up. The third scenario is when it is holed on a reef, but then drifts out to sea and eventually founders in deep water. The above-mentioned BREDERODE (1785) is an example of foundering in deep water with all items lying scattered at the scene. Invariably when a vessel is smashed to pieces, one finds that the bell (being situated high on deck) is often washed all the way to shore or the shallows while still connected to a ship structure. The English ship JOANNA (1682) provides us with such an example. The salvage group sent to the wreck in 1682 records finding and recovering a 20kg ship’s bell at spring-low-tide. Most bells saved or salvaged appear to be those removed from the ship while still intact and standing caught on the reef. Almost all the ship’s bells presently in the Overberg fall into this category. The first ship’s bell recorded to have been removed in this manner was that of the NOSSA SENHORA DE LOS MILAGROS in 1686. The next recorded saving of such an item was off the MEERMIN (1766). In archival documents, one reads (translated), “They set about removing everything from the MEERMIN.” In one letter, reference is made to linen, rifles, gunpowder, sails, most of the ship’s ropes, a number of barrels, the ship’s bell and loose goods.

With regard to the question of ‘looting’, it is worth mentioning that ‘looting’ refers to ‘stealing’. At the time of the wrecking of a ship, the bell was sometimes saved from being lost to Davey Jones’ Locker. In turn, when a salvage team was sent to such a ship, their orders were to save as much as possible to offset the loss of the ship. Later years, divers could happen to stumble upon such an item which lead to its recovery and placement in a museum or a private collection. Thus once again, the word ‘looting” is misplaced as it was within the law of the time. In South Africa today, with all our new protection laws, it is illegal to remove such objects on discovery. One is expected to leave such a find undisturbed in situ. Clearly, only now, the words ‘plunder’ or ‘looting’ is maybe relevant.