The Merestein was an 826-ton Dutch pinas built for the chamber of Amsterdam in 1693.
On her doomed trip to the East, she set sail from Texel Island on 4 October 1701. The captain was Jan Subbing, and in his charge, he had a full consignment of silver coins destined for Batavia in the East.
On its journey six months later, this Dutch ship neared the Cape – still some 140km off – unknowingly she was transporting money destined to be lost to man for over two and a half centuries. When eventually found and recovered, the specie took off where it left off, and remarkably found its way straight back into the financial world as before.After a long voyage, with many on-board already very ill, they were in urgent need of freshwater. The skipper decided to make for land, and on approaching, he recognised the entrance to Saldanha Bay.
Capt. Subbing, aware that the Company’s ships regularly used this bay for a watering-place, decided to sail into the latter. A tricky manoeuvre at best, but with most sailor’s sick, downright menacing. As it was, they took the challenging narrow southern channel and did not make it. The Meerestein struck the southwestern point of Jutten Island, and within an hour, the ship was no more. The skipper and the majority of his passengers and crew perished in the waves.
Only 97 men managed to survive by making it to, and up the rocky Jutten Island coast.
The next morning a few brave sailors, with the use of some floating timber, made it to shore and succeeded in reaching the Cape where they reported the tragedy. The local ship, Wezel, immediately set sail for Saldanha. With the chests of money stored in the saloon, the salvors were able to ascertain the exact spot where the back part of the ship broke off. The task at hand was to recover the treasure and as much of the wreckage as they could. Merchandise, woodwork, utensils, provisions, sails, ropes and cannon were sought.
Once there, it did not take them long to conclude and declare, “Regarding the recovery of the silver, we believe it to be impossible to save … the obstacles are the violent waves which smash against this side of the island, be it windy or calm”. Twenty-five years later, still desperate to recover the treasure, the Dutch East India Company commissioned the famous English salvage diver, John Lethbridge, for this purpose. Lethbridge operated with a revolutionary diving apparatus of the time. However, on arriving at Jutten Island, he too was met with failure. Defeated by the wild seas and strong currents, Lethbridge returned to England convinced that Davey Jones had the Merestein’s treasures in his Locker for eternity. Folklore and the occasional corroded Spanish Netherlands Ducatoon washing out on the island, kept the lure of the treasure alive. Nevertheless, the boxes of silver were left unhindered for over two and a half centuries. On 3 March 1971, Cape-tonians, Bobby Hayward and his associates, located the remains of a wreck. Large pieces of fertile archaeological conglomerate (a mass composed of hetero-geneous elements) were discovered in amongst the rocks on the south-west side of the island. To this day, the wind, currents and wild seas still make salvage mostly impossible there.
However, from the 1970s already, equipped with modern SCUBA diving gear, the occasional calm day proved workable. On such tranquil days, they were able to chisel out conglomerated areas. In turn, non-diving days were spent breaking up the recovered clumps to extract any surviving artefact content. Sadly, it turned out that it was impossible at the time for the discoverers to expect any protection of their find. Legally, after being awarded a salvage permit, others could also dive on the wreck. A free for all followed. The best recovered not only the most but also the best.
Enter Godfrey Chowles, a top professional diver working and living in Saldanha at the time. On any rare calm sea day, the highly experienced Chowels was able to be at the right place at the right time. On exceptional days, he recovered hundreds of a type of coin that had been part of the day-to-day life at the settlement at Cape Town in the early 18th Century.
For a period in the early 1970s at Saldanha, one could say history was alive again.
A unique transaction was negotiated. Very likely for the first time in South Africa, a home was paid for with ancient silver coins. The two history-makers were Godfrey Chowles and another sea professional, retired commander Henry Wicht. Uniquely, Chowles was purchasing a home with the treasure that he had found and recovered from the shipwreck, Merestein.
This proud history-making young commercial diver was not only able to buy this modern house, but also able to pay cash. These silver coins, dating from the 17th Century, were all in financial circulation during the days of Jan van Riebeeck. So it was that an Overberger made history by purchasing a home cash! Rare late 17th Century cash!