How a trip to South Africa symbolised the end of a different journey


Travelling on official business is always something special. This is especially the case when the reason for the trip actually involves the completion of another long journey. The destination: Cape Town, South Africa. The main purpose: to attend the unveiling of a monument to commemorate 184 individuals who were disinterred in 2019 before being reburied in 2022 after a long process of research. The monument unveiled on 14 November 2023 marks the completion of a very delicate process.

Since August 2022, the oldest cemetery in Simon’s Town – the Seaforth Old Burying Ground – has been the final resting place for as many as 184 new souls. Research coordinated and funded since 2019 by the International Programme for Maritime Heritage of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed | RCE) has shown that these are people who died in a Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie | VOC) hospital located in Simon’s Town in the late 18th century. ( On 14 November an official ceremony was held to unveil a monument erected by the Dutch State in memory of these sailors.

Underneath the monument, spread across three coffins, lie the human remains of sailors who arrived in Simon’s Town on VOC ships, but probably also on British and French vessels. Biochemical research conducted in European laboratories shows evidence that they were almost exclusively adult men. Most of them probably came from Europe, although some may have originated from Asia. Read more about the research in the article published in science journal Nature, september 2023. These men were on their way back home or about to set off on a journey even farther away from their wives, children or parents. But their journeys would ultimately end at the Cape.

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On a brick platform, the monument is still covered with a white cloth.
Deputy Consul-General Johan van de Hoef speaks on behalf of the Dutch state, while those present listen attentively in the shade of the gum tree.

The unveiling of the monument was a small-scale affair. As around 15 people listened intently, the speakers at the unveiling ceremony reflected on the suffering these people must have endured. They also took a moment to remember the Muslim families who had lived on the burial site in 1967 but had been forced to move to Gugulethu (a township in Cape Town) by the apartheid government. Various words were spoken in remembrance of the reburied, including by West-Cape Minister of Cultural Affairs & Sport Anroux Marais, Acting Consul-General Johan van de Hoef and by representatives of the stakeholder organisations: Archaeology and Heritage Specialists (ACO) Associates, the Simon’s Town Museum, the Phoenix Committee, and the VOC Foundation. I myself also spoke on behalf of the RCE.

The 184 sailors have now been laid to rest forever at the Seaforth Old Burying Ground, in the part of the Dutch Reformed Church.

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Anroux Marais and Johan van de Hoef behind the unveiled monument.
The main stone of the monument has just been unveiled by Ms Anroux Marais (West Cape Minister of Cultural Affairs & Sport) and Deputy Consul-General Johan van de Hoef.

Heritage management in South African hands

In addition to attending the unveiling ceremony, there were also meetings with other RCE partners. The RCE has been collaborating with South Africa on the management of maritime heritage for some time now. A key partner is the counterpart organisation South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and in particular its maritime team. Led by Lesa La Grange, the team consists of three maritime archaeologists. They have the joint task of managing maritime heritage in South African waters.

Previously, the RCE and SAHRA have collaborated on the project Dutch Shipwrecks: A Modern Oral History. This project aims to gather information from recreational divers concerning the countless Dutch shipwrecks they encountered in their dives between the 1960s and 1990s: an era when local archaeological legislation was still inadequate and there was regular looting and very little respect for archaeological methods. Some events were not unlike scenes one would expect to see in an action film. With this project, we gain important knowledge about the Dutch shipwrecks in South African waters, of which there are thought to be around 96. Currently, Cape Town University student Henrick Keyter is uploading and updating the information on these shipwrecks on Maritime Stepping Stones (MaSS).

The visit also presented an excellent opportunity to share experiences about the situation and challenges in our respective countries. Alongside the many similarities, there are also some major differences worth mentioning. After all, South Africa is a country that faces some considerable social challenges. To cite just one example, people continue to suffer the disadvantages of the apartheid regime to this day. And while Cape Town may appear to be the springboard to fortune for many, it is now attracting so many people that even basic amenities can fall short. For example, several years ago the city faced an alarming shortage of water.

In view of all these challenges, it is only logical that there is little budget left over for managing maritime heritage (even less than the 1% of the RCE budget for maritime/waterbeds). Yet there are still more than 90 Dutch shipwrecks in South African waters (only the British have more shipwrecks there) among a total of around 2,800 shipwrecks from 37 different flag states. Most of these shipwrecks are considered to be part of colonial history, albeit a shared one. The SAHRA maritime team therefore welcomes its collaboration with the RCE: this ensures that budget is available to run joint projects and the opportunity to jointly investigate Dutch shipwrecks in South Africa enables both of us to learn more about each other's history and points of view. This difference in perspective is providing a wealth of knowledge for both sides.

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With SAHRA on a field visit to the wreck of (presumably) the Commodore II (1946) near Lagoon Beach, Milnerton. From left to right: Lesa La Grange (SAHRA), Sarah Ward (Dalian Maritime University in China), Guoqing Liang (National Centre for Archaeolgy, China), Jing Wang (idem), Ruan Brand (SAHRA).

One key challenge involves acquiring experience: although SAHRA can issue licences for excavations on shipwrecks, it cannot award itself a licence. As a result, the archaeologists lack essential fieldwork experience. As is standard practice at Maritime International, we are therefore making every effort to ensure that knowledge-sharing and capacity-building are integrated within our projects here as far as possible.

My thanks go out to Lesa la Grange, Briege Williams and Ruan Brand at SAHRA for the warm welcome and interesting programme they have organized for me.

Author: Leon Derksen

A table with shallow wooden trays containing Chinese porcelain in small plastic bags.
Chinese porcelain, cargo from the Middelburg (1781), displayed for the Chinese delegation in the maritime depot of the Iziko Social History Centre.