South Africa

South Africa has been one of the priority countries within our International Heritage Cooperation policy for many years. Below are two key projects that the RCE (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed | Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands) is working on together with partners in South Africa.

Modern Oral History: Dutch Wrecks in South Africa

South African waters are home to over a hundred Dutch historical shipwrecks. The vast majority of these are VOC (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie | Dutch East India Company) shipwrecks. Already during the previous maritime programme, the RCE therefore actively sought cooperation with its South African counterpart, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). This included launching the 'Modern Oral History: Dutch Wrecks in South Africa' project in 2015. This was revived after a brief halt in 2019.

The project collects and interprets information surrounding salvage operations by sports divers and treasure hunters who dived on Dutch shipwrecks in South African waters between the 1960s and 1990s. They undertook these actions even before South Africa ratified the 2001 UNESCO Convention and also before the relevant South African laws and regulations protecting historic shipwrecks had been effectively implemented. The bulk of the wrecks dived on belonged to the VOC. These salvages often did not proceed in an archaeological-systematic way, if at all. As a result, heritage was lost and much knowledge about our shared past disappeared. However, a lot of information still lies with the people who undertook the salvage operations at the time: both in small bits of documentation and in the memories of those involved. However, some of them have already passed away, while others are already of advanced age. In order not to lose their memories, they were interviewed using the oral-history method and the output was recorded in sound recordings and transcriptions. In addition, students from Leiden University have conducted historical research on some VOC ships that foundered in South African waters.

Read more about the stories that have surfaced so far in the final report on the International Programme for Maritime Heritage (2017-2021).

Diver close to an old anchor at a wreck site of presumably the Rodenrijs (1737) in  Table Bay, South Africa.
Image: ©Reg Dodds
Diver close to an old anchor at a wreck site of presumably the Rodenrijs (1737) in Table Bay, South Africa.


The material but, more importantly, the intangible remnants of the stories of all those wrecks can still be found in the South African cultural landscape today. All these stories will be compiled in a publication, giving us a better understanding about our colonial past. The publication is expected soon.

With the total information from the Leiden research with the memories and other information retrieved through the interviews, this project has contributed to the knowledge about our shared past with South Africa. It has also provided more insight into what the impact of the salvage operations has now been. In addition, SAHRA's data management system has been updated and now contains the most up-to-date information, securing a holistic body of knowledge that contributes to better management of Dutch heritage in South African waters. Some of the information has already been incorporated into MaSS.

VOC burial ground Simonstown

The programme has been involved in an investigation of human remains at a yard in Simontown close to Cape Town since 2019. These came to light during construction work in late 2018. Desk research combined with evaluative fieldwork led local archaeological company ACO (Accountable Care Organization) Associates to suspect that this was a cemetery belonging to a VOC hospital, which had adjoined this property from 1765 to the early 19th century. Since there was a possible connection with the VOC, ACO Associates, a Cape Town-based archaeological company, contacted the Dutch embassy. This was part of a legally required investigation into the stakeholders and parties involved in the discovery of human remains, as required by the South African National Heritage Resources Act (1999) . At the same time, ACO, through the embassy, asked the Netherlands to make a scientific contribution in the form of a provenance study on the human remains. Partly because of the local lack of the necessary expertise to analyse the human remains scientifically, it was decided to support this project with Dutch funds and to do the analysis in European laboratories.

In addition, this provided a rare opportunity to be able to examine skeletal material of presumably VOC personnel, thus possibly also shedding new light on our shared past with South Africa. Conditions set by the RCE for the support were knowledge exchange and capacity building, in order to contribute to the overarching goals of the programme. This allowed ACO Associates' fieldwork team to be supplemented for a fortnight by two newly graduated osteoarchaeologists Rachael Hall and Judyta Olszewski (both graduates of Leiden University).

Osteoarchaeologist Judyta Olszewski inspects a skull that has just been lifted.
Image: ©ACO Associates/RCE
Osteoarchaeologist Judyta Olszewski inspects a skull that has just been lifted.


The remains of at least 165 individuals were found at the site. Standard osteological analyses in the field proved barely possible, as the remains were in a very brittle state. In total, the osteoarchaeologists did sample some 133 individuals for further investigation in the lab: two molars per individual each time. These samples were exported to the Netherlands, with the approval of the local heritage authority. Because the organic material was in poor condition and because of the inherently destructive examination techniques, the analyses in the European laboratories were done in stages. The first stage of the study focused on 10% of the sampled population, testing the usability of the different methods. The methods based on the presence of collagen in the samples were found not to be applicable because the organic material was in such a poor state. The methods depending on the state of the tooth enamel did prove applicable. This allowed isotope analyses to be carried out based on the strontium, oxygen and carbon (from carbonate) present. The isotope analysis was then scaled up to 50% of the population. These analyses showed that the vast majority of the result suggested that the individuals might be of European origin. It was decided to carefully preserve the remaining 50% of the population, to leave future opportunities for new research questions and/or techniques.

Historical research

In addition to the archaeological fieldwork and laboratory analyses, two successive historical studies were commissioned by the programme. The first focused on primary and secondary sources available in the Netherlands and was carried out by Hanna te Velde, a historian just graduated from Leiden University. A large number of clues from her research led to records in the South African archives where mostly local VOC documents were kept. On this, the Trust Foundation, housed in South Africa, launched a follow-up investigation. This team consisted of researchers Helena Liebenberg, Antonia Malan, Jaco van der Merwe and Kalthy Schultz. This included finding two historical maps, on which objects were drawn close to the hospital, resembling graves. Implicit clues further substantiated that the cemetery was used only by the hospital.

All in all, the body of evidence in the archaeological fieldwork, the isotope survey and the historical sources indicates that the site was a cemetery, where European sailors were buried from the second half of the 18th century onwards. For most of the period, this occurred during the reign of the VOC.

A tooth is mechanically prepared for isotope research in the lab.
A tooth is mechanically prepared for isotope research in the lab.

Reburial and memorials

In close consultation with the Dutch Embassy and Consulate in South Africa, and with the approval of heritage authority Heritage Western Cape, the human remains were reburied in a ceremony at Simon's Town in 2022.