Charles Shapiro was a maize farmer in South Africa in the Transvaal. He also had an engineering workshop next to his family's maize mill and his time was spent running and maintaining these two businesses. His childhood friend, David Crouse, was a keen underwater photographer and encouraged Charles in his spare time to join the diving club he belonged to and to take a diving course.
In 1972, Charles became a diver with the Transvaal Underwater Research Group (TURG). To advance himself in the sport of underwater hockey, he then joined Normalair Underwater Club. In later years this club made Charles an honorary life member for his contribution for issuing every "paid up" member with a "piece of eight" coin from the shipwreck of the "Johanna 1682". Charles then moved closer to the Natal coast and joined the Pietermaritzburg Underwater Club in 1975, then the Aliwal Sub-Aqua Club in Durban. On moving to Cape Town in 1980, he then joined the Atlantic Underwater Club.
His introduction to salvage happened during 1973, a year after he became a qualified diver, when David was commissioned to search and recover a 115 Hp. Outboard motor in a dam and asked Charles to assist him. Although the agreed upon salvage rate was never paid, the accomplishment of doing a grid search, finding and then recovering the motor in nil visibility was very satisfying. A fire was lit and the calling of the sea got ever louder until eventually during 1975, he made the move down to the Natal coast. There he teamed up with other divers and started his wreck diving on the shipwreck of the "Produce 1974" , which had sunk the previous year. The restoration of the some of the finds intrigued him, especially when he managed to get them to look as if they were new. Not knowing what the ship was carrying, where it came from, to where it was going, whether any lives were lost, or how the ship got wrecked etc. etc. were but a few questions that Charles sought answers for. This is what sparked Charles' interest into research and soon saw him spending every free moment in the libraries, archives and bookshops.
While doing research, Charles came across stories of shipwrecks carrying valuable cargoes. He realized that most of the more important shipwrecks were around the Cape coastline. He made an exploratory tour down to Cape Town where he met up with an underwater hockey friend, named Gavin Clackworthy. Gavin took Charles and his friend John Templeton, to the "hottest" treasure shipwreck find at that time, a Dutch East Indiaman named the Reygersdahl 1747 . Charles found his first bit of treasure, an almost perfect silver "Pillar Dollar" coin. He told Gavin of his intention of starting a salvage group, which should consist of six divers and asked him if he would be interested in joining such a team? Upon Gavin's positive response, he later approached his brother Arnold (Mickey) to become an investor, so that he could purchase all the necessary equipment to form such a salvage team. It was with that very same coin that Charles convinced Mickey to take his chances as the "Investor". He also informed Mickey of the comprehensive research, which Gavin had on two other treasure ships namely; the Johanna 1682 (the first English East Indiaman wrecked on the South African coast near Agulhas) and a Portuguese vessel; the Nossa Senhora dos Milagros 1686, also wrecked near Agulhas.
After spending four years in Natal and then purchasing all the necessary equipment, he relocated to Cape Town. Here he teamed up with Gavin as previously arranged and on Gavin's recommendations; they recruited another four local divers namely; Bert Kutzer, Tommy Botha, Andre Hartman and Frederick (Erik) Lombard. For the next three years, Charles traveled to and from the Netherlands and the UK in the off seasons, to collect further research to these two treasure ships. In 1982, while doing research in the Netherlands, Charles also came across the research of the Dutch East Indiaman named the “Brederode”. This vessel was on its maiden voyage to and from the East when it wrecked in 1785 off the same Cape coastline of Agulhas.
During 1982, Charles and his diving partners discovered the "Johanna". This was their first treasure ship carrying a cargo of silver specie in the form of coins and ingots. After this excavation the group unfortunately split up and Charles formed a company for his partners in 1984 called “Aqua Exploration" and the search for the "Brederode" continued. This search was to last 16 years.
During 1991 a site was discovered with the use of a side-scan sonar, but it was only on the 30 June 1998, that the "Brederode" was finally positively identified, with the use of a remote operated vehicle (R.O.V.) camera. The wreck lies in 65 metres of water on a sandy bottom. The pre-disturbance survey took place in January 1999 and plans to begin with the excavation had been made for the year 2000. The achievement of finding this treasure ship with its valuable porcelain cargo is without a doubt the highlight of Charles' career.
In between the start and finish of Charles' long search of the "Brederode", his company “Aqua Exploration” became one of the most active salvage groups in South Africa. They discovered another English East Indiaman named the Colebrooke in 1984, which wrecked in 1778 off the False Bay coast near Gordons Bay, Cape. They were also involved in the excavation of the well-known wreck of the Birkenhead during 1986, 1987 and 1988. The Birkenhead was a British iron paddle-wheel steamer that wrecked off Danger point near Gansbaai, Cape, in 1852.
This shipwreck was renowned for starting the tradition of "women and children first" by allowing all women and children to abandon the ship first before the men. Four hundred and forty five men perished with the ship. Charles was the project manager and mainly responsible for all the archaeology done throughout the entire excavation. He and his group "Aqua Exploration" were responsible for discovering/identifying another 25
wrecks, of which most were off the Cape coast.
Over the years, Charles has established a good working relationship with the National Monuments Council (today known as the South African Heritage Resources Agency), the South African Cultural History and Maritime Museums (today known as Iziko Museums of Cape Town) and has always worked in close collaboration with the above institutions.
Charles Shapiro cc T/A "Aqua Exploration"
South African Historical Wreck Society
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