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"The Schonenberg 1722" (page1 of 2)

The Schonenberg   was a Dutch East Indiaman of 800 tons built in 1717 at the Amsterdam yard for the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch East India Company. She was commanded by Captain Albert van Soest and was on a homeward bound voyage from Batavia, when she wrecked at Cape Agulhas on 21st November 1722.

The Treasure of Vergelegen

References:

"The Hinges Creaked" by Eric Rosenthal

"South African Beachcomber" by Lawrence G. Green.

"On November 21, 1722, a group of men were sitting on a hillside near Cape Agulhas, the most southerly promontory in Africa, looking intently out to sea. Beside them lay a large heap of timber and firewood, stacked together to withstand the gale and waiting to be lit at a moment's notice. They were Hendrik Klopper, Jacob van der Heiden and Jacob Malan - all of them farmers in the Hottentots Holland district of the Cape.


Klopper, whose style of dress betokened considerable prosperity, was the owner of one of the most famous estates in South Africa, still well known today - Vergelegen, near the present town of Somerset West. Until a few years earlier it had belonged to Governor Willem Adrian van der Stel, who built himself a home there and carried on agricultural operations on a scale so vast that they finally brought about his downfall. Yet though Vergelegen had been sold, the farm and buildings of the Dutch East India Company's over-ambitious proconsul remained, and many visitors continued to come in quest of hospitality.


The three farmers - Klopper, van der Heiden and Malan - had trekked painfully from Vergelegen, through the still roadless kloofs, across the Palmiet River, the Bot River, through Soetendal's Vlei and Uilekraal to the foreland, where they encamped. As they now sat watching on this warm November day, a wave of excitement ran through them. Far out to sea, but plainly visible, was the ship they were waiting for, the Schonenberg  . Immediately they applied the tinder which lay ready, and a great column of flame and smoke shot into the sky. Again and again they let it burn for a moment and then damped it down with green branches, to make plain that it was a signal. After a few hours the embers burnt low, but by then they could see the Schonenberg   had already come much nearer.


On board the Indiaman there was much activity. The men were high in spirits for, after a voyage of several months from Batavia, they expected to be in the roads of Table Bay before another two days were over. Here they would find fresh water, fresh food in place of the salt meat they lived on, women and letters from home. Yet Captain Albertus van Soest, as he sat on the poop, was preoccupied. On the face of it there seemed no reason for concern. This was the eighth round trip which the Schonenberg   had made to India. She had a valuable cargo; the voyage had gone very smoothly; the weather had been excellent. Why then should he be so restless and keep pointing his spyglass to a particular point on the distant coast? A column of smoke shot into the blue sky and then died away. It reappeared and vanished once more. After three or four times Captain van Soest turned to the first mate and ordered him to turn the head of the ship directly towards the shore.


"Sir," spluttered the man, "we will be wrecked."

"Mind your own business," bellowed the Captain, and slowly, hesitantly, the mate brought the wheel round. Drunk or sober, his Captain had to be obeyed. A pleasant breeze blew from the south-east, and the companion vessel, the Anna Maria which had caught up with them on the way from Batavia, continued without trouble to Table Bay.


It took the crew a while to realise what was happening. Then they shouted in consternation. A line of surf ran straight ahead of the Schonenberg  . Van Soest seemed possessed; he raged and swore until one by one his terrified sailors fell into silence. At midday on November 22 the Indiaman came ashore. Fortunately it was a sandy stretch and the crew waded safely to the beach. After drying himself the Captain sat down to write a letter to Governor de Chavonnes at the Castle in Cape Town. Putting three of the mates in charge of the greater part of the crew, he ordered them to take the message overland. "Be careful of wild animals," he said , handing out arms for protection. He himself remained behind with the book-keeper of the ship, Paulus August, and twenty of the men.


None of the advance party had any wish to stay in the wilderness, and when Captain van Soest told them he would see to the salvage of the cargo, they were glad to take their departure. Within a few hours they were on trek overland while the men on the beach set to work salving the cargo. They had been carefully picked and the glances they cast each other were full of meaning. By now Paulus August, the book-keeper, and his twenty sailors knew that the wreck was due to something more than chance. With surprising promptitude Klopper, Malan and van der Heiden arrived from their look-out on Cape Agulhas and offered to help. They were greeted with a show of pleased surprise and joined in bringing ashore the goods from the wreck. Gear was erected between the ship and the shore and wagons with oxen in-spanned arrived from Vergelegen. All through the night and the following day Klopper, Malan, van der Heiden, van Soest and the trusted members of the crew were busy conveying to the beach bales of silk, packages of pepper, costly oriental woods, boxes full of Eastern silver, ornaments of gold and precious stones. On the beach Captain van Soest ordered his sailors to reassemble. Each received a substantial pack of treasure and was told to make his way to Cape Town as quickly as possible.


Their hurry seemed justified, for the following day a heavy south-easter set in and so knocked about the Schonenberg   that she began to break up. But by then the Captain with the three farmers, was on the way to Vergelegen, accompanied by the heavily laden wagons.


Governor de Chavonnes was more than astonished when the first party of castaways gave him news of the shipwreck and his surprise grew to suspicion when, a few days later, the remaining twenty sailors reached Cape Town. Within a few hours they were squandering the gold and silver they had received, and were talking in their cups about the queer goings-on upon the Agulhas coast. Even though van Soest was a personal friend, His Excellency asked questions, and before long other odd facts emerged.


On his previous visits to the Cape, it was recalled, van Soest had frequently visited Vergelegen, where he had become intimate with four farmers who had divided up Willem Adrian van der Stel's original estate - Barend Gildenhuis, Hendrik Klopper, Jacob Malan and Jacob van der Heiden. Information reached the ears of His Excellency that the Captain had been engaged in smuggling American tobacco and old rum to Vergelegen, from where it had been distributed. Even nastier details came to light. One mate of the Schonenberg  , who knew about the unlawful traffic, had quarreled with the Captain and threatened to tell the Governor. He disappeared in the night, and the next morning his corpse, with a heavy cut in the forehead, was found floating near the jetty. "He fell overboard during the watch," was all van Soest had to say.


The Captain and the farmers arrived at Vergelegen from the wreck. No more secrecy was observed; indeed Klopper spoke quite openly of the manner in which, as far back as the end of December in the previous year,1721, he and van Soest had worked out a plot to run ashore the Schonenberg   when next she returned from the Indies, and to plunder her treasure.


Now they were at Vergelegen homestead. Coloured slaves were ordered to unload the wagons, and after nightfall three or four of them were told off by Klopper to carry the gold and silver and precious stones into the orchard behind the house. Presently the rest of the party heard shots. Not one of the slaves returned alive.


Captain van Soest now felt it high time, if he was to allay suspicion, that he must go to Cape Town. Within a few days he arrived there. Governor de Chavonnes was not as affable as usual, and insisted that the wreck should be immediately investigated under official supervision. Meneer Valk, the Harbour Master, and Jan de la Fontein, Senior Merchant, accompanied van Soest on his return trek by wagon to Agulhas.


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Charles Shapiro cc T/A "Aqua Exploration"


South African Historical Wreck Society
www.sahws.org.za

+27 (0) 82 086 5937

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