The Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum opened in the 1960’s and was proclaimed a museum in 1975.It is the only Shipwreck Museum in South Africa and pays tribute to the 150 ships that were met by an untimely end along the Cape’s tumultuous coast made of jutting rocks and unpredictable seas.
Although Bredasdorp might seem an unlikely candidate for a museum bearing coastal artefacts when it is in fact inland, municipal authorities were at the time reluctant to erect additional buildings in some of the coastal towns; Bredasdorp is also the centre of Cape Agulhas so it was easily accessible.
Besides a handful of replicas, almost all the artefacts in the museum are original. Small treasures and coins can be found dispersed between portholes, furniture, figureheads, anchors, canons, maps and more.
Along the Cape coastline, there are a reported 150 shipwrecks that represent various nationalities ranging from Denmark, Portugal, France, United Kingdom, Japan, Netherlands, Taiwan, Germany and more. One of the reasons there were so many ships sailing along the then renowned Clipper Route, was because at the time it was the fastest circumnavigation route of the world and thus the traditional route between England and Australia, New Zealand and the Far East, and so on.The stretch between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas was one of the most ominous areas due its treacherous qualities and was so dubbed the ‘Cape Horn’.
The stories that are attached to each and every trinket or memorabilia are what make the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum so significant. The very first shipwreck recorded was the Zoetendal which met its rocky end in 1673. The countless ships that followed the Zoetendal’s fate were at times caused by the malicious intent of greedy auctioneers. Some would light false fires that acted like lighthouses in order to lure ships to the unsuspecting rocks so that they could loot the goods, sell it in Cape Town and make a small fortune.
The Queen of the Thames, which has left behind many relics in the museum, met her doom on St. Patrick’s Day. The Queen of the Thames was a large cost to the United Kingdom (approximately £55 000 in the 1800s!) as it was built for speed and the first of its kind. On return from its very first voyage to Australia, they decided to stop in Africa just for a sighting. During the celebrations that were taking place on board on St. Patricks Day, of which the captain was part of, they hit Struys Point when they mistook a bush fire for the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse. Luckily only a handful died.
The HMS Arniston was not as fortunate however. Only three people survived the wreckage and Mrs Geils, the mother of four sailors that were on board, erected the original Arniston Memorial to commemorate her loss. Orginally named Waenhuiskrans after the cave, it was then that the town acquired the additional Arniston to its name.
One of the more famous ships was the H.M.S. Birkenhead. This particular ship has ignited many people’s imagination as the tragic but romantic story lead to 450 soldiers sacrificing themselves at the infamous rock off Danger Point. Every single soldier stood deadly still in formation as the ship raged to the oceans depths while they waited for all women and children to disembark first, this lead to 450 deaths out of the 643 people on board and the birth of the Women and Children First Protocol that has since been used worldwide.