Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Waratah - lifebuoy mystery.


Stanley Robinson presents a fascinating incident on his blog, which describes local 'natives' attempting to sell a lifebuoy from the Waratah to a 'white' trader. The said 'natives' claimed that the lifebuoy was retrieved in the vicinity of the Bashee River where they had witnessed the ship sink. What makes this account so fascinating is that it highlights a number of points (some of which I referred to in the previous post). 

Local 'natives', according to this report, did appropriate an item of wreckage washed up onshore. Therefore, we cannot assume that flotsam from shipwrecks was handed in to the authorities, in good faith. Such chance discoveries must have created a source of income for poor rural communities.  

The 'white' trader was initially unaware of the Waratah disaster. This emphasises the nature of the Transkei territory, circa 1909. Many inhabitants lived and worked in remote pockets, beyond the daily reaches of the colony. However, it was reported that immediate, extensive searches were conducted by cornets along the Transkei coast. Were these searches as extensive as claimed and if so, surely the 'white' trader would have heard about the Waratah earlier?

The 'natives' claimed that they had seen a ship sink off the Bashee River. But when authorities investigated this area, no trace of the 'natives' in question could be found. This suggests to me that the authorities did not look kindly upon local 'natives' appropriating and then trying to sell items from shipwrecks. The mere fact that the trader reported the account to the police further suggests that this practice was 'illegal'. If we follow this logic through, it would not be surprising if the 'natives' gave false information regarding where they lived or where they saw a ship go down. It is feasible, given this assumption, that the 'natives' may very well have resided in the vicinity of the Umzimvubu River (Port St Johns) further north (or some other location). 

The account also raises the question; how many similar incidents were not reported to the authorities? Were transactions conducted and nothing more said on the subject? It suggests that the Transkei held secrets about the loss of the Waratah that went beyond the scant information reaching authorities and finally the press.

It would be interesting to interview clan folk whose ancestors lived in villages on the hills overlooking Port St Johns. There could very possibly be stories handed down through the generations of a great ship on fire that lost her battle with the elements off the Umzimvubu River in July of 1909.

Umzimvubu River - surrounded by high, rugged terrain.


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