The Portuguese galleon, the São João, is one of the greatest enigmas in South African maritime history, not only because so little is known about its cargo, passengers and crew, but also because the location of the wreck has puzzled researchers from the early 20th century until the present. The aim of the Port Edward Project 2001-2003 was to assess both documentary and physical material pertaining to the wreck, to throw more light on the location of the wreck site and survivor camp because this ship is an important part of South Africa’s maritime history as it was the first cargo ship wrecked along the country’s coastline. Many researchers believe it was one of the most richly laden ships to have left India since it was discovered. To begin with all available sources containing reference to the São João and the events surrounding its wrecking were investigated. This established a historical archaeological standard for dating and identification of Portuguese shipwrecks along the South African coast. A chronological examination of the extent of documentary sources resulted in an archaeological underwater and land survey in the area where the greatest concentrations of artefacts are still found today. This geographic area was within a defined zone within the municipal area of Port Shepston. Investigations were limited to a stretch of coast and adjacent inland area between the town of Port Edward, more specifically Tragedy Hill, and the Kuboboyi River. The archaeological material investigated: includes: Chinese porcelain shards, cowrie shells, cornelian beads, pepper and cannons. To prevent reiterating previous investigator’s research a survey was conducted to determine what scientific research has been done on the archaeological material. The actual location of the campsite has not been indisputably determined. It became evident that some research has been done to identify this important site but always only up to a certain point where some uncertainty still remains. This uncertainty is the result of certain factors. Firstly, Tim Maggs only positively identified the wreck site in the early 1980’s. Secondly, great amounts of agricultural activity have been reported in the area and thirdly the survivors only camped for twelve days, which limits the possibility of finding any material. In order to assist in locating this elusive site, the descriptions and details of other Portuguese campsites were investigated. From this it was possible to construct a virtual picture of the survivor camp by comparing the survivor’s account and the known characteristics of Portuguese survivor camps with the artefacts found and geography of the Port Edward area. The chronological examination of documentary sources, the comparison of other Portuguese survivor campsites, the artefacts found in Port Edward and the geography of the area led to the following conclusions: it can be said with a reasonable amount of certainty that the site in Port Edward is that of the São João. A site which demonstrates Portuguese campsite characteristics, where great concentrations of pepper have been found, was identified. It has been established that the partnership with historical documentation and archaeology gives this project the option of taking the investigations further. The virtual scenario assists in reducing the possibilities and refining the focus as opposed to merely terminating the search. It is recommended that specialized equipment be used for future underwater research since the sea conditions are harsh and dangerous. Tough the possible location of the survivor camp was established further excavations might reveal more about the construction of the camp.
Dissertation (MA (cultural history))--University of Pretoria, 2005.