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The Great Galleon ‘Sao Joao’

The Great Galleon ‘Sao Joao’

The story of the great galleon Sao Joao is the earliest and one of the most famous shipwreck epics from the disaster-strewn shores of Southern Africa.

The Sao Joao, one of the largest ships of her time, on her maiden voyage and heavily laden with a cargo of pepper, Chinese porcelain and other merchandise, left India behind schedule for her return journey to Portugal. In May 1552, she encountered a series of severe storms off the South African coast. Her sails, mainmast and rudder were damaged causing her to drift helplessly towards land until she ultimately came to grief on the rocks. It is generally accepted that this event took place near what is now the town of Port Edward on the southern coast of KZN. About 500 people made it to the shore but some 120 of those who had been on board died in their efforts to reach land. The survivors undertook an arduous march north, aiming to reach Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) in the hope of rescue, but most died in attacks by hostile tribesmen or from disease and starvation. Eventually, after five and a half months, only some 25 were rescued. Even four centuries later, one can scarcely fail to be moved by this tragic tale.

‘Sao Joao’ translates to ‘Saint John’ in English and it is of interest to note that Port St. Johns on the Transkei coast is named after the wreck, owing to an early belief that this spot may mark the site of the Sao Joao’s final resting place. Whilst there might still be disagreement amongst historians, artefacts were recovered during a diving expedition off Port Edward in 1983. Their findings include part of a bronze gun. Furthermore, research undertaken by Tim Maggs of the Natal Museum, has surely established, beyond reasonable doubt, that Port Edward is, in fact, the last destination of the Sao Joao. Some of the artefacts recovered were offered to the Natal Museum, including the fragment of the bronze gun, shards of Ming porcelain from the Jiajing period (1522-1566), coarse earthenware, and glass beads from Cambay, India.

Visitors to the town of Port Edward will find a Portuguese monument erected at Splash Rock, while the annual event of the Portuguese Mariners’ Food and Wine Festival is held in winter to commemorate the lives lost. It is fitting that this occasion is to be held for a second time at Mac Banana in Munster, with activities centred on Mac’s Fazenda Restaurant – Fazenda being the Portuguese word for ‘farm’. Mac Banana is a hugely popular ‘go to’ place for visitors to the south coast and is a dream come true for owners Vernon and Gloria Duggan whose vision started to become a reality in 2005. Today Mac Banana boasts a magnificent Food & Wine Emporium, a range of adventure activities, a Lifestyle Centre and, of course, Fazenda Restaurant which specialises in authentic, fine Portuguese fare.

The festival includes a beer garden, open fire food vendors selling Portuguese culinary treats, wine tasting, including authentic Portuguese Port, and a Sunday Portuguese Buffet supplied by Fazenda’s kitchen. Visitors will be entertained by the ‘Rancho Folkloric Regioes de Portugal Dance’ group and, in keeping with the theme, there will be several folk games played throughout the weekend. Some may wish to attend the Mariners’ Mass on Sunday after which a wreath will be laid at the memorial site of the Sao Joao by the Portuguese Consul General. The event commences on 24 July 2015. For more information contact Ugu South Coast Tourism on 039-6837944 or [email protected]

Acknowledgements : extracts from :
Tim Maggs – The Great Galleon Sao Joao
S A History Online – Sao Joao (1552)

Charles Kohler

Author: Charles Kohler

Charles is a 'long standing local' who enjoys fishing off his jet-ski, Voodoo Lady. He is co-owner of Xclusive Media Group which publishes a local business directory twice a year.

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