Schonenberg: Story of a Shipwreck


Since March 2015, when we made Schonenberg Estate our new home, I was puzzled about the origin and pronunciation of its name. Was it supposed to be “Schönenberg/Schonenberg”, German for ‘Lovely Mountain’, written without the umlaut? Or “Shonnenburg”, as many people anglicise the name? Thanks to Google I soon learnt that the estate was named after a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company which ran aground at Struisbaai, close to Cape Agulhas, on 20 November 1722.

One such ancient ship was the Schonenberg. Different spellings were used in old documents of the time: in the Cape Archives, the ship’s name is mostly written Schoonenberg, while papers in the Netherlands’ VOC archives prefer Schonenberg. The original Dutch pronunciation would use a guttural sound, “Sgoonenberg”, with the Afrikaans version “Skonenberg”, which I eventually chose to use myself.


Further investigation revealed a mysterious story about a conspiracy between the ship’s captain and three farmers from Hottentots Holland to deliberately run the vessel ashore with the intent to salvage its precious cargo and stash it away on the well-known Vergelegen Estate.

When the Governor at the Castle of Good Hope, Mauritz Pasque de Chavonnes, was informed of the dubious circumstances of the wreck, he was suspicious. He had the perpetrators arrested, tried and brutally punished. Although the grounds of Vergelegen were thoroughly searched over the years, nobody recovered the treasure. Rumours of the “treasure” lived on unchallenged for almost three centuries and gave rise to many fallacies, delusions and imaginative additions.


In 2017, Dr Jan Malan dismantled the legend as a fable deviating radically from the truth in his book “Die Stranding van die VOC-skip Schoonenberg, Struisbaai 1722”. Africana Publishers published it, and I bought my signed copy at Van Brakel-stoor, a farm stall on the road between Caledon and Napier.


Malan is a retired nuclear physicist residing in Bredasdorp. He headed the Institute of Maritime Technology in Simon’s Town, and after that the Denel facility for testing missile systems near Waenhuiskrans on the Overberg coast. While reading about the history of the Malan family in South Africa, he came across a reference to one of his ancestors implicated in the Schoonenberg disaster.

Interested to the point of obsession, he started a process of meticulous research. Between 2011 and 2017 Malan systematically investigated all documentation about the Schoonenberg in the Cape and the Netherland VOC’s archives, as well as whatever the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp and other sources could provide.

According to a Wikipedia article, “exceptionally comprehensive documentation regarding this event has been preserved in the Cape archives.” It allows the events, as they unfolded 300 years ago, to be reconstructed in detail. From this emerged the real story of the ship and its crew.

The 800-ton Schoonenberg was built for the Amsterdam Chamber of the VOC as a typical 40 m three master for trade with the East. She was launched in 1717 and left on her first visit in 1719, only returning to the Netherlands in 1721. Albertus van Soest was the skipper for the second voyage which departed from Texel on 15 December 1721. It was also his second journey to the East as skipper. Stop-overs at the Cape usually lasted from three to six weeks, and Van Soest became friends with Jacob van der Heijde, farmer of Vergelegen, who supplied meat to passing ships. On 21 July 1722, the Schoonenberg arrived at Batavia.


The Schoonenberg sailed from Batavia on 25 September 1722. Her 700-ton cargo consisted of sugar, tea, coffee, pepper and sapan wood to the value of 294 411 guilders. There were 110 men aboard, and the ship carried 28 cannon. On the evening of 19 November, they were nearing Cape Agulhas. It was fine weather, almost full moon, a bit hazy, with a light north-easterly wind. Skipper Van Soest thought they knew where they were, so did not deem depth soundings necessary. They were on a westerly course that would take them about 8 km south of Cape Agulhas, but unknowingly and for unknown reasons (perhaps side currents on the Agulhas bank) they had been sailing about 12 km off course to the north.

Around 03h30 the lookout, Pieter Jansz, called out that there was land ahead. Second mate Pieter Corver, who was on duty during the ‘dog watch’ that is from 24h 00 till 04h 00, acknowledged the call but took no action. When the lookout called again, Corver went to alert the skipper, but it was too late to avert a disaster. The rudder and sails were adjusted, and a total of four anchors were cast out one after the other, but every time the cables snapped. The depth was now only 7.5 m. The ship drifted sideways towards the reef, and the waves pushed it firmly on to the rocks with its bow facing the land, some 800 m off.

The entire crew of 110 reached the beach safely, some in the ship’s boat and others on rafts. The provisions they had brought from the ship were skimpy: 150 I of water, two barrels of barley and three live pigs. The next morning the skipper was informed by the officers that they had decided to walk to the Cape. About 84 men followed the officers on foot, and almost perished from hunger along the way but were fed and cared for when they reached the farm Onverwacht of Philip Morkel in the Hottentots Holland. Nine days after the stranding they reached the Cape. Some 20 men stayed with the skipper. These men were utterly unruly and went to the wreck to plunder and to fetch more liquor. Van Soest and his bookkeeper, Paulus Augier, had to carry pistols to protect them from the mutineers.


According to all evidence, there was never any hint of a deliberate stranding of the ship. There might have been negligence, especially with the choice of a route dangerously close to the treacherous coast, and with the failure to take depth soundings. But the reason for the massive departure from their planned course remains a mystery. Possible navigational errors cannot explain the full deviation of 12 km to the north. The well-known reverse eddies to the north of the Agulhas current as it hits the Agulhas Bank might well have played a role. On the Bank, such side currents often reach more than 4 km per hour. Especially at night, the seamen could not have known that they were drifting off to the north while steering west.


On the afternoon of 24 November, Anna Maria sailed into Table Bay with the news that the Schoonenberg was seen stranded on the rocks near Cape Agulhas. Governor Mauritz de Chavonnes immediately sent someone to investigate. When he learnt that men from the ship were on their way to the Cape, he sent a delegation led by the deputy governor, Jan de la Fontaine, to Hottentots Holland to meet them at Vergelegen, the farm of Jacob van der Heijde.

According to the officers, the ship and her cargo could not be salvaged, and the men on the beach had little water and food. On the request of the officials, Jacob (Jacques) Malan, the farmer of the neighbouring Morgenster, together with Gerrit Romond set out for the wreck. They left on 30 November with Malan’s wagon loaded with emergency provisions. Two days later, two senior officials, Cornelis Valk and Johannes Pleunes, also went to Struisbaai on a fact-finding mission. Both wagons reached the stranded men on 6 December.

Finally, on 25 December, the second fact-finding mission confirmed in writing on the deck of the Schoonenberg that nothing could be salvaged. Van Soest and Augier were later sent by the Political Council to burn the wreck so that it would not mislead passing ships and this was accomplished on 26 January 1723.

In the course of 1723, some of the Schoonenberg sailors were placed on passing ships which had lost seamen. Those remaining, together with the officers, were repatriated to the Netherlands early in 1724.


Fiscal Cornelis van Beaumont took affidavits from all those involved and in March 1723 formulated his charge-sheet. The skipper and his officers were charged with negligence for not taking depth soundings. The lawsuit before the Council of Justice, with several rounds of arguments and counter-arguments, continued till 11 September when the judgment was passed. All four were found guilty. Van Soest and Corver were dismissed with loss of salary and rank and were declared unfit to serve the Company again in any capacity. Their possessions and any compensation owed to them were confiscated. First mate Willem Verbeek was dismissed with loss of pay and rank, and third mate Dirk Pest was reprimanded by the Council but retained his status.

Following the loss of his rank, Van Soest did not want to travel as an ordinary passenger on a VOC ship. Assisted by his friend Jacob van der Heijde he secretly boarded an English vessel, the Berrington, and sailed for Europe at the end of 1723.


The Council of XVII in the Netherlands were dissatisfied with the long, drawn-out legal process, and even more so with the lenient sentence of Van Soest, whom they suspected of having beached the ship deliberately. After his return as a free man, they resolved to charge him for the robbery of goods which he was to bring for people in Holland, and which he alleged had been lost in the disaster.

The investigation of fiscal Adriaan van Kervel in 1726 on the order of the Council of XVII found evidence that Van Soest had sent a sealed package containing a hoard to Van der Heijde. Locked cases and rolls of eastern materials had been offloaded at Vergelegen, but Van der Heijde and his family denied having seen this. No material evidence could be found, and there was no indication that anything had later been transported from Vergelegen.

Replying to Van Kervel’s report, the Council of XVII wrote that they would give the matter more thought. But no documents were found indicating that anybody had ever been charged for looting.


On 25 November 1985 shipwreck divers, Charlie Shapiro and Mike Keulemans found indications of a wreck while conducting a magnetometer survey on Northumberland reef at Struisbaai. A systematic study of the site in 1990 by a party led by Jimmy Herbert allowed the position of four anchors (including a bent dredge anchor) and 21 cannon to be mapped. Also, it brought to light eastern porcelain, pepper, three Dutch ‘IJssel’ bricks (small yellow bricks used to isolate the kitchen area with its fires from the ship’s wooden structure), pieces of molten lead and various household articles. This evidence, with historical records regarding the orientation of the wreck and its subsequent burning, convinced the researchers that the discovered wreck was indeed that of the Schoonenberg.