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Maritime Heritage important in boosting the economy of traditional coastal communities 

By Stella Sigcau

19 February 2019

South Africa has a rich and diverse maritime heritage ranging from the historic use of the oceans and rivers by traditional coastal communities, maritime festivals, fascinating oral stories of indigenous communities that have lived and used the oceans for centuries, the cuisines, the ship wrecks, archaeological sites and trade. South Africa’s maritime heritage is very rich, however it seems, there is less emphasis on it as an economic and heritage contributor compared to the other sectors. The traditional communities living along the coasts who could benefit from this sector, most remain impoverished and to a certain extent marginalized, in particular along the Wild Coast e.g. Port St Johns and Coffee Bay to mention a few.

These communities carry a wealth of institutional memory which form part of this heritage passed on through generations as they have lived the ocean life for centuries, hence we hear of the stories about the shipwrecks, trade and encounters of the indigenous people with the foreign traders or castaways; the importance of the oceans to the livelihood, the traditions, culture, lifestyle of the coastal indigenous people and their belief systems. However some of this memory is not documented or archived. Some believed that oceans provided healing and ancestral significance. This meant that these oceans and rivers remained sacred to these communities. They were not just places for leisure and swimming but meant much more.

Fishing remains important and it dates back centuries and was and still is a way of life to these communities. The rivers and oceans were thus also a source of food. The traditional cuisines of the people from these areas are historically influenced by this lifestyle and this also provided economic opportunities. Accessories e.g. necklaces and bracelets made were unique as they were made from the shells of these oceans amongst others.  Certain unique plants which form part of the bio diversity grew around these areas which indigenous people used as herbs. All of this is critical to this heritage.

The maritime heritage also includes the various shipwrecks along the coasts of South Africa. These shipwrecks led possibly to the first encounters of the traditional communities with people of foreign descent from across the oceans who were survivors of these wrecks. These would have an impact in the traditional way of life leading to interaction, assimilation of the survivors with the indigenous people of the area, intermarriages, sharing and cultural exchange in some instances leading to birth of clans such as the amaMolo whose ancestors were shipwreck survivors of Indian origin and Abelungu clan whose ancestors it is reported were of European descent found in the Mpondo Kingdom.

Examples of these shipwrecks include the Portuguese ship São João which it is reported went down near the mouth of the Mzimvubu River in Port St. Johns in 1552, the Sao Bento which wrecked on Msikaba Island in 1554. Apparently due to this wreck this area has been known for the carnelian beads and shreds of Ming porcelain which were washed ashore.   There is mention of the Nossa Senhora de Belem, a Portuguese galleon which ran aground near the estuary of the Umzimvubu River on 24 July 1635. The Wreck of the Grosvenor which is reported to have occurred on 4 August 1782 in Lambasi, Mpondoland and the Stavenisse which wrecked apparently in the Coffee Bay area in 1686.

The preservation, restoration and reconstruction of these shipwrecks presents vast opportunities which include, maritime education programmes, skills development and research, maritime museums, hospitality which will boost the maritime and coastal tourism whilst  tackling challenges with regards to poverty, job creation and skills development. Essential is also the participation of these communities as active players in this sector whilst preserving their way of life. Places like Port St Johns and Coffee Bay are amongst the many coastal traditional areas which hold rich and diverse maritime heritage. It is therefore important to turn maritime heritage into resourceful contributor to traditional coastal economies, making these communities also active players both in the South African and global economy as well contribute to sustainable development, environmental and cultural tourism as well as South Africa’s broader heritage.



June/July 2019









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