Research has been taking place to find the wreck of a VOC ship in Table Bay near Cape Town since 1989. The wreck is that of the Nieuw Haarlem, an East Indiaman of about 500 tons that was built in 1642–1643 in the yard of the Chamber of Amsterdam.
Returning from a trading trip, the ship had completed three return voyages before it fell on a lee shore in the Table Bay and ran aground on 25 March 1647. Shortly thereafter 58 of the 120 strong crew were repatriated with the help from some English ships and the Witte Olifant and Schiedam, with which the Nieuw Haarlem had left Batavia on 16 January. The other 62 hands remained behind to put as much of the cargo as possible in safety. It took about a year for them to be picked up by the return fleet of 1648. In that intervening period the crew of the Nieuw Haarlem came into contact with the local population. Although the first meetings were marked by insecurity and suspicion, communication improved after a few months. In the end they engaged in bartering, visited each other and a few of the locals even learned some Dutch.
Up to now the search for the Nieuw Haarlem has been based on archival searches and limited archaeological work in the field. Although the wreck has not been found yet, archival material has provided significant indicators to its probable location. This comprised first of all the logbook kept by deputy merchant Leendert Jansz, who together with Claes Winckels, master, commanded the 62 crew left behind.
This logbook mentions the estimated distance from the wreck and from the nearby encampment that was set up, to the quayside where the VOC ships and other vessels dropped anchor and where fresh drinking water was taken on board. This distance of one and a half ‘German mile’ or 11,112 metres, was then measured on a modern chart of Table Bay in following the coast line. This came out at a position between the present-day suburbs of Milnerton and Table View.
The direct distance between this point and the starting point was then measured, which resulted in a distance of a little over 10.5 kilometres. A manuscript chart from 1662 in the Leupe Collection of Foreign Maps and Charts in the Nationaal Archief confirmed the probable site of where the ship ran aground. This chart is not a true representation of the actual situation, as can be surmised from the exaggerated curved line of the east coast of Table Bay. It is more of a so-called fairsheet, which also provides other information such as the coastal contours.
However, it is very significant that the position of the wreck of the Nieuw Haarlem is marked a little south east of Robben Island. This was confirmed by projecting the chart as accurately as possible onto a modern nautical chart of the area, which also indicated a position between Milnerton and Table View. A second instruction is given in the journal of the first commander of the Cape colony, Jan van Riebeeck. This mentions that the wreck of the Nieuw Haarlem was still partly visible in 1652 and that there were some salt marshes in the immediate vicinity.
A different chart from the Leupe collection which marks these salt marshes in detail was used to indicate the extreme north and south boundaries of this area. This information was then projected onto a Google Earth bird’s eye view of the area in question. This also confirmed the probable site of the wreck. Geophysical research that has been undertaken since then, has detected a few considerable disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field which may possibly indicate the presence of wrecks buried beneath the sand. These sites have now be investigated by means of trial excavations. It is hoped that these will result in the wreck of the Nieuw Haarlem being found in the near future.