Maritime Africa 2: The Skeleton Coast of Namibia

November 2022

The skeleton coast of Namibia is one of the most iconic maritime locations on earth. Here the fearsome Namib desert runs right to the sea. Over the centuries the sand dunes have grown and the shoreline has moved further away as the desert reclaims the sea. The coastline itself is formidably dangerous. Plagued by shallow sandbars, fog and treacherous currents, thousands of ships are known to have wrecked here from the earliest period of European exploration of the African coast. The result is an extraordinary collection of shipwrecks surrounded by desert. To help understand the rich history of this extraordinary place Dr Sam Willis spoke with Eliot Mowa, a lecturer at the University of Namibia with an expertise in maritime history and the maritime culture of Namibia.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. This the second episode we have dedicated to the maritime history of Africa. Today I’m exploring the Skeleton Coast of Libya. I came across this as I’ve recently been working on a new double page spread for the latest edition of the Guinness Book of Records, and they asked me to produce some new world records on the subject of shipwrecks. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of shipwrecks in unusual places, and probably the most unusual place for a shipwreck to be in has to be the middle of a desert. Which brings us to the fascinating location of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Here, the Namib Desert runs right to the sea, and over the centuries, the sand dunes have grown and the shoreline has moved further away as the desert reclaims the sea. The result is that you have shipwrecks surrounded by desert. If you don’t believe me, make sure to find us on Instagram and Facebook and you’ll see for yourself. To help understand the rich history of this extraordinary place. I spoke with Eliot Mowa. Elliot has been involved with maritime archaeological projects since 2008. With the discovery of the Bom Jesus shipwreck, a Portuguese ship dated to the 1500s discovered during diamond mining operations on the coast of Namibia. Elliot went on to study maritime archaeology at the University of Bristol something I also did so we are more academic brothers. Elliot then worked with the Orangemen conservation laboratory, where they conserve the Bom Jesus wreak, and now works at the University of Namibia as a lecturer. His current interests lie in the indigenous underwater cultural heritage of Namibia, which includes canoe building traditions, venerated sacred underwater sites, and pre colonial fish traps. And he is working to raise awareness among the local population to take pride in their heritage, while at the same time offering those sites protection. It’s all fascinating and very important work. But that’s enough about him. It’s time to hear from him. As always, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the excellent Elliot.

    Sam Willis
    Elliot, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

    Eliot Mowa
    It’s a pleasure and honour to be here.

    Sam Willis
    Oh, that’s very kind of you. Well, let’s start off. Tell us about your wonderful country. For those who have not been to Namibia. I suspect there are quite a lot of people listening to this podcast who have not had the pleasure.

    Eliot Mowa
    Yes,it’s a country in southwestern part of Africa. It was it’s a vast country, geographically and historically, it has been colonised by the Germans from the late 19th century. Up to the start of the First World War, it was 1915. Then, subsequently, in 1919, as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles it came under the influence or mandate of South Africa, which was then a British colony. So on the geographical side, while it is a vast country, like I said, as a matter of fact, some pundits have likened it to the UK, like size of Namibia. In other words, the size of the UK itself can be compared or gets in Namibia. geographical space, four times over. So it’s quite big, however. It’s it’s not all that really habitable because it’s one of the driest country in the world and the driest country in Africa. So it’s very, very dry, arid, the southern part and the central part of Namibia it receives less than 250 millimetres of rainfall, the average rainfall annually, Only the North and the Northeast part receives about 600 millimetres average rainfall and it’s historically has been habited by indigenous people, which means the coastal part of Namibia has actually been vacant, void of any human contact for a very long time. Even though they are some, some areas, particularly along the mouth of all the estuaries, some of the the rivers, the ephemeral rivers in Namibia was most pronounced anyway. Yeah, given the fact that it’s arid, they are ephemeral, they only flow during the rain season. So at the mouth of these rivers, like the Kuiseb River, which is nearby, the settlement Walvis Bay, which was a British colony. It remained a British colony actually, even after the whole country was colonised by Germany. At the mouth of these rivers, were a few indigenous people who, inhabited these areas. This indigenous community have lived in this rivers, according to archaeological evidence that have been unearthed world renowned archaeologist, Dr. John Kinahan, as well as Gil Kinahan, they are a couple, one of the first Namibian archaeologists. So they have some archaeological evidence in the form of bones, animal bones, in the form of pottery. and whale bones, among others as the in addition to beads, that were actually exchanged it with the Europeans, or the seafarers in action with, with with livestock,

    Eliot Mowa
    What sort of date was this?

    Eliot Mowa
    That was the pre colonial phase period, that is prior to the 1885 period. So we’re talking about round about the 1700, and the early part of the 1800s. So yeah, as a matter of fact, throughout the contact period, that is, starting with the expedition of Europeans along the coast of Africa, such as Diego Cao , and as well as Bartolomeu Diaz.

    Sam Willis
    15th century Portuguese?

    Eliot Mowa
    Around about 1500 years, as a matter of fact, that Diogo Cao, the first Portuguese explorer, to have explored the furthest part of Southern Africa, he erected a cross at a place which is called Cape Cross today, along the Namibian coast. So that was the furthest destination he reached with his ship before he returned back to central part of Africa. So ever since that period, that contact period, some Europeans have documented seeing indigenous people along the Namibian coast, and it’s likely it’s along these rivers, so they have had contact and trade has taken place between the Europeans and the seafarers. In the form of livestock, and they’ll exchange with European goods such as tobacco, wine and, and other European goods, such as guns and beads. So beads in particular, is this particular site along the Kuiseb River, the mouth of the Hoarusib river unearthed during an archaeological excavation, and these are dated to the 17 and 18th century. So there have been that contact between the indigenous people and the European throughout the 16th century, all the way up to the colonial period.

    Sam Willis
    It’s lovely to hear stories and evidence of, of interaction between Africans and the Europeans, because so much of the story of the skeleton coast of Namibia is primarily about disaster. It seems to be about shipwrecks.

    Eliot Mowa
    That’s right. So, again, it goes back to this contact period. Because the early navigators, especially in the initial navigation, or the initial voyages to the coast, including the ones for Vasco da Gama who discovered India, ventured too close the coast. They were in the danger zone of hitting shoals or rock outcrops. So that really contributed to the foundering of many European ships.

    Sam Willis
    I’ve read that it’s very it’s very misty as well and unpredictable currents very strong surf. Is it a particularly dangerous coast?

    Eliot Mowa
    Well, it is the mist itself. Yeah, it is, it is, can be quite overwhelming for as the first time sailors were not really familiar with the coast because of the the desert. Just to begin with along the coast during the day, by the natural processes, it’s quite hot. And there’s this, this natural phenomenon, I mean, fog mist, of course, it’s a result of hot air and cold, moist air. Like the Namibian coast, the Antarctic Ocean, it’s quite cool as a result of the Benguela cold Benguela current, that are flowing from the Antarctica or from the south pole. So when this cold air blowing over this cold ocean meets with the hot air from the interior, it creates this fog condition or mystic condition that is always constantly throughout the year. So that also contributes to the reduction of visability. And also, during during winter, there is episodes of storms, because the climate in this part of the world is dominated by the Mediterranean climate. That really dominated though that is characterised by winter rainfall. So during winter, there’s always coastal rainfall for storms. So that also contributed to the foundering of many of the shipwrecks.

    Sam Willis
    And I suppose the dryness of the environment now means that so many of those ships that are founded are still there. Do you have a sense of how many shipwrecks there are on the on the Namibian coast?

    Eliot Mowa
    Well, according to two research that have been conducted by one of the organisation in Namibia, it’s a non profit organisation that is really really keenly interested in preserving the Namibian shipwrecks and coastal heritage. They approximate the number to round about 300 or so the documented ones. Those are the documented one, through records through literature, as well as fieldwork. But there are still a lot more that are not documented. So aproximate plus 300 shipwreck have been admitted so far, from the mouth of the Kunene River in the north, where Namibia borders Angola, to the mouth of the Orange River in the South.

    Sam Willis
    Amazing, amazing number. And a large number of those those documented wreaks still sort of survived physically, there’s physical remains of a great deal of them as well. Can you tell us about some of the wrecks that still survive?

    Eliot Mowa
    Oh, yes, there’s still a great deal of shipwrecks that have been documented. One of them is the Eduard Bohlen shipwreck, which floundered in 1909, it was of German origin. It was a ferry ship or boat. It was used to ferry people from the settlement of Swakopmund. By then it was of course dominated by the Germans. It is still visible at up to this day as a matter of fact, one of the most popular shipwreck events, found 120-160 kilometres south of the town of Walvis Bay

    Sam Willis
    I certainly I certainly know that it’s, it’s in the desert. I mean, the photos of it are quite extraordinary because the sea is many 100 metres away from the wreck is that because the coastline has moved,

    Eliot Mowa
    Yes, the land is being built up, the land is being claimed from the sea. As a result of this shifting dunes are shifting sand. This deposition, of course, it continues further north. And as a result of this process, that’s why Namibia has one of the largest or tallest dunes in the world.

    Sam Willis
    It’s certainly an extraordinary landscape seeing those vessels in the desert. And I suppose it means that they’ve had all ships, like the Eduard Bohlen have had a new lease of life. And and I know that those shipwrecks themselves then become tourist attractions or have been used for a whole variety of reasons.

    Eliot Mowa
    Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, the Eduard Bohlen itself, it’s a major tourist attraction again. And that has sort of helped the the local tour operators, as well as the ministry of the government through the relevant established installations along the costs, where they will, of course, charge for for interest into the skeleton cost. And, of course, this is where the Eduard Bohlen is also found. So yeah, it has been come become a really major tourist attraction. And, of course, the government has benefited, so the private sectors as well.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, I saw that it was used as a film set. And it’s been used for modelling and various documentaries have been filmed there.

    Eliot Mowa
    Oh, yes. That was 1960s or 50s. If I’m not mistaken, it was used as a set for one of the films called the Hollywood films. And of course, I think in recent years, I have used one of the columns, as well, I’m not quite sure. But yeah, it’s it has become one of those sites, because given the nature of where the shipwreck itself flounded, it’s a desert. That’s a vast expanse of dunes, endless dunes. And nothing really, is there virtually there’s nothing for tourists or for anyone to see such a human. In invention, in that environment, it’s kind of surreal.

    Sam Willis
    Let’s talk about the other activities that have been going on the coast, or you mentioned whale bones with the indigenous community. So is there a tradition of whaling along this coast.

    Eliot Mowa
    Not necessarily. Most of the whalebones came about as a consequence of the the revival of the whaling activities that were conducted by the American whalers the 19th century along the Namibian coast. They would get on shore or ashore, and they would, of course, trade there with indigenous people for to refresh, refreshing their, their supplies. They would trade with livestock, and the next time they will give them a guns, tobacco or rum, alcohol or, or any vulnerable, especially beads, the indigenous people, they really love beads In exchange, they will give them these whale, because all they will do, they will extract the fats from the whale, I believe it was used for lighting, candles, something like that. And after extracting the fats from the whale, then the carcus will be will be discarded. And this will ever wash ashore by itself, if they will dispose it in the water, or they’ll give it to the, to the indigenous people who inhabited the Namibian coast. So that’s sort of like, has been the historical narrative of the origin of those whale bones and others have been, of course, the result of natural causes, whales will die in the, in the sea, probably as a result, some as a result of suffacation, because we’re talking about the, the Orange River that so when it will be in for flood, it will of course, flow into the sea with all this debris and and that is sort of like suffocating to whales, of marine mammals and wash ashore. So there are several causes for that. But I suppose historically, have been American sailors, but also their natural causes. Indigenous people have been taking that to their advantage and scavenging.

    Sam Willis
    Other activities I’ve been reading about I’m sealing and also guano collecting. So with these significant industries along the coast,

    Eliot Mowa
    Yes, especially the guano trade, even though it was very brief, lasted from the 1840s, if Im not mistaken. And by the 1850s, there was virtually no guano left. So the guano trade began in the 1840s. By the discovery of guano on on one of the islands in southern part of Namibia Coast by the British. And then this prompted the so called guano rush. So many ships or many traders in in UK, especially those who were trading in fertiliser and manure, they rushed to the coast of Namibia to extract this guano that was reported. And, and by then already think it was in Costa Rica or of the South American countries. The British had already harvested some guano there. So this was prior to that. So the discovery of this guano on the Namibian Coast become a sensation. By then. And yeah, so hundreds, if not 1000s of ships, came to Namibia and harvested this guano or which was said to be 10s of metres thick. And I the end of the 1850s. After just a period of less than 10 years. It was all it was all gone.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. It’s amazing how much the landscape masks massive change. Before we go live, just tell me a little about Lake Otjikoto because you have a very fascinating story of some maritime heritage, which is not by the coast, it’s very much inland. So tell us about that.

    Eliot Mowa
    Lake Otjikoto is an ancient lake. So it’s an ancient rock sinkhole lake. And he along that particular lake, there have been some indigenous people who live there. As a matter of fact, because the lake itself was revered as having some supernatural attributes that entails community. But then, in particular, what is more interesting is the historical record, especially with the arrival of the Germans, in the late 19th century. So they use the lake at first to extract water, or for the mining for the copper mines that were located just a few kilometres from the lake itself in the near the town Tsumeb today. So they that was sort of like the source of water. And they established a steam engine or the steam water pump. That right there near the lake itself. And then at the beginning of the First World War in 1914, there are 1000s of weapons in there that were dumped in there, including some war planes. There’s one war plane that at least from a historical point of view has been recorded, having been dumped or scuttled into into the lake. So yeah, most of the weapons that were used by the Germans, they were dumped in there before they surrendered to the South Africans. So up to this moment, those weapons are still at the bottom of the lake and dive tourists, dive it.

    Sam Willis
    it’s amazing to me to think that it’s still there been fascinating to go and go and have a look. So I’m finally tell me about the state of the Maritime Heritage there. I’m I’m guessing that because the coastline is so remote and so rugged, that a lot of it is it’s quite safe where it is. Is that fair to say?

    Eliot Mowa
    Well In terms of safety, how safe the maritime heritage is in Namibia? Well, it’s fairly safe. Yes from human elements. the Libyan coast is one of the jealously guarded coastlines versus south of the town of Luderitz which is found 300 kilometres from the the border with South Africa, up north. That particular area, that whole area is actually under, under the custodian of the one company, which is the Namib is a conglomerate of the Namibian government entities. So, there’s sort of like them on mining going on there for 300 kilometres, so that whole area is cordoned off.

    Sam Willis
    Well, listen, thank you very much indeed, for sharing me this story. I’d love to come and visit your country and to find out all about this wonderful maritime heritage. So thank you for sharing the story today.

    Eliot Mowa
    And I thank you so much.

    Sam Willis
    Thank you so much for listening. Now, please make sure that this isn’t the last thing you do to enjoy the content that we produce. We have a huge back catalogue of fascinating episodes to explore. From great naval battles to shipbuilding, ship models, exploration, maritime art and literature, famous heroes and maritime disasters. Please also do check out our YouTube channel. It’s quite simply brilliant. There are numerous innovative videos that present the maritime past in an entirely new light, my current favourite being an animation of a wrecked midget submarine from the Second World War on the shoreline of Aberlady Bay in Scotland. Please also remember that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, you can find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register foundation at hec.lr foundation.org.uk. And the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk where you can join up and please do there’s a free level of membership but if you’re willing to part with a small donation, you get a huge number of benefits, one of which is our winter lecture series where you can enjoy being entertained by some of the finest maritime scholars in the world. So do please find out more and join us at snr.org.uk