Dashed on the Reef: The Sacramento Saga


I was restless and wanted to see as much of the world as possible.  My father was already temporarily stationed in Goa and it I decided it would great to surprise him with a visit.

I signed up to join the crew of the Sacramento, the pride and joy of our magnificent Portuguese fighting fleet.  She was the most beautiful ship I’d ever seen and it would be a great honour to be a part of her crew.  There was plenty of competition between our little country and others when it came to exploring and colonizing distant lands, especially from our much larger neighbour, Spain.  Portugal was truly a queen of the seas and giving the arrogant Spaniards a run for their money.

My mother was uneasy about the trip.

“I have a bad feeling, Rodrigo,” she said.  “I know you want to see your father, and so do I. If you insist on going there’s not much I can do but I’ll light a candle and say a prayer for you every night that you may return safely.”

We had a valuable cargo of brass cannon for delivery to our Indian territories.  Since she was a warship and had 60 fixed cannon aboard, you can imagine how heavily loaded she was and what fine-tuned skill was needed to keep her wooden structure afloat and well balanced even in good weather.

I was very excited as I had heard so much about the exotic people and spices to be seen in India.  But it was a very long way and after the first week aboard I began to feel homesick from the cramped quarters and the monotonous and inadequate food.  The ship’s doctor was kept pretty busy treating various stomach ailments caused by a poorly balanced diet and unhygienic living conditions.  Lack of Vitamin C was a problem in those days and resulted at best in severely painful gums and at worst in death.

The first sight of Table Mountain lifted our spirits.  I had never seen anything so amazing and we all stood on deck watching as our beautiful ship sailed past this landmark which signalled our entry to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean.


A week or so later we anchored at Mossel Bay where several of our crew prepared some letters for their wives and families at home and I too dispatched a short note to my mother in a shoe which I hung in the shade of the giant milkwood which had been used by our sailors since 1500.  We knew that in due course a ship passing in the opposite direction would find the shoes and deliver our letters to Portugal.

The “Post Office Tree” used for messages since 1500

Two days later, shortly after passing the forbidding Knysna Heads we set anchor in Bahia Formosa to replenish our fresh food and water.  Once again I was fascinated by the beautiful shores of what people today know as Plettenberg Bay.  I felt privileged to be seeing things which so few of my countrymen would ever get to see.


The weather started to change for the worse as we made our way eastwards.   We were passing beautiful white sandy beaches such as Gamtoos River Mouth , Maitland Mouth and Sardinia Bay but now all hands were required on deck to keep our ship afloat in the increasing gale.  The rain grew heavier and we were all drenched to the skin and fighting a losing battle as we drew nearer to the rocky reefs of the future Schoenmakerskop.

Our heroic efforts to save the ship were to no avail.  I heard the ominous scraping of timbers as our ship ground against rocks just beneath the surface.  The terrible sound made us realize the end had come. Luckily we were very close to the beach and 72 of us managed to struggle ashore.  Several of our mates perished as they were sucked under the powerful waves.

Sacramento Trail, PE, image Shaen Adey 1330
The rocky area where we struggled ashore on 30 June 1647

As we sat dazed on the rocks, bruised and bleeding, I watched the final moments of our beautiful ship, tears glistening in my eyes as it disappeared for ever below the surface, the heavy cargo hastening its trip to the bottom.  The only home we’d known for months, cramped as it was, was gone.  It was 30 June 1647.


When the storm abated we began to salvage what we could from the ship: mostly wood and material from the sails in order to erect some kind of shelter on the beach.  There was plenty of timber and bits of sail which we recovered from the rocks.

A few of us did some exploring the next day.  We found a small cave, more of an overhang really, which could shelter perhaps four or five people at best so after notifying the captain we opted to sleep there.

We stayed on the deserted beach for eleven days before starting our long and arduous trek towards Delagoa Bay, partly in order for our party to recover from the various wounds sustained by the wreck and partly because the was some disagreement between some of the senior crew. Some of us were also spending the time retrieving what we could from the wreck site.

Some of our number wished to stay where we were until another Portuguese ship passed and we could attract their attention by building a fire. But this was dismissed as impractical.

“It could take many months before one of our ships arrives,” said the first officer.  “I say we head for Delagoa Bay where we have a garrison and from there have a much better chance to return home.  We may even meet up with the Atalaya on our way.”

“It must be all of nine hundred miles,” argued another officer.  “And all of it uncharted territory full of unknown dangers.”

“It’s still our best hope,” the first officer replied, and his opinion prevailed.

Going was slow because so many had injured themselves on the jagged rocks.  We knew food was going to be a problem because there were so many of us and most of our guns had gone down with the ship, and those that hadn’t wouldn’t work properly after being in the salty water.

In order to keep my growing hunger at bay I took a great interest in everything around me.  It was certainly beautiful and there were no signs of human life.

We faced many dangers.  There were numerous river crossings with treacherous currents and some of these crossings were only feasible at low tide or by going upstream to find a drift where we could safely cross.  Our numbers were already substantially decreased through illness, infection, starvation and pure exhaustion.  Some perished from snake bites for which the doctor had no cure.  Terrible diseases such as bilharzia from contaminated rivers claimed many lives.  We could not drink salt water and often had to go further inland to find fresh water.  The padre was kept pretty busy.

Quite a number of us were good fishermen and we fashioned rods from sticks which turned out quite a success, and on some days we had a good catch.  Luckily we had also recovered quite a number of flints from the wreck and could make fires when the weather allowed it.

A magnificent but treacherous coastline

When we reached the Wild Coast we realized we would have no choice but to retreat further inland because we were faced by obstacles such as seen below, such as Waterfall Bluff where a mighty waterfall tumbles directly into the sea from a lofty crag.

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Waterfall Bluff
Another shot of Waterfall Bluff

We passed the wreck of the Nossa Senhora de Belem, a grim reminder of just how perilous the journey East could be.

In the beginning of August we met up with a large group of survivors from the equally ill-fated Atalaya, a ship which we had hoped would be in a position to rescue us had itself fallen a victim to the treacherous Indian Ocean currents.  Compared to us they were a strong and well-equipped party and had managed to salvage a number of useful goods as well as a few barrels of food, although not nearly enough for such a large group.

We were treated to the beautiful sight of snow covered mountains in the far distance and realized we were seeing a place which few if any Europeans had ever seen and would not visit for another couple hundred years.

We grew accustomed to the nagging hunger.  Sometimes we’d be lucky enough to find a freshly dead turtle or to make a kill.  Several died from finding and eating rotting fish in their desperation for sustenance.

Some of the more observant members of our party watched the monkeys and birds and thus got to know which fruits and berries were safe for us to eat.

As we ventured northwards the coast became flatter and more open but there were new dangers from hippos and crocodiles, which seemed to be very abundant and forced us back toward the beach.  None of us wanted closer acquaintance with these huge nightmare creatures.

We passed the wreck of the Nossa Senhora de Belem, a grim reminder of just how perilous the journey East could be.

In the beginning of August we met up with a large group of survivors from the equally ill-fated Atalaya, a ship which we had hoped would be in a position to rescue us had itself fallen a victim to the treacherous Indian Ocean currents.

When our long-suffering little group reached Delagoa Bay only myself and eight others from the Sacramento remained alive.  I was destined to be one of only four lucky enough to see our native shores again.

I hadn’t seen India, but had seen a great deal else and seen much beauty and much tragedy.  I was now matured and knew that if I had succeeded in going through all I had, I was ready to face anything.

Coincidentally another ship, a gold-bearing one also called the Sacramento, sank off the far-off coast of California hundreds of years later.

Fast forward 330 years to 1977 when most of our cannons were retrieved from the waters.  They placed one of the best-preserved ones on a prominence near Schoenmakerskop pointing in the direction where our lovely Sacramento came to grief.  Our story will not be forgotten!

6. Sacramento_960_472_80auto_s_c1_center_top
Cannon at Schoenmakerskop
The memorial at the spot where the Sacramento foundered

The name of our beloved ship is also commemorated in the lovely little restaurant in Schoenmakerskop with its nautical decor and delicious food.  This Sacramento will not founder.


Published by: envirozentinel63

Diagnosed with asperger syndrome. Keen runner and writer who wants to share the ups and downs of all my many experiences and maybe reach out to someone who needs encouragement.

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