Digital Library

São João Baptista (1622)

Chase Oswald, Zachary Mead, Filipe Castro


Country: South Africa
Place: Cannon Rocks
Coordinates: Lat. ; Long.   W
Type: Nau
Identified: Yes
Dated: 1552 (Historical accounts)



Not included in Brito’s original two volumes, the account of the São João Baptista was written by one of its survivors, Francisco Vaz d’Almada. He was a soldier and nobleman who spent much time in the Indies and had even captained a ship to the coast of southern Malacca 10 years before the sinking of the São João Baptista (Duffy, 1955: 40; Boxer, 1959; Bell-Cross, 1988: 61).

On March 1st, 1622, the São João Baptista captained by Pedro de Morais Sarmento left Goa accompanying the Portuguese flagship Nossa Senhora do Paraiso, captained by Nuno Alvares Botelho. After sailing for approximately 15 to 20 days the pumps of São João Baptista were checked and it was discovered that the ship had 14 to 15 hands (about 1.4 – 1.5 m) of water in the hold. Because the pumps of the ship were originally built for a smaller galleon, all but one was too small to be of any use keeping up with the leak. Using buckets and barrels the crew was able to reduce the amount of water on board to around four hands (about 0.4 m). Upon reaching a latitude of 25° South the weather went from an exhausting heat to extreme cold, further exacerbating the conditions on board. Unfortunately, on the night of July 17th, São João Baptista departed from the course of the flagship as the light on the latter vessel’s poop-lantern was lost in the darkness, leaving the São João Baptista and her crew alone at sea. And as fate should have it, on the morning of July 19th at a latitude of 35 to 30° South, two Dutch ships were spotted off the bow (Boxer, 2001: 190-191).


The Dutch ships were Mauritius and Wapen van Rotterdam, both Indiaman, which left the Cape on June 13th and bound for Batavia. Alone and outnumbered, the São João Baptista’s crew strained to ready the over-encumbered ship for action. That afternoon São João Baptista fired two broadsides at the Dutch ships, marking the beginning of an engagement that would prove fatal for the Portuguese vessel. For the next 19 days, the three ships clashed in an all-out conflict ending as far south as the 42° latitude. For the first nine days of the engagement the ships fought from sunrise to sunset and by the end, the São João Baptista was doomed. The Portuguese ship’s bowsprit was broken off near the gammoning, the main mast was shattered a yard and half above the mast partners, and the foresail was entirely destroyed. Additionally, the ship’s reused and rotten rudder was destroyed by merely two shots. The destruction of the rudder was the beginning of the end of São João Baptista (Boxer, 2001: 191).

The Portuguese ship never stood a chance in this fight, as she left Goa without enough gunpowder or guns for any sort of extended conflict. She held only 18 guns of very small caliber, yet she still fought valiantly until there were only 28 cartridges and two barrels of gunpowder remaining. In addition to being entirely dismasted, the ship was completely floundering at this point as she had been peppered with shot beneath the waterline, and two of the gudgeons had torn away with the rudder, leaving open bolt holes within the hull. The São João Baptista was sinking fast and her crew worked tirelessly to slow the intake of water. Emissaries were sent to the Dutch ship in hopes of obtaining a parley to buy more time. However, a storm intervened, and one Dutch ship was separated in the ensuing chaos, including the Portuguese officers sent to parlay with her. The remaining Dutch ship continued to follow the Portuguese, eventually endeavoring to send their own emissaries, to ask if the Portuguese had seen their companion ship, as they had also lost sight of her in the storm (Boxer, 2001: 192-193).

Soon the weather turned from raging storms to bitter snow, killing many of the slaves aboard São João Baptista. Around a latitude of 42° South, the Portuguese made a temporary mast on the prow from the remains of the mizzen-mast and used the outrigger as a bowsprit. This gave São João Baptista much-needed propulsion while putting the Portuguese at the directional mercy of the wind, as the remaining Dutch ship continued to give chase. Eventually, one stormy night, the wind took São João Baptista landward while the Dutch had lost her in the murk (Boxer, 2001: 193).

Now that the Portuguese had evaded the pursuing Dutch vessel São João Baptista’s captain ventured to craft a makeshift rudder on the deck of the ship from expendable portions of the hull. This spare rudder was soon made and hung from the stern as the Portuguese awaited calmer weather to attach it to the ship. However, after 15 days of suspension over the water the ropes which held the rudder were torn and it was lost to the sea. Following the loss of the makeshift rudder, two sweeps were made from the remaining portions of the masts, bowsprit, and any other available resource. However, the ship remained at the mercy of the waves and wind. At this point, São João Baptista was missing the majority of her castles leaving countless nails and splintered pieces of wood exposed, which were hastily removed as they impaled the passengers as the ship pitched between the waves (Boxer, 2001:194-195).

The Portuguese’s salvation came on September 29th, when they found that the wind had taken them two leagues from African shore at latitude 33° 20’ South. By the next day, the ship had drifted further down the coast and ever closer to shore. Fearing that the tide would take the ship back out to sea the Portuguese used two anchors in about seven fathoms to hold their position off a sandy beach. A scouting team of 16 men headed by Rodrigo Affonso de Mello went ashore to find a good position to land, bringing back fresh water and herbs (Boxer, 2001: 195-196).

Not long after the ship anchored, trouble began to stir among the crew of São João Baptista. The recently appointed master boatswain, Manuel Domingues, known for his unruly demeanor, approached the captain with an unsavory plan. He wanted to take 30 men with all the jewels aboard the São João Baptista and sail a smaller boat three leagues up the beach before traversing the coast as far as Cape Correntes, believing that they were more likely to find salvation unencumbered by women and children. Disgusted at the thought of abandoning passengers to perish, the captain told the master boatswain that he would not permit such an evil plan and forbid him from discussing such ideas. To which the master boatswain threatened to mutiny if the captain did not agree to his proposal. Two days after anchorage, under the fear of mutiny and the growing support of Manuel Domingues by the crew, the captain stabbed the master boatswain to death, regaining control of the situation on board in the process. After this onboard dispute had been settled the Portuguese resumed the task of disembarking (Boxer, 2001: 196).

The rugged coast required them to get their provisions and weapons on land by anchoring their rowboats by the stern with a grapnel and use a line to wade ashore. In the instance that they did not carry out this extra precaution, 18 people drowned as they could not keep their heads above the waves. By October 3rd the Portuguese completed the landing of all the necessary equipment, building temporary shelter to protect themselves from the cold weather of the region, and made their first contact with native peoples. During this initial meeting, the Portuguese were given an ox and a leather bag of milk, which they reciprocated with iron barrel hoops and bertangils (Boxer, 2001: 197-198), a type of “calico (cotton), dyed blue, and of a dark violet” (Mocquet, 1696: 229, as cited in Boxer, 2001: 175). In later meetings, the Portuguese bartered with the natives for cows to use as either food or pack animals to haul their equipment. The Portuguese remained on this beach for a month and six days, where they made the best of their situation, entrenching themselves and eventually constructing a church from canvas, gold-embroidered Chinese coverlets, and other gaudy artifacts. Shortly before abandoning their camp the Portuguese decided that they would march across the land as it was much too dangerous to build a boat and sail it up the coast. At which point the remains of São João Baptista were set aflame so that the natives could not scavenge the wreckage and inflate their future bartering rates (Boxer, 2001: 198 -199).

On November 6th, the Portuguese set out from the beach at a latitude of 33° South, in a marching column comprised of 279 people divided into four groups. The party headed toward the bay of Lourenço Marques – about 1,000 Km to the north – with plans to venture from there to the Portuguese fortress at Sofala (Boxer, 2001: 199). Eight torturous months later only a handful of survivors arrived at their destination. Overcome by the hazards and illnesses that plagued treks along this coast, many of the Portuguese perished along the way; however, with the aid of friendly natives and members of the Portuguese empire, namely Luís Pereira of Sofala, a small group of survivors reached Sofala on July 28th, 1623. From Sofala, the survivors then sailed to Mozambique and from there they chartered passage back to Goa. (Boxer, 2001: 266-270).

Material Culture

According to the historical account, a day before the São João Baptista arriving at her ill-fated final destination her position was reported at a latitude of 33 1/3° S, two leagues from land sailing in favorable winds. Using this information in combination with knowledge of the seasonal currents of the area Bell-Cross estimated that the São João Baptista most likely drifted to an area between the modern landscapes of Port Alfred and Woody Cape. There is only a single wreck located within this area denoted as the Cannon Rocks site in latitude 33° 45’ S (fig 30) (Bell-Cross, 1988: 63). A 1630 map of the area by João Teixeira places the wreck just east of Algoa Bay, supporting the hypothesis that this wreck site is that of the São João Baptista (Axelson, 1960: 54, as cited in Bell-Cross, 1988: 63).


Late Ming-style Porcelain, like the type recovered from the Santo Alberto site, has been recovered from the coast around this site (Vernon, 1987). The porcelain was stylistically dated by Caro Woodward to the late 16th century. John Jerling, the discoverer of the São Gonçalo campsite noted upon examining the Chinese blue and white porcelain recovered from the Cannon Rocks site that they were identical to the sherds found at the São Gonçalo wreck site (Bell-Cross, 1988: 63).


Anchors of the type that were used during the 17th and 18th centuries were also recovered from the wreck site (Bell-Cross, 1988: 63).


Two small-caliber muzzle-loading cannons of the sort used during the 16th and 17th centuries have been recovered from the Cannon Rocks site, albeit Bell-Cross does not go into much detail on them (Bell-Cross, 1988: 63).

Iron Concretions


Hull remains





Stern heel (couce)

A .

Stern knee (coral)







Table 1. Scantling of the timber remains of the Corpo Santo Shipwreck

Timber Sided




Floor timbers



Not reported.



Size and scantlings



No timbers were reported


Beam: Estimated    m

Keel Length: Estimated   m

Length Overall: Estimated  m

Number of Masts: Unknown