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History of the VOC
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Dutch Maritime Ventures to the Spice Islands

 

Piracy on the High Seas

 

 

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Africa Around the Globe

 

 

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Livingstone

Darkest Africa

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East Africa

Agamemnon

Sailing up the Rufiji

The Tsavo Man-Eaters

Grzimek's Funny Photo Album

and Raine's Unique Guide to South Africa

 

 

Dark East Africa

Entebbe Raiders : Armies on the Move

Fighting for Survival

 

Sahara

Desert Foxes and Desert Rats

 

 

 



The Flying Dutchman

This is the greatest legend of the sea.

 


 

And is the story of a seaman condemned for his misdeeds to sail forever round the Cape, never reaching harbour.
 
Van der Decken is the name of the unfortunate seaman in the Dutch story, although van Straaten is another candidate ... and in the German version the name is von Falkenberg.
 
All three Captains are said to have cast dice with the devil for their souls ...
 
Walter Scott examined this legend and traced it to a ship in 1680, laden with bullion, on which a murder had been committed or in which plague had broken out.
 
The ship sailed on and on, only to find that each port, learning of its history, was closed to it ...
 
Another story suggests that it was hit by a sudden tropical gale which tore the sails to shreds and wrecked the rudder and the ship was unable to make headway round the Cape.
 
The most surprising thing about the Flying Dutchman is that he was seen in the year 1881, well of his usual beat, and vouched for by the late King George V.
 
The spectre is well described in The Cruise of Her Majesty's Ship Bacchante, written by George V and his brother, Prince Albert Victor (afterward the Duke of Clarence), who were midshipmen at the time.
 
Since then there have been countless sightings of the phantom ship, the last being in 1942 when four people sitting on their balcony in Mouille Point, Cape Town, saw the ghostly East-Indiaman sail into Table Bay and disappear behind Robben Island.
 
 Wagner was inspired by the story to write his opera
Der Fliegende Hollander.
 
 


 
South of the Mid-Day Sun

 


Nobody believed the Phoenicians when they claimed ... 2000 years before the Portuguese discovered West Africa ... that they sailed right round the Dark Continent from Suez to Gibraltar.
 
They were laughed to scorn when they insisted that as they had rounded the southern tip, the midday sun had been to the north of them ...
 
Every man in the ancient world knew that the sun was always in the sky's southern half ... and so it is ... in the northern hemisphere.
 
Even the Greek historian, Herodotus, who reported their story 150 years later, dismissed the tale as a hoax.
 
Yet the Phoenician adventurers did in fact make the journey they claimed. And what proves it to modern scholars is the very detail that convinced the ancient world they were telling a pack of lies ... the report of the sun on their right at midday as they sailed west round the Cape of Good Hope.

 
Not even the exploring Phoenicians could have guessed that what was always true of the sun's position in the temperate northern waters of the Mediterranean was never true south of the Tropic of Capricorn ...
 
The voyage itself was planned by an Egyptian pharaoh, Necho, around 600BC. He became intrigued by the possibility of sailing from Egypt's east coast on the Red Sea of Alexandria on its north coast.
 
Rather than build a canal across the desert (as they did later), Necho thought it would be a fairly simple journey to follow Africa's southern coast round to Morocco.
 
Because his own people were not great seafarers, he hired crews of Phoenicians together with a small flotilla of their own 50-oared sailing ships; and ordered them to sail down the Red Sea round Africa to the Pillars of Hercules, now knows as the Straits of Gibraltar.
 
The Phoenicians were happy enough to be hired, as they were anxious to find a new route to their eastern markets, and thus avoiding waters controlled by their Greek rivals.
 
But neither they, nor Necho had any idea of the shape or the vast size of the continent that lay on their route.
 
According to modern reconstructions of their voyage, the Phoenicians set off in November ... rowing to the eastern tip of Africa at Cape Gardafui before turning south-west with the monsoon winds.
 
For month after month, they pushed on down the coast ... further than anyone before them ... constantly expecting the coastline to sweep round to the west and north and point the way home. But to their dismay it did not.
 
Instead, they noticed anxiously that the sun was slipping down the sky to their north ... they thought that their compass must be wrong ... and then the pole star vanished altogether ...
 
The explorers were ready to give up when finally, they coast swung west.
 
They ploughed slowly along the 500 mile tip of the continent until, in May of the year after they set out, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope where the coast began to drop away to the north.
 
The relieved crews stopped to plant some of the wheat they had taken with them. And in the December they sailed homewards with the harvest ... each day the sun climbed higher and higher in the sky.
 
It took them at least ten more gruelling months to fight their way round Africa's huge north-west bulge, and another long stopover somewhere in Morocco to restock their food supply, before they sighted the familiar Straights of Gibraltar.
 
More than two years and 16,000 miles after they cast off in the Red Sea, the Phoenicians sailed triumphantly up the Mediterranean to Egypt ... and to 2000 years of ridicule.
 


 
The Suez Canal
 
 


Almost 4000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians built waterways across the Isthmus of Suez, the neck of land 100 miles wide which joins Western Asia and Europe from Egypt. But they fell into disuse and were filled in AD775 after an Arab invasion.

Napoleon discovered the remains and dreamt of improving trade routes by linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
 
It was in 1859, due to the genius of a French diplomat and politician, Ferdinand de Lesseps, that work started on a new waterway, who had dreamt of a canal since his youth. And for 10 years he dedicated his time and efforts supervising the excavation of 97 million cubic yards of earth.
 
Working from north to south, de Lesseps' scheme involved carving a 24 foot deep channel across the land, connecting up lakes enroute. The Great and Little Bitter Lakes in the south were reconnected with the Red Sea and flooded with sea water. The canal joined these with Lake Timsah.
 
In the beginning the canal was dug out by workmen by hand and at the height of the operation an estimated 80,000 fellaheen (peasants) were employed, each being paid up to three piastres (about 3 modern pence) per day.
 
But from 1863 until 1869 the labour force was withdrawn in favour of mechanical dredgers and digging equipment.
 
The total length of the canal is 103 miles, 21 of them through the lakes. It is 500 ft wide at the top, sloping to 196 ft at the bottom, and the total cost of the project was an estimated 20 million.
 
This was more than twice the original estimate but a tiny sum compared with the value of the canal to world trade.

 


 
 

 


 

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