The Wreck of the Oldenborg

Danish Ship-of -the-Line is wrecked, during a gale, off Capetown, South Africa, while engaged in a mission to protect Danish merchant ships returning from the far east.

af Eric Nielsen


The South African coast, being on probably the highest risk portion of the main shipping route between Europe and Asia, is a massive and archeologically rich graveyard of ships, particularly of ships during the age of sail – and it is here that the 64-gun Danish ship-of-the-line Oldenborg, like many Danish merchant ships, met her end, far from Denmark or, as the Danes say, “fjernt fra Danmark.”

Alas, no treasure-trove of artifacts will ever be recovered from Oldenborg’s wreck site. Not only was Oldenborg thoroughly salvaged at the time of her loss – probably “picked clean” – but her wreck site in Cape Town’s original roadstead now lies buried under what South Africans term “reclaimed” land, that is, offshore seabed which has been filled in with soil and any other form of landfill.

The Danish admiralty had ordered Oldenborg sent to Cape Esperance in the Far East to escort homeward-bound Danish merchantmen during the French Revolutionary Wars, at a time when warships and privateers of the belligerent powers were extremely active against both enemy and neutral shipping – sometimes verging on outright piracy.

The portion of the homeward voyage that was the highest risk was between Cape Town, South Africa, and Copenhagen, but the route became the most dangerous in the area around and including the English Channel. Danish merchantmen were also escorted home from the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

The Wreck

The Oldenborg was wrecked on her outward passage by being beached in the roadstead at Cape Town, South Africa, during a north-westerly gale on November 5, 1799, thus becoming one of the 127 ships that have been lost on this minuscule portion of the South African coast.

Four other ships were lost during the same storm at the same part of the South African coast as Oldenborg, including the British South Seas whaler Sierra Leon, which ran aground right next to the Oldenborg while on a return voyage to London from the South Seas whaling grounds, and two American ships, the Anubis and the brig Hannah, both on a return voyage to Boston, Massachusetts, from India. No lives were lost in the wrecks of the Oldenborg, Sierra Leon, Anubis or Hannah.

The fifth and last ship wrecked at Cape Town during this storm of November 5, 1799, was the British 64-gun ship Sceptre, which lost 369 men out of her crew of 411; there were only 42 survivors. A cause of Sceptre’s great loss of life was attributed to Sceptre’s state of decay at the time she was wrecked, which caused her to break up rapidly.

Sceptre’s completion date of 1781 made Sceptre a contemporary of Oldenborg, with which Sceptre also shared nearly the same dimensions and size, but unlike Oldenborg the Sceptre had seen much more sea service and she was therefore not in as good a state of repair at the time of her loss in the November 5, 1799 gale.

The Oldenborg’s wreck site is located in a tiny portion of Table Bay that forms a sheltered roadstead that was originally used as Cape Town’s sailing ship harbor, but which has now been filled in as part of the industrial development of Cape Town’s harbor.

The larger and deeper area of Table Bay outside of the original roadstead now suffices to service the huge modern ocean-going ships that would dwarf the ships of the age of sail. To the ancient mariner, Cape Town’s Table Bay with Table Mountain as its backdrop, was one of the great sights to see on any voyage, and doubtlessly remains so today.

Many marine painters have depicted ships on passage at this particular spot – just as the view of Kronborg is a great favorite for Danish marine artists to illustrate Danish ships on passage, although Kronborg lacks the natural grandeur of Table Bay as seen from afar. There is a photo in the Cape Archives of a painting illustrating the wreck of the Oldenborg, with Table Mountain in the background, that has apparently not been reproduced in any widely-available Danish publication.

Beached ships, or ships which have wrecked in shallow water, are the most easily salvaged of any, and this was true of the case of the Oldenborg, which indicates that it is unlikely that much remained of the Oldenborg for modern archeological investigation had Oldenborg’s wreck site not been buried in Cape Town’s modern harbor development.

Oldenborg was wrecked in Table Bay during the first British occupation of Cape Town, which then officially belonged to the Dutch who, as in the later Napoleonic wars, were under the sway of Britain’s principal enemy, France. Thus, surviving archival records in South Africa relating to the Oldenborg’s loss and salvage are from the period of the British administration from 1795-1803.

There is a curious entry in these archival records recording a request from Commodore Fischer, Oldenborg’s captain, to the Governor to allow the Danes to store 900 muskets (apparently export items, and not part of Oldenborg’s equipment) and salvaged ammunition from the Oldenborg in Cape Town’s armory until arrangements could be made for its shipment; this request was granted. Commodore Fischer was also given a place to store other goods recovered from the Oldenborg’s wreck, but was instructed to notify the receiver at Customs of the particulars of the goods.

The Oldenborg

Oldenborg was designed and built by the Danish navy’s chief constructor and master builder, Henrik Gerner, as the first ship of a class of five 64-gun sister-ships: Oldenborg (1779), Ditmarschen (1780), Prindsesse Lovisa Augusta (1783), Mars (1784), and Indfødsretten (1786). Gerner, an extremely and uncommonly prolific ship designer and an accomplished naval architect, is regarded as the “father” of the Danish navy. The fate of the four other ships of the Oldenborg class are as follows:

Ditmarschen was in dock for servicing when Britain seized her along with the rest of Denmark’s fleet at Nyholm in Copenhagen in 1807, and she was destroyed by the British as useless, before the British vacated Nyholm.

Mars, a blockship since 1801 and thus when seized by Britain along with the rest of Denmark’s fleet in 1807, was destroyed by the British as useless, before the British departure from Copenhagen.

Indfødsretten participated in the Battle of Copenhagen against the British Admiral Nelson’s British fleet on April 2, 1801, was captured by the British, and was burnt after the battle together with all the other captured Danish warships except Holsteen.

Prindsesse Lovisa Augusta, together with Hohlenberg’s Prinds Christian Frederik, were the only two Danish battleships to escape seizure by the British along with the rest of the Danish fleet in 1807, after the British bombardment of Copenhagen and occupation of Denmark’s main naval base and dockyard at Nyholm in Copenhagen. Prindsesse Lovisa Augusta, being in a poor state of repair, did not see much sea service during the war of 1807-1814 with Britain, but did not end her days until 1829.

The 64-gun ships of the Oldenborg class were all armed with 26-24 pdr., 26-12 pdr., and 12-8 pdr. cannon. Denmark’s 64-gun warships of the Oldenborg class, like the three 60-gun ships of the Holsteen class that were the Oldenborg class’s immediate predecessors, being the smallest and therefore the most economical ships-of-the-line, were well suited for employment in commerce protection tasks in which the Danish navy was extensively engaged during the French Revolutionary Wars when the privateers of all warring nations were extremely active against both enemy and neutral merchant shipping.

Oldenborg’s official design dimensions were just one half a foot wider than the three 60-gun ships of the Holsteen class designed and built by the Danish naval constructor F. M.. Krabbe, Gerner’s immediate predecessor as the Danish navy’s chief constructor and master builder; otherwise, the design dimensions of the Holsteen and later Oldenborg classes are identical.

Incidentally, the Holsteen was the only Danish warship which the British Admiral Nelson captured at the Battle of Copenhagen on April 2, 1801 which the British carried off to Britain following the Battle and which Britain subsequently fitted for sea service; all the other captured Danish warships were burnt.

Oldenborg’s wider beam apparently provided the necessary stability to permit the mounting of two more 24 pdr. cannon on the lower battery deck, and two more 12 pdr. cannon on the upper deck, than were mounted on the Holsteen class, making the Oldenborg class 64-gun ships in comparison to the 60-gun ships of the Holsteen class.

However, crowding two more guns on the same length of gundeck as existed on the Holsteen class probably hampered the Oldenborg-class guncrews in serving their weapons.

Oldenborg’s Service History

Oldenborg’s checkered history in the Danish navy is typical of Danish warships of her time and thus may be taken as representative of many Danish warships of the period. Like so many Danish warships built at the royal Danish dockyard at Nyholm, Copenhagen, during the 18th century, Oldenborg was immediately placed “in ordinary” in the Danish fleet anchorage at Nyholm following her launch, and was in and out of ordinary during her service life.

Oldenborg first went to sea in 1782, three years after being built, to cruise with a squadron of Danish warships in the North Sea. The following year, in 1783, Oldenborg was sent to the Mediterranean to protect neutral Danish merchantmen and commercial interests there during the closing stages of the American War of Independence, and visited Algiers (a Barbary corsair power) and Naples.

In 1784, Oldenborg cruised in the Baltic. Following a four year hiatus during which Oldenborg apparently remained in ordinary, in 1788, Oldenborg was commissioned to form part of a squadron that went to Norway with Denmark’s Crown Prince.

After another eight year hiatus during which Oldenborg again apparently lay in ordinary, in 1796 Oldenborg was commissioned to cruise with a combined squadron of Danish and Swedish warships in the North Sea, to protect neutral Danish and Swedish merchantmen during the French Revolutionary War.

In 1798, Oldenborg was sent to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, to protect a convoy of homeward-bound Danish merchantmen. In 1799, Oldenborg was ordered sent to Cape Esperance to convoy Danish merchantmen engaged in trade with Asia, and it is on this voyage that the Oldenborg met her end by being wrecked in the roadstead at Cape Town, South Africa.

The Wreck of the Jaeger

While researching the loss of the Oldenborg, it was learned that another “Danish” warship was also wrecked on this tiny stretch of the South African coast that formed the early roadstead to Cape Town, i.e., the yacht Jaeger, which like the Oldenborg ran aground in Table Bay during another north-westerly gale on the night of July 27, 1619. The Jaeger’s wreck site, like the Oldenborg’s, now also lies buried under “reclaimed” land in the area of the Cape Town harbor’s development.

In November, 1618, a fleet of Danish warships and merchantmen – apparently Ove Gjedde’s fleet, which included the warships David and Elephanten – departed from Copenhagen on an expedition to Goa in Asia on behalf of Denmark’s East Indies Company, and on the way captured two French vessels suspected of piracy.

The Danes renamed one of these captured French vessels, Prinsens Jagt, the Jaeger. Jaeger’s wreck was looted by English sailors from a group of eight English ships anchored in the roads, where Cape Town would be established, before the Danish sailors could chase them off. The 24-year old Ove Gjedde had set out from Copenhagen on an ambitious voyage via Ceylon to the East Indies, and it was on this voyage that Gjedde acquired Tranquebar on India’s Coromandel coast as a colony for Denmark.

Further reading:

Malcolm Turner: Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa; C. Struik Publishers; Capetown, South Africa (1997).
P. Ramshart: Efterretning om det bekindte af den danske Flaades Tienested, efter Alphabetisk Orden med adskillige Bilage fra Aar 1752 og til den Dag Engelland voldsom bortførte samme i 1807. København, 1808.
H. G. Gaarde: Efterretninger om den danske og norske Sømagt I-IV. København, 1832.
David Lyon: The Sailing Navy List: All The Ships of the Royal Navy, Built, Purchased, and Captured, 1688-1860. Conway Maritime Press, 1993.
Knud Klem: Skibsbyggeriet i Danmark og Hertugdømmerne i 1700-Årene. København, Finn Jacobsens Forlag, 1983.

The author is also indebted to David Horwitz of South Africa, who provided information of the painting of the wreck of the Oldenborg, and of some archival records on the Oldenborg’s salvage. Mr. Horwitz wrote his degree thesis on the wreck of the 64-gun British battleship Sceptre.

A Danish-language article on the loss of the Oldenborg is: Hohlenberg, J. S.: Landsætning og Forlis af Orlogsskibet “Oldenburg” i Table Bay d. 5 November 1799, Tidsskrift for Søvæsen, 1900, pp. 349-67 (with map). If there are any idle, English-speaking Danes who would like to translate this article and add either a summary or the entire article as a supplement to the information posted here, it would be much appreciated.

[Note: Gert Laursen, “webmaster” for the Danish Military History website, has done terrific “yeoman” work in publishing a series of photos of the Danish frigate Jylland and of military monuments on Danish soil. Gert’s work inspired the idea that Gert’s Danish Military History website could be used to motivate Danes to search for, locate and conduct underwater archeology on wrecks of Danish warships during the age of sail. So, like the now famous Swede Anders Franzen, who discovered the wrecks of the Swedish warship Vasa in Stockholm harbor and the Swedish warship Kronan off of the island of Öland, and did so by initially examining Swedish ship lists of Swedish warships lost at sea, the author of this article examined Danish navy’s ship lists for potential Danish warship wrecks, and by this means discovered the story of the loss of the 64-gun Danish battleship Oldenborg in South African waters.]