By Michael Smorenburg
The Praying Nun is a novella based on a horrendous part of the history of the Cape coast – the slave trade. Part one describes Michael Smorenburg, the author, and his wonderfully colourful mate, Jacques, diving a wreck off Clifton beach. The authorities think it is the wreck of a coal barge and the divers think it’s a ship laden with gold bullion. It turns out to be that of a slave ship which ran aground in the late 1700s en route from Mozambique to Brazil. The author becomes obsessed with what looks like a giant tooth sticking out of the ancient wreckage. I absolutely loved the first half of the book – Smorenburg made me taste the salt, feel that freezing sea and imagine I was right there under water. I was totally caught up in the excitement of the treasure hunt.
Part two is a dramatisation of the true story of the voyage and shipwreck of the São José de Afrika, which was carrying hundreds of slaves, in 1794; a tale of horror and brutality, combined with human courage. I think I would have preferred the two halves of this book to have been intertwined, so that the reader was taken from the present to the past and back again. I found it a little jarring – almost like reading two short stories. Despite this reservation, I found The Praying Nun really fascinating, and enjoyed watching YouTube videos about the wreck’s subsequent salvage by an international research partnership. The artefacts from the sunken slave ship now reside in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the US.
The Praying Nun – A Slave Shipwreck Saga
A TRUE STORY OF DISCOVERY AND EXCAVATION, 1985
A LOVE STORY OF TERROR AND TRAGEDY, 1794
1794—Naked and shackled, Chikunda, a newly wedded man who cannot hold his tongue is heaved aboard the slaver São José off the coast of Mozambique, bound for the slave markets of Brazil.
Once below decks, down in the stinking holds with 400 naked captives, he instinctively knows that it will all be over… Faith, his new bride, will be lost to him.
Chikunda desperately needs a plan… and Chikunda always has a plan.
But on this voyage, fate has other plans.