When It Was Women and Children First, Off the South African Coast


August 07, 1991|By GEOFFREY W. FIELDING

The south-east coast of South Africa is not unlike the coast of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Both have had more than their share of shipwrecks.

The most recent was the loss of the Oceanos in the Indian Ocean off Cape Province over the week-end. On a cruise with some 600 passengers and crew, the last reports were that all were saved, though the ship apparently sank.

The ship ws reported to have been wallowing in 24-foot waves after being hit by storms with winds gusting up to 88 mph. Such weather is not unusual at this time of year,for the southern hemisphere is in the midst of winter. And while one thinks of ''sunny'' South Africa, the southern tip near where the Oceanos sank is at about the same latitude south of the equator as Cape Hatteras is to the north about 35 degrees.

But compared to South Africa's Cape Coast, Hatteras is relatively sheltered. From the south the warm Gulf Stream clashes with the cold south-bound Labrador Current, and causes most of the problems, including constantly shifting shoals and some fogs. Over 500 wrecks off this coast testify to its danger.

Currents again are the cause of problems off the Cape coast. From the north comes the warm Mozambique Current, which slides south between Madagascar and the African mainland, while curling around the Cape of Good Hope are the Westerlies form the South Atlantic which, once in the south Indian Ocean, become the Roaring Forties, beloved by square riggers bound for Australia.

But these Westerlies come up from the Antarctic, which boasts some of the worst weather in the world and for thousands of miles, between there and the Cape of Good Hope, there is nothing but ocean.

As the currents move north from the Antarctic the waves build up, not in height but in length. The result is that the distance between the crest of one wave and the next is not measured in feet or furlongs,but in miles. The result is an exceedingly dangerous coast, with treacherous currents,as these tremendously long waves, with energy built up over thousands of miles of ocean, crash on to what the newspaper accounts refer to as the ''Wild Coast.''

This coast, too, has seen its share of shipwrecks, though because it is remote, many must have gone unreported. But one well-known shipwreck off this coast was that of a British troop transport, the paddle steamer Birkenhead, in 1852. It was a disaster not to be forgotten in terms of human bravery and discipline.

The Birkenhed, after a five-week voyage from England, had stopped in Simonstown, the naval base just south of Cape Town, to take on coal, unload some troops, plus some wives and children of the soldiers, and take on others. She was bound for Algoa Bay, where the soldiers were reinforcements in the current ''Kaffir wars.''

During the voyage out the senior officer, Maj. Alexander Seton, of the 74th Highlanders, had drilled into the young recruits the sense of discipline that they would need once they joined their regiments and met up with the enemy.

On Feb. 25, the Birkenhead left Simonstown for Algoa Bay. The weather was fine, but about 2 the next morning she struck a saw-edged reef off the appropriately-named Danger Point, barely miles from Simonstown. She immediately began to founder.

The whole of the forward troop compartment was flooded annone on the lower deck survived. Major Seton ordered the others on deck, where some were sent to man the pumps and others to help launch the few lifeboats. The rest were ordered to fall in on the poop deck.

All the women and children successfully got away in the first boat while a second also managed to pull away, as did a small gig, and these survivors were later picked up by a passing schooner. The horses were pitched overboard to give them a chance, and four actually made it to shore.

Seeing that nothing else could be done, the ship's captain ordered all those who could swim to jump overboard and make for the boats. But Major Seton on the poop deck saw that this would swamp the boats and pleaded with his men to hold their ranks. They did, all but three, and as the ship broke up, the soldiers went down with it. Only 25 minutes had passed since the Birkenhed first hit the reef.

Very few of the men could swim and those who could had not only to get through the heavy surf and kelp but also fight off the sharks. When a tally was later taken, out of the 648 souls on board only 193 were saved, including all the women and children. It was this moment of heroism, according to an article published last year in South Africa, which gave rise to the tradition of ''women and children first.''

And ever since,the gallantry of the soldiers has been known as ''The Birkenhead Drill.`

Geoffrey W. Fielding is a former seaman and current free-lance writer in Baltimore.

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