In 1895 the Danger Point Lighthouse was built and a remembrance plate for the HMS Birkenhead is affixed to its base.
|Home Activities Rooms & Rates About us Gallery Reviews Map Travel tips Contact|
The sinking of the HMS Birkenhead and the Danger Point Lighthouse.
In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, the HMS Birkenhead left Portsmouth conveying troops to the 8th Xhosa War in South Africa. On 5 January she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown and was also conveying some officers' wives and families. On 23 February 1852, the Birkenhead docked at Simonstown, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses and several bales of hay were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.
In the late afternoon of 25 February 1852, the Birkenhead left Simon's Bay with approximately 643 men, women, and children aboard, under instructions to reach its destination at Algoa Bay as quickly as possible. In order to make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course which was generally within 3 miles (4.8 km) of the shore. She maintained a steady speed of 8.5 knots (15.7 km/h). The sea was calm and the night was clear as she left False Bay and headed east.
At 2 a.m. the following morning, the Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock near Danger Point (today near Gansbaai). The barely submerged rock is clearly visible in rough seas, however it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions. The initial impact ripped open the forward watertight compartment between the engine room and the fore peak, immediately flooding it and drowning over 100 soldiers in their hammocks. A second impact ripped open the bilge in the engine room, resulting in the two largest watertight compartments in the vessel being flooded.
The surviving officers and men assembled on deck. Distress rockets were fired, but there was no assistance available. Sixty men were detailed to man the chain pumps, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, while the rest were assembled on the poop deck, in order to raise the forward part of the ship. Poor maintenance and paint on the winches resulted in only a few of the ship's lifeboats being launched, and the two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them. Eventually two cutters and a gig were launched, onto which all the women and children were placed and rowed away for safety. Only then did Captain Salmond order that those men who could swim should save themselves by swimming to the boats; Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore. The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely twenty minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next twelve hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat; however, most either drowned or were taken by sharks.
The next morning the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters, and after saving the occupants of the second boat made her way to the scene of the disaster. Arriving in the afternoon, she rescued as many people as possible. It was reported that of the 643 people aboard the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. The actual number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in the The Times newspaper. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 Army personnel (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women 13 children and at least 1 male civilian, but these numbers cannot be substantiated as muster rolls and books were lost with the ship. Of the horses onboard, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.
This disaster started the protocol of "women and children first!", which became a standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters. Similarly, "Birkenhead Drill" carried out by the soldiers became the epitome of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances.
In 1895, a lighthouse was erected at Danger Point to warn shipping of the dangerous reef. The lighthouse is about 18 metres (59 ft) tall and is visible for approximately 25 nautical miles (46 km). A remembrance plate for the Birkenhead is affixed to its base, and points to the rock where the ship was wrecked.
External links for HMS Birkenhead and Danger Point Lighthouse:
HMS Birkenhead (1845) Wikipedia page
Accommodation Gansbaai | De Kelders guesthouse | Whale watching | Shark diving | Website designed and maintained by Webinvent