The Story
The Sinking of the Birkenhead

Under command of Captain Robert Salmond, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth in January 1852 to take troops to fight in the Frontier War in South Africa. The Birkenhead, one of the first iron vessels in service traveled to southern Ireland, before heading for the Cape. 

In the late afternoon of 25 February, the Birkenhead steamed out of Simon's Bay near Cape Town, with about 643 men, women and children on board. Captain Salmond, whose family had been in the navy since the rule of Elizabeth I, was given orders to use all possible haste to get to his destination of Algoa Bay. In order to speed up the trip he decided to hug the South African coastline as closely as possible. This coarse kept the boat almost continually within approximately three miles of the coast. Perfect weather and a calm sea allowed the Birkenhead to maintain a speed of around 8.5knots. 

It was the early hours of February 26, when the Birkenhead was nearing a rocky outcrop called Danger Point. Just before 2a.m. the vessel suddenly struck an uncharted rock with such force that it sliced into the hull just behind the foremast and ripped open the compartment between the engine-room and forepeak. The inrush of water was so great that the forward compartment of the lower troopdeck filled instantly and a hundred or more soldiers were drowned, almost literally in their hammocks as they slept. 

All the surviving officers and men went up on deck. Being the senior officer on board, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and immediately summoned his officers around him and stressed the importance of maintaining order and discipline. Distress rockets were fired, but there was no help at hand. At this stage the captain made a grave mistake in ordering the Birkenhead to be put astern, an action which caused the hull to rip open further.

While about sixty men were sent to the pumps, the other men were commanded to stand drawn up in line and to await orders. The teams who were in charge of the boats were frustrated to find that most of the lowering equipment would not function, as a result of a lack of maintenance and the thick layer of paint that clogged the mechanisms. Eventually two cutters and a gig were launched and the women and children were rowed away from the wreck to safety. The horses were cut loose and thrown overboard. Only then did Captain Salmond shout to the men that everyone who could swim must save himself by jumping into the sea and making for the boats.

The soldier's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, knew to rush the lifeboats might mean that the boats would be swamped and this would further endanger the lives of the women and children already aboard the boats. He drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast. The soldiers did not budge even as the ship split in two and the main mast crashed on to the deck.

The Birkenhead went down rapidly for only twenty-five minutes after she had struck the rocks, only the topmast and topsail yard were visible above the water. There were about fifty men still clinging to them. The sea was full of men desperately clawing for anything that could float. Death by drowning came quickly to most of them, but some of the men - and the horses - were taken by Great White sharks. 

The next morning the schooner Lioness found one of the Birkenheadís cutters in Walker Bay. After saving the second boat crew, she made straight for the scene of the disaster and reached the wreck that afternoon, saving as many as possible. It was later reported that of the 638 people aboard the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved

 

 

 

The Birkenhead Memorial, near the Danger Point Lighthouse in Gansbaai.

The position of the rock is in line with the 
groove at the top-edge of the memorial and 
about 1500 metres from the coast.

Photo  Copyright © JJ Steenekamp 2001

 

Most of the information on this website was obtained from the book "Stand Fast", 
with permission from the author, David Bevan.

 


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