Through the ages many ships have sunk off the dangerous coast of the Strandveld, the castaways from these wrecks played an integral part in helping to shape the culture, traditions, language and architecture of this wonderful area on the southern coast of Africa. The sea doesn’t have friends, the Southern Atlantic is a cold, dangerous place and a strong judge of seamanship. For those sailors who fail the stern test, the consequences are dire, and payment is received in lives lost and broken dreams.
In the early hours of 26 February 1852 , the HMS Birkenhead was wrecked on an uncharted rock at Danger Point off Kleinbaai in the Strandveld. The steamship almost instantly broke in two and many seamen died in their sleeping quarters. Of the 643 people on board, around 436 lives were lost and only about 207 were saved. According to David Bevan, the ship disappeared under the waves, no more than twenty minutes after hitting the reef.
The Birkenhead was clouded in controversy from the start . The ship builder, a Mr. John Laird, was a leader in his field. During those days, it was believed that using iron as ship building material would influence the compass negatively but Laird believed that with the correct setting of the navigational instruments it wouldn’t have any influence . The Birkenhead was originally built as a frigate but later remodeled into a troopship. It was on its way to the Eight-frontier war in the Eastern Cape when it sank. Except for the troops on board, there were also 7 women and 13 children as passengers. Furthermore, when the ship left Simonstown, 9 horses were also loaded for officers to use as transport in the war. Coal, water, food and 250 000 pounds sterling made up the rest of the cargo. Considering the fact that the Birkenhead was only 64 m long and 11 m wide, the ship must have been staggering under the weight of its cargo.
Of the 8 lifeboats on board, only 3 were in working order and they were launched with strict instruction to get the women and children in them first. The troops on deck were instructed to stand fast so the boats carrying the women and children would not be swamped by desperate swimmers. Together the troops awaited their fate with dignity and courage and their heroism became legendary.
The Birkenhead tragedy also had its individual heroes, seaman Alexander Russel being one of them . As the lifeboats neared the coast, the oars got stuck in the kelp forest that surrounds the rocks in this area, struggling to free the oars the passengers suddenly heard a desperate cry, pleading for rescue. In the dim light of the lifeboat’s lantern, a seaman was spotted , half dead from the cold water and struggling for survival . The boat was already overloaded and the swell caused water to run into the lifeboat, one more passenger would sink the boat. Alexander Russel came forward and said ‘ Bring him on board, I will swim’ Without ceremony Alexander took off his uniform jacket and jumped in the water and the other seaman was pulled aboard. Alexander started swimming behind the lifeboat. The boat’s crew kept encouraging him and told him that the coast was looming large. As the morning star appeared from behind the hills of Buffeljags , a big grey monster appeared from the depths of the Atlantic, soundlessly he reached up and Alexander was pulled down into the sea. A bronze plaque at Danger point lighthouse commemorates the Birkenhead tragedy and the heroism of Alexander and the troops who gave their lives so others could live.
Join our Overberg Explorer tour tour and we can discover the magic, stories and legends of the Strandveld together.