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The loss of the Bikkenhead page 2


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"On asking the ship's carpenter, Roberts, what had happened, his answer was, 'we have struck a rock and are going down fast.' Asking him not to tell the men the extent of our danger, fearing a panic, I returned to my cabin, where I dressed, and again went on deck, where everything had been restored to order, every soul being on deck, the men at 'quarters.'

"Mr. Girardot, 43rd Regiment, and myself then undertook to go down in turn and work the pumps, which were on the lower deck. Mr. Girardot superintended getting the horses overboard; they were plunging so violently that nothing could be done until they were gone - besides, it was only right to give them a chance for their lives. Eight out of nine got ashore.

"The boats were then lowered and got ready for sea - that is, those that hung on the ship's quarters. By this time it became my duty to relieve Mr. Girardot at the pumps with a fresh spell of fifty men, as no set of men could work longer than a few minutes at a time.

"Nothing could exceed the order that prevailed. Every word of command could be heard as plainly as on parade. I remained at the pump as long as the men could, when Mr. Girardot again relieved me. On reaching the deck, I was ordered by poor Colonel Seton, 74th, to superintend getting the women and children into the ship's boats.

"The ship was now rolling her yardarms in the sea, and it was no light matter to keep one's legs. It is not easy to imagine a more painful task than that of getting the wretched women into the boats. This was done in several cases by main force; tearing them from their husbands, they were carried to the bulwarks and dropped over the ship's side into the arms of the boat's crew.

"The whole of the women and children, thirty in all, were safely stowed in the boats, when they shoved off and pulled away. It was hard to describe the sensation of oppression removed from one's mind in knowing the utterly helpless part of the ship's living cargo had been deposited in comparative safety. Thank God it can seldom be said that Englishmen have left women and children to perish and saved their own lives!

"I again returned to the pumps, and when tired went on deck. I found poor Booth, of the 73rd, who relieved me, Mr. Girardot being out of the way. Poor fellow, he had hardly reached the pumps when the water rushed in and swamped himself and his fifty men.

"About this time the fore part of the ship broke off and went down immediately, covered with men.

"I was next sent to help get one of the paddle-box boats over into the sea. We did not succeed, the ropes breaking. A similar fate happened to the other paddle-box boat, thus losing the means of saving 300 men. Just at this moment the funnel fell with a fearful crash on deck, killing and maiming several of my party who had been endeavouring to get the boat over the ship's side.

"We now ran for our lives to the poop-deck, the water being three feet deep on the quarter-deck. All hands were ordered aft, as the ship appeared to be going down by the head, in hopes that their weight would bring her stern again into the water.

"For some minutes she remained with the heel of her rudder completely out of the water, during which time the order was given for everybody to swim to those boats that were afloat, or save themselves as best they could. Those boats still hooked to the falls were instantly swamped, the men crowding into them. Three boats only got clear of the ship, including that containing the women and children.

"During this time I was looking over the stern of the ship, Colonel Seton with me. I had made up my mind to swim if possible to the shore, as being my only chance. I, however, dared not jump in the water, as it was literally alive with men.

"A dreadful sight it was. Some were in their last dying efforts, others were striking out manfully and suddenly going down with a yell of agony - their shrieks seem still to ring in my ears - some were pulling others down in their efforts to keep above water. The rigging was crowded from the deck to the trucks.

"The ship broke off just aft the mainmast with a terrific crash. There was a general rush into the water, but Colonel Seton and myself remained in the same place.

"The ship's stern, now being relieved of all weight forward, settled steadily down. It was quite evident that there was nothing for it but to get away from her as soon as possible. Up to this moment I had had some hopes of her remaining above water till daylight.

"I shook hands with Colonel Seton and hoped we should meet ashore.

"I do not think we shall, Lucas, as I cannot swim a stroke," he answered.

"Just then my name was called and, on looking back. I saw my servant, as faithful a fellow as ever lived. H asked whether he was to follow me. Poor fellow, he could not swim! I could give him little advice, except to get as high as possible into the rigging. I never saw him again."

After the stern sank, the sea was a mass of struggling men. Some stretched out frenzied hands to clutch at pieces of wreckage; others attempted to reach and climb the rigging of the mainmast, part of which was still out of water; while those who could swim struck out despairingly for the shore.

In the narrative of his escape, Cornet Bond says:

"I had one of Mackintosh's life preservers, which I inflated whilst in the water. The sea at this time was covered with struggling forms; whilst the cries, piercing shrieks, and shouts for the boats were awful. I swam astern in the hopes of being picked up by one of them. I hailed one sixty yards off, but could not reach it, as they pulled away, I suppose, for fear of too many attempting to get in.

"I then turned round and made for the shore, about two miles distant, which I finally succeeded in reaching at a little after five o'clock a.m., by swimming only. Two men, who were swimming close to me, I saw disappear with a shriek, most probably bitten by sharks.

"I fortunately hit upon a landing-place, but owing to the great quantity of seaweed I had to struggle through, and being quite exhausted, it was not without much labour that I gained the shore. I then walked up a sort of beaten track from the beach, in hopes of finding some habitation. Whilst doing so, I perceived my horse at a short distance standing in the water on the beach."

Captain Wright, who had done so much to inspire courage and discipline on the doomed Birkenhead, floated to shore on a piece of wreckage. He had managed to climb on to a large piece along with five others, and even then, though their frail raft was in. danger of being swamped, they picked up nine or ten more.

"The swell carried the wood in the direction of Point Danger," Captain Wright wrote. "As soon as it got to the weeds and breakers, finding that it could not support all that were on it, I jumped off and swam ashore."

Altogether about 68 men, including 5 officers and 18 sailors, succeeded in swimming or floating to shore.

Captain Wright assembled this party of survivors - among whom was Cornet Bond - on the beach and then marched inland in search of any kind of habitation where they could obtain shelter.

What a pitiful sight this strange little army of men must have presented! Many of the men were naked, and almost all of them were without shoes. They were frozen to the marrow with cold and some were still half delirious through the dreadful experiences they had undergone. And to make matters worse, the country they had to traverse was covered with thick, thorny bushes.

Slowly, wearily, they plodded on - resting now and again to recover their breath and to succour those whose strength was fast failing.

At last, after three long hours, they stumbled across an encampment, where a wagon was outspanned. From thence, at the directions of the driver of the wagon, they made their way to a small bay, called Stanford's Cove, in which stood a fisherman's hut.

Captain Wright says, "We arrived there about sunset; and as the men had nothing to eat, I went on to a farmhouse about eight or nine miles from the cove, and sent back provisions for that day."

The next morning he sent down another day's provisions and the men were then removed to a farmhouse, about twelve or thirteen miles up country, belonging to a Captain Smales, an ex-officer of dragoons.

Once this little army was safely lodged there, where they would receive good care and attention, Captain Wright made his way back to the coast again to look for any further survivors.

For some days, with the help of a crew of a whaling boat who were employed in sealing on Dyer's Island, he conducted a careful search extending over about 20 miles of coast-line - and his search was rewarded with success. He, himself, found two survivors on the beach and the boat succeeded in rescuing two men who had been clinging to some wreckage in the water for thirty-eight hours! These poor men, Captain Wright records, "although they were all much exhausted... were all right the next day, except for a few bruises."

As he pursued his search for the living, now and again Captain Wright would come across a lifeless body, lying pitifully on the sands. But the sharks and the deadly, clinging seaweed had done their work, and very few graves had to be dug on that barren shore.

All the people in the boats - the two cutters and the gig - were saved.

The first cutter, containing the women and children, stood by the wreck for over an hour, picking up as many of the unfortunate survivors as they dared. At last, however, when the boat was so full that to take in another man would have meant risking the lives of all, Mr. Richards gave orders for the boat to be headed for shore.

He intended to land his precious cargo and then, as speedily as possible, to return to the scene of the shipwreck and carry on the work of rescue. But this was not to be, for, when the breakers near the shore were reached, the surf was found to be running so high, that no boat could have landed in safety, let alone a boat which was crowded to the point of danger. Regretfully, therefore, Mr. Richards decided to row westwards in search of a better landing-place.

The men bent to their oars with all the strength they possessed, urged on by the piteous cries of the women, who, white-faced, sat clasping their children to their breasts - women who scanned each piece of wreckage anxiously, while thoughts of lost husbands racked their numbed minds.

For some six or seven miles the search for a landing-place was continued - but in vain. The high wall of surf proved an impenetrable barrier. At last, however, when daylight broke, the weary party of refugees sighted a schooner in the offing. As by this time the other two boats had come up and joined the cutter, a consultation of officers was held, and it was decided to set a course for the schooner.

For three hours the weary men in the boats kept to their task, but just when the distance between them and their goal was appreciably diminished, a sudden breeze sprang up from the westwards, and the schooner stood out to sea.

With the energy lent by despair the rowers redoubled their efforts, but the schooner rapidly bore away from them - taking with her all hopes of rescue from the hearts of the weary survivors.

Suddenly, however, the schooner went about and was seen to be approaching them. Their joy knew no bounds. Frantically they hoisted a shawl for a signal. Yes, they had been seen! The schooner kept on her course, came up with them and took them aboard. On the decks of the Lioness - for such the schooner proved to be - the refugees gave thanks for their deliverance, while captain and crew did all in their power to alleviate the distress and terror which had left its mark on them after their twelve long hours of suffering.

The schooner now headed for the scene of the wreck. When she arrived there was nothing to be seen of the Birkenhead, except a few broken spars and the main topmast sticking out of the water. But suddenly a cry went up. There were men clinging to the topmast! Quickly boats put out from the Lioness and rowed towards the wreck. Yes, there was still another rescue to be made. Clinging to the topmast they discovered thirty to forty poor fellows in a state of utter exhaustion.

Their plight was pitiful indeed. For over twelve hours they had undergone terrible privations from hunger, thirst and intense cold. Most of them were almost naked. They were dazed with terror.

When they had scrambled up the rigging as the Birkenhead had taken her final plunge, there had been over fifty of them. Numbed with cold and overcome with weariness, some had dropped from their precarious perch and either been drowned or eaten by the sharks. A few had managed to reach the shore by floating on pieces of wreckage - for those left on the topmast there had remained the long watch through the night and the tortures of mind and body. Yet such is the wonderful power of human endurance that over thirty had survived!

Altogether only the comparatively small number of 192 persons were saved from the wreck of the Birkenhead, including all the women and children. Among the 446 who were lost, were the captain of the ship and brave Colonel Seton.

The first news of the shipwreck reached Cape Town through one of the survivors, Dr. Culhane.

He had been aboard the gig, which, after keeping company with the two cutters, had dropped behind and had not, therefore, been rescued by the Lioness. The gig had rowed some sixteen miles along the coast and put in at a little settlement called Port D'Urban. Here Dr. Culhane had managed to obtain a horse and with all speed had covered the hundred miles or so to Cape Town, bearing the dreadful tidings of the fate of the Birkenhead.

When the news reached England, there was an immediate outcry against the action of Captain Salmond in sailing so dangerously close to the coast in order to save a few hours of voyaging. But, although grief for the terrible loss of life was universal, gradually all recrimination and sorrow was softened by an intense feeling of pride in the courageous behaviour of those brave men who had stood fast on the decks of the sinking Birkenhead so that the women and children might be saved.

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