Victims of one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th century have been remembered in a wreath-laying ceremony on Birkenhead Rock in Gansbaai, followed by a small remembrance ceremony at sea.

There to recount the events, as well as laying a wreath in memory of those who gave their lives, was Overstrand Municipality Acting Mayor, Dudley Coetzee.

In his speech the Mayor said:

“On this day, 26 February 1852, 166 years ago at 2 am the troopship HMS Birkenhead was wrecked less than 5 kms from these shores when it struck a rocky outcrop jutting out of the sea.  As the ship separated from the rock with a gaping hole in its side, water filled the forward section and more than 100 troops drowned in their sleeping quarters.

About 10 minutes later, the Birkenhead smashed against the rocks a second time and her bottom section tore open.
There were 643 people on board the ship and at least 450 lives were lost in this tragic disaster.  

But even this very dark cloud had a silver lining that left an indelible mark on our social conscience.  The Birkenhead Drill was born.  This disaster gave rise to the principle of “Women and Children first”.

Today, we are here to remember Captain Robert Salmond, Lt Col Alexander Seton and the men who courageously stood firm on a sinking ship while women and children were given the first opportunity to leave on the limited number of life rafts.

Even the nine cavalry horses on board were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore, before those men left their positions to try and save themselves.

According to one witness almost everybody kept quiet, nothing was heard, except for the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond and Seton;  all given in a clear, steady voice, without flinching.  The soldiers didn’t move, even as the ship broke up, barely 20 minutes after striking the rock.

Some managed to swim to the shore, desperately hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat.  However most either drowned, or died of exposure.

As a result of this heart-breaking event, the Birkenhead-drill, has now established the principle of women and children first in the event of similar incidents.

Although never part of international maritime law, this is presently seen as a standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters.
This lighthouse was erected 43 years after this tragedy in 1895 in order to warn ships of the dangerous reef.  It is a working memorial for the victims and survivors of the Birkenhead disaster. “

Thank you to Gansbaai Tourism with the assistance of Marine Dynamics, White Shark Projects and Sharklady Adventures who organised a commemoration of the lives lost on the HMS Birkenhead in 1852.

This annual memorial helps ensure that even after 166 years the heroism and courage of the men that day is not forgotten. Pictured here are Cllr Riana de Coning, Caren Lee (Chairperson: Gansbaai Tourism), Area Manager: Gansbaai Administration Francois Myburgh, Glenda Kitley (Manager: Gansbaai Tourism) and Acting Mayor Dudley Coetzee.


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