Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Wreck of the "Birkenhead"

But while the governor was claiming great lands and adding them to British rule, the colonists had another trouble to face and fight. For about this time the British Government began to find it more and more difficult to know what to do with their convicts. Australia wanted no more, Tasmania wanted no more. So at last they decided to found a convict colony at the Cape. There, roads and harbours and many other public works were needed, all of which could be built by convicts.

But when the Cape colonists heard of what the British Government meant to do, they all, Boer and British alike, began to object. They would not have convicts in the colony, and they wrote home telling the British that they would not have them. They had great meetings, they protested and petitioned, but the British Government took no notice of all that the colonists said and did. They had made up their minds, and on the 19th of September 1849 a ship with a number of convicts on board anchored opposite Cape Town.

As soon as it became known that the ship was there, a kind of terror and dismay seized the people. Hither and thither through the streets they hurried, anxious and excited. The church bells were tolled, meetings were held. The colonists solemnly swore that they would have nothing to do with the ship and her crew, and they wrote to the governor telling him that it must be sent away. "The convicts must not, cannot, and shall not be landed," they said.

Sir Harry Smith was on the side of the colonists, and he would not let the convicts land. But he had no power to order them to go anywhere else. So the ship remained anchored in the bay, while the captain sent to England asking what he was to do. There were no telegraphs to Africa in those days, so for five months the ship lay there, waiting orders. During all that time the people on board found it hard to get enough to eat. For the colonists were so bitter against them that they would not even sell them food. And when it was discovered that the commanding officer of the garrison was sending food to the convict ship, the farmers and traders refused to sell to him, so that the soldiers came near starving too. At last, to the joy of every one, a letter came from home telling the ship to go on to Tasmania, and land the convicts there. Thus ended the attempt to make the Cape a convict station.

Hardly was this trouble over when another war with the Kaffirs broke out. Ever since British Kaffraria had been made a state and brought under British rule, many of the chiefs there had been restless. For the British rulers had tried to put down some of their old savage customs, and the Kaffirs did not like that at all.

The Kaffirs believed that all kinds of misfortunes came upon them through wizards and witches, and every tribe had a "witch-finder," whose duty it was to "smell out" these witches. When any misfortune came upon them, the tribe was called together. Then the witch doctor, fearfully painted and adorned with all kinds of terrible savage grandeur, rushed about among them. Trembling and anxious, the people stood waiting, each man knowing that his life was unsafe, until the witch doctor, pointing to one among them, accused him of being the cause of all the trouble. Then the poor wretch, who had no more to do with it than you or I, was seized, tortured, and killed without more ado.

The British forbade this "smelling out" of witches, much to the wrath of the Kaffirs, and they became so angry that it needed very little to make them fight again. So when a witch doctor began to tell the people that he could give them a charm that would make the white man's bullets turn to water and do no harm, they thronged in hundreds to him. Then believing that guns had no power against them, they became more bold in their attacks.

At first, however, the governor would not believe that the Kaffirs meant war. But at last there could be no doubt about it, the savages attacked and destroyed three villages just within the border of the colony, and a terrible war was begun which lasted two years.

The Kaffirs were not easily beaten, and many new soldiers were sent from home to help in the fight. Some of those never landed in South Africa, yet we remember them as heroes who kept their Colours without spot or stain. For it was while on its way to Africa that the Birkenhead went down.

Sailing through the dark night on its way to Algoa Bay, the ship struck on a rock near a point called Danger Point. It struck with such force that the whole ship was shivered from stem to stern, and in a moment the water rushed in on every side.

So fast did the water rush in that many of the men who were sleeping on the lower deck were drowned before they could leap from their beds. Every one who could scrambled on deck as quickly as possible, while a terrible strange cry of fear rose in the darkness, for there were many women and children on board. It was seen at once that there was no hope of saving the ship, that indeed great speed must be used to save the women and children, for there were not boats enough for all. But although the decks were crowded there was no confusion. The soldiers quietly formed in companies, and stood waiting, as cool and calm as upon a parade ground, while the women and children were being put into the boats.

While this was being done, some of the soldiers let loose the horses and threw them into the water. For though the bay was swarming with sharks, and the shore too far off for even the strongest swimmer to reach it, it was hoped that some of the poor animals might be able to swim as far, and so save themselves.

Amid the sobs of women, some of whom were leaving their husbands and their sons behind, and the cries of frightened children who knew not what was happening, the boats were filled. But the ship was sinking fast. There was not the slightest hope that the boats could reach the shore and return in time to save the men. Yet not a soldier stirred. Calmly and quietly they awaited certain death. It was harder, this, than facing cannon, harder than charging a savage foe. To die fighting, that were easy! But to have this courage to be still, to stand shoulder to shoulder, in the cold grey light of dawn, to feel beneath their feet the boards heave and sink, to see the cruel waves creep upward, and the black hideous monsters await their prey—that was hard.

And so four hundred heroes stood to meet their death. The boats with the women and children were scarcely at a safe distance when the ship went to pieces and every man went down. A few only, clinging to floating spars and bits of wreckage, reached the shore.

The brave who died,

Died without flinching in the bloody surf,

They sleep as well beneath that purple tide

As others under turf.

They sleep as well! and, roused from their wild grave,

Wearing their wounds like stars, shall rise again,

Joint-heirs with Christ, because they bled to save

His weak ones, not in vain.

If that day's work no clasp or medal mark;

If each proud heart no cross of bronze may press,

Nor cannon thunder loud from Tower or Park,

This feel we none the less:—

That those whom God's high grace there saved from ill,

Those also left His martyrs in the bay,

Though not by siege, though not in battle, still

Full well had earned their pay.

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