‘Daar kom die Alabama’ – Confederate raider steams into Cape Town in 1863
CAPE Town was agog – “the heights overlooking Table Bay crowded with people; the road to Green Point lined with cabs; the windows of the villas at the bottom of the hill all thrown up, the ladies waving their handkerchiefs, and one and all joined in the general enthusiasm”.
So it was, on August 5, 1863, that the storied Confederate raider, Alabama – progenitor of the well-known song, Daar kom die Alabama – was greeted when it steamed into town.
The cruiser had been roaming the Atlantic, capturing more than 65 merchant ships supplying the Union forces in the Civil War then raging between the states of the North and South of an as yet un-united America.
And the great excitement of this August day in 1863, was that, in full view of Cape Town’s residents, the Alabama made short work of capturing a Federal barque, the Sea Bride, just off the Camps Bay beachfront.
A little less than a year later, in June, 1864, the Alabama was sunk off Cherbourg in France in an engagement with the USS Kearsarge, an encounter memorialised in a painting by Manet.
Ten months earlier, though, the raider basked in the attention of a thrilled Cape Town.
The first report of August 6 –“The Confederate steamer Alabama in Table Bay – capture of a Federal ship within sight of Cape Town” – told of how the Argus correspondent, first on horseback, then on foot, dashed up Kloofnek Road and past the Round House to get a view of the action.
He describes the awesome vessel, “her enormous guns, piercing her sides, (keeping) a sharp look-out over the town, the breakwater works… and Lion’s Hill”.
On August 11, readers learned: “Having completed on Saturday the repairs… at an early hour on Sunday mor- ning Captain Semmes weighed anchor, and at six o’clock the Alabama took her departure from Table Bay, accompanied by the good wishes of the great majority of the inhabitants .”
Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama’s commanding officer, beside the vessel’s smooth bore gun during her visit to Cape Town. His executive officer, First Lieutenant John M Kell, is in the background.