Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

Dateline Table Bay: The Great Gale of 1865

Mayhem, as vessels are wrecked and lives lost, is reflected in reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles


AT FIVE minutes to eight, said the news report of May 18, 1865, “a messenger arrived in hot haste at the Cape Town Police Station with informatio­n that a vessel, supposed to be the steamer Athens, was on shore at Green Point, and that loud cries were heard on shore coming from on board for assistance”.

The reaction was prompt. “Sub Inspector Evans at once proceeded on horseback to the spot where the wreck was lying between the two lighthouse­s, and found a crowd of Green Point residents assembled, with lights, ropes and life buoys, for the purpose, if possible, of rendering assistance, but quite unable to do so.”

The ship was lying 60 or 80 yards from the shore, “grinding heavily on the rocks with every sea, and evidently fast breaking up, for pillow cases and cabin doors were washing ashore, so as to leave no doubt that the wreck was complete”.

No bodies had washed ashore, “but in the face of the tremendous seas and the boiling surf, it appeared impossible that any single one of the unfortunat­e people on board could reach the shore alive”.

The steamer, with a crew of 30, had intended departing the day before for Mauritius, but what came to be called the “Great Gale of 1865” intervened. When the vessel’s anchors parted early in the evening of May 17, she sought the refuge of the open sea, but didn’t make it. At 11pm the Argus learnt that “the steamer has entirely broken up, and that not one of her crew has come ashore either alive or dead”. The storm was still raging as the reporters were putting together the story for the next day, an edited version of which follows.

Terrific gale in Table Bay – Seventeen ocean-going vessels wrecked: Table Bay was visited by one of the most severe gales from the north-west… and in the course of the day no fewer than seventeen ocean-going vessels were wrecked, and nine gallant boatmen (excluding the lives lost on the Athens) met with watery graves.

While we write, the storm has not abated, and it is questionab­le whether the night will close without additional disasters. The beach beyond the Castle presents a mournful spectacle. The waves, which come rolling in in immense volume, break upon the wrecked vessels, causing them to pitch and grind with fearful violence. The wind blows with unusual force, while the rain which descends every few minutes in torrents adds to the desolation around. Some of the stranded ships, with their forward sails set, stand perfectly upright, and would almost appear to be sailing into harbour, while others, again, which have taken the beach broadside-on, are drenched by the green seas which wash over them. Others, again, have lost masts and bowsprits, and are helpless as logs of timber.

By daylight yesterday a tremendous­ly heavy sea was setting in, while the wind came down in terrific gusts, and the vessels anchored in the bay rolled and pitched with great violence.

As soon as there was sufficient light for the purpose, a signal was made from the Port Office, directing the vessels in harbour to strike top-gallant masts, and to point yards to the wind. As daylight increased, several cargo boats put off with anchors, and two or three vessels, which had parted, were supplied with extra holding gear.

At half-past-eight an anchor was run to the brig Esther. The sea, however, continued to rise, and many of the larger boats which were at their moorings parted, and were driven onshore. Between nine and ten o’clock, one of these was observed to be adrift, when one of the Water Police, a young man named Charles Bryce, who had gone onboard the police boat near the North Wharf for the purpose of throwing out the ballast, conceived the idea of going to her assistance.

With this view, he got into a dinghy and pushed off, but, before reaching the cargo boat, the dinghy was capsized and the unfortunat­e fellow thrown out.

The accident was witnessed by some hundreds of people, and an attempt was at once made to render him assistance; it was seen that he had struck out manfully and was making for the Central Causeway, but owing to his being burdened with his oilskin, his progress was slow.

Efforts were made to launch a fishing boat from the front of the Sailor’s Home, but it was discovered that no oars were to be obtained. In the meantime a couple of life buoys were procured from the Port Office and were conveyed to the end of the Causeway, and a gallant fellow named Maderosse stripped himself and plunged into the waves from the beach.

Most gallantly did he breast the waves, dipping his head on the approach of the breakers, and when he had accomplish­ed about one-fourth of the distance from the beach to the point at which the drowning man was struggling, the people onshore saw the latter go down.

He had battled hard for life, but was at length overcome and perished within sight of hundreds anxious to render him assistance. About eleven o’clock, the brig Galatea parted, and commenced drifting towards the beach. The lifeboat, under the command of Assistant Port Captain Jackson, put off to her and gave such instructio­ns as led to her being put in a favourable position on the sandy shore beyond the Castle. The lifeboat then proceeded to the brig Jane, which had shown signals of distress, and having taken the crew out of her, landed them on the beach, where the life boat was hauled up.

The Galatea was shortly joined by the brig Jane and the cutter Gem, and before two o’clock five other vessels were on shore; they were the bark Star of the West, the schooner Fernande, the schooner Clipper (the latter having dragged her anchors) and the bark Frederick Bassil.

About two o’clock the barks Alacrity and Deane also parted and drifted down upon the steamer Dane. The former carried away the steamer’s boat, and the latter her jibboom, losing her topmast and sustaining other injuries. Both vessels then drifted helplessly down upon the beach. Later they were followed by the bark Royal Arthur, which took the ground near the south wharf, and she again was followed by the brig Kehrweider, the schooner Isabel, the Dutch brig Maria Johanna and the brig Figilante. During this time the bay was one sheet of foam, the seas breaking at least two miles from the shore. The wind blew with almost unpreceden­ted violence. On the beach the scene is a painful one; the seventeen vessels, together with the cutters and a large number of cargoboats, form a dismal picture. The night is intensely dark and huge bonfires have been lit upon the beach as some guide to vessels which may still part.

 ?? PICTURE: JUSTIN FOX, FROM THE BOOK, ?? The remains of one of the victims of the gale of 1865, the steamer, Athens, still visible off Mouille Point today and, inset,the front page from May 20, 1865, announcing the umpteen sales of the remains of the wrecks in Table Bay.
PICTURE: JUSTIN FOX, FROM THE BOOK, The remains of one of the victims of the gale of 1865, the steamer, Athens, still visible off Mouille Point today and, inset,the front page from May 20, 1865, announcing the umpteen sales of the remains of the wrecks in Table Bay.
 ??  ?? Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi
 ??  ??

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