The troopship, HMS Birkenhead, lately

from Simons Town and bound for Algoa Bay

and the Eighth Xhosa War, foundered in the night

at Danger Point near Gansbaai, Western Cape –

where tourists now have encounters with sharks.


Like the Titanic, more than sixty years

later, the wreck was a copybook tale

of lessons unlearned, derelictions of duty

and unstinting, unselfish courage.


The troops were mostly new recruits, workless

from impoverished farms in Wales and Scotland.

As the officers’ women and children

disembarked in the limited lifeboats,

the lads stood, as commanded, to attention

unwaveringly, then, as commanded,

they abandoned ship to swim the two miles

to the rocky shore. In the dark and thrashing

waters, Great White Sharks silently killed them.


Eight of the nine horses swam safely ashore

and bred a feral herd that grazed the plains

east of Gansbaai till late last century –

about the time, by chance, when Nelson Mandela,

a Xhosa prince, was freed.




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  1. #1 by Rosemary Jefford (the inky writer) - November 27th, 2013 at 22:19

    I enjoy how you weave history with the every day happenings of today. The image of the young soldiers standing obediently to attention and then being eaten by sharks is so evocative and so sad.

  2. #2 by Keith Johnson - December 5th, 2013 at 10:06

    I can’t get the image of the horses swimming ashore out of my mind – great poem!

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