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.