Perils At Sea

by Thomas Carter (Adjutant General`s Office) 1859


The Kent

On Tuesday, 1 March 1825, the Kent, an East Indiaman, with the right wing of the 31st regiment on board, caught fire in the Bay of Biscay, and was totally destroyed. The accident occured about 10 o`clock A.M., towards the end of a violent gale of wind, when the ship was rolling heavily. One of the spirit casks being adrift, an officer of the ship emdeavoured to secure it with some billets of wood, but the ship making a heavy lurch, he unfortunately dropped the light, and letting go his hold of the cask with a view to recover the lantern, it suddenly stove, and the spiritscommunicating with the lamp, the whole place was instantly in a blaze.
When there was no hope of saving the vessel, exertions were made to preserve the troops and crew. The noble example of the officers found a ready imitation in the men, and all showed the utmost order and firmness in this trying ordeal.The providential means of escape were provided by the brig Cambria, but it was not until three o`clock in the afternoon that Captain Cook succeeded in getting the first boat from the vessel. From that hour unti eight in the evening, the boats were constantly employed bringing the people to the Cambria, and succeeded in saving 296 officers, non commissioned officers and privates of the thirty-first regiment, together with 48 women and 52 children belonging thereto, and 10 male and female private passengers. Captain Cobb and 139 of the crew, ammounting in all to 553. Fifty-four men, one woman and twenty-one children were lost, but the number would have been much greater, had it not been for the excellent order observed. At two o`clock in the morning the Kent blew up, after being completely enveloped in flames for four hpurs previously.
The crew of the ill-fated ship did not behave in the manner that is generally attributable to the British seaman, as they refused to return to the Kent for their shipmates after the first trip, and it was only by the coercive measures of the captain who said he would not receive them on board unless they did so, that they reluctantly proceeded on their duty. Two hours after the ship blew up, a soldier`s wife was delivered on board the Cambria.
There were instances of men who who tied the children of brother soldiers on their backs, and leaping overboard swam with their burdens to the boats. Fourteen of the men who remained on the wreck were rescued the following morning by the Caroline and carried to Liverpool.

The Abercrombie Robinson.

The reserve battalion of the 91st regiment arrived in Table Bay on 25 August 1842. On the 27th the command of the battalion and the detachments embarked on board the Abercrombie Robinson transport, devolved on Captain Bertie Gordon, the Lieutenant-Colonel and the Major having landed at Cape Town on that day.
The situation on the transport was considered a dangerous one from her size (being 1430 tons), and from the insufficient depth of water in which she had brought up. The port-captain, who boarded her on the evening of the 25th, advised the captain to take her to another berth on the following day. This was impossible, for the wind blew strong into the bay from the quarter which is so much dreaded there, and continued to increase during the following three days.
At 11 o'clock on the night of the 27th it was blowing a strong gale and the sea was rolling heavily into the bay. The ship was pitching much, and she began to feel the ground; but she rode by two anchors, a`nd much cable had been veered out the night before. Captain Robinson made such arrangements as he could, in warning the officers, the sergeant-major and the orderly non-commissioned officers to be in readiness.
From sunset on the 27th the gale had continued to increase and, at a little after 3 A.M. on the morning of the 28th, the starboard cable snapped in two; the other cable parted two or three minutes afterwards, and away went the ship before the storm, her hull striking, with heavy crashes, against the ground as she drove towards the beach, three miles distant, under her lee.
About this time the fury of the gale was rendered more terrible by one of the most awful storms of thunder and lighning that had ever been witnessed in Table Bay. While the force of the sea and the wind was driving the ship into shoaler water, she rolled incessantly; and heaved over so much with the back-set of the surf, that to the possibility of her going to pieces before daylight, was added the probability of settling down to windward, when the decks must have inevitably filled, and everyone of the seven hundred souls on board must have perished.
While in this position the heavy sea broke over her side and poured down the hatchways. The decks were opening in every direction, and the strong framework of the hull seemed compressed together, starting the beams from their places. The ship had been driven with her starboard-bow towards the beach , exposing her stern to the sea, which rushed through the stern-ports and tore up the cabin floors of the orlop-deck. The thunder and lightning ceased toward morning and the ship seemed to have worked a bed for herself in the sand, for the terrible rolling had greatly diminished, and there arose the hope that all on board would get safe on shore.
At day-break it was just possible to distinguish some people on the beach opposite to the wreck. Owing to the fear of the masts, spars and rigging falling, as well as to keep as much top-weight as possible off the ship`s decks, the troops had been kept below but were now allowed to come on deck in small numbers.
An attempt was made to send a rope ashore; and one of the best swimmers, a Krooman, volunteered the trial with a rope around his body; but the back-set of the surf was too much for him. A line tied to a spar never got beyond the ship`s bows, and one fired to a cannon also failed.One of the cutter was then carefully lowered on the lee-side of the ship, and her crew succeeded in reaching the shore with a hauling line. Two large surf-boats were shortly afterwards conveyed in wagons to the place where the ship was stranded, and the following orders were given by Captain Gordon for the disembarkation of the troops:-

1. The women and children to disembark (there were about seventy).
2. The sick to disembark after the women and children.
3. The disembarkation of the troops to take place by the companies of the Ninety-first drawing lots; the detachments of the Twenty-seventh Regiments and the Cape Mounted Riflemen taking the precedence.
4. The men to fall in on the upper deck, fully armed and accoutred, carrying their knapsacks and great-coats.
5. Each officer to be allowed to take a carpet-bag or small portmanteau.
The disembarkation of the women and children and of the sick occupied from half-pst eight until ten o'clock A.M. The detachments of the 27th regiment and of the Cape Mounted Riflemen followed. That of the 91st was was arranged by the wings drawing lots, and then the companies of each wing. At half past ten in the morning, one of the surf-boars which had been employed up to this time in taking the people off the wreck, was required to assist in saving the lives of those on board the Waterloo convict-ship, which was in still more imminent peril, about a quarter of a mile from the Abercrombie Robinson.
Having now but one boat to disembark 450 men, and the wind and sea, which had subsided a little since daylight, beginning again to rise, together with the captain`s aprehension that she might go to pieces before sunset, which (however unfounded as was afterwards proved) powerfully inmfluenced Captain Gordon`s arrangements; it became necessary to abandon the men`s knapsacks, as they not only filled the greater space in the surf-boats than could be spared, but took a long time to hand down the ship`s side. The knapsacks had been brought on deck, but were now, for these reasons, sent below again, and stowed away in the women`s standing-berths.
The officers were likewise informed that they would not be allowed to take more than each could carry on his arm. The disembarkation of the six companies went on regularly, there being one boat which could only hold thirty men at a time. At half past three in the afternoon the last boat left the ship`s side. It contained those of the ship`s officers and crew who had remained to the last, sergeant-major Murphy of the 91st`s reserve battalion, and two non-commissioned officers who had requested permission to remain, Captain Gordon and Lieut. Black RN, agent of transports. Nearly 700 souls completed their disembarcation without a single casualty. Among them were many women and children , and several sick men.
The two sergeants, Phillips and Murray, were youg lads, barely 22 years of age, they had married shortly before the battalion embarked at Kingstown, and their wives, quite girls, were clinging to them for support and comfort when the ship parted from her anchors. When they were called on duty they left their wives without a murmer. In the women`s quarters, confusion, teror and despair, joined to the wildest shrieks, were the fast spreading the their dangerous influence, when Captain Gordon first descended to the lower deck. A few words sufficed to quiet them, and from that moment their patience and submission never faltered. By half past three in the afternoon, the bilged and broken wreck was was abandoned with all the stores and baggage to the fast-increasing gale.
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