The Wreck of the “Abercrombie Robinson”

Twas in the year of 1842 and on the 27th of May
That six Companies of the 91st Regiment with spirits light and gay,
And forming the Second Battalion, left Naas without delay,
Commanded by Captain Bertie Gordon, to proceed to the Cape straightaway.

And on the second of June they sailed for the Cape of Good Hope
On board the “Abercrombie Robinson,” a vessel with which few vessels could cope;
And in August the 25th they reached Table Bay,
Where a battalion of the 91st was warned for service without delay.

To relieve the 91st, which was to be stationed at Cape Town,
An order which the 91st obeyed without a single frown;
And all the officers not on duty obtained leave to go ashore,
Leaving only six aboard, in grief to deplore.

There were 460 men of the 91st seemingly all content,
Besides a draft of the Cape Mounted Rides and a draft of the 27th Regiment;
But, alas an hour after midnight on the same night
A strong gale was blowing, which filled the passengers’ hearts with fright.

The ship pitched heavily and could be felt touching the ground,
Then Captain Gordon warned the Sergeant-Major and officers all round,
That they might expect a storm, to him it seemed plain;
And, as he predicted, it blew a terrific hurricane.

And the passengers’ hearts were filled with dismay,
And a little after three o’clock in the morning the cable broke away,
Then the ship drifted helplessly before the merciless storm,
While the women and children looked sad, pale and forlorn.

Then the thunder roared and the lightning dashed in bright array,
And was one of the greatest storms ever raged over Table Bay,
And the ill-fated vessel drove in towards the shore,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh and loudly did roar.

And the ship rolled and heaved with the raging tide,
While the seas poured down the hatchways and broke over her side,
And the ship wrought for herself a bed in the sand;
Still Captain Bertie hoped all might get safely to land.

’Twas about seven o’clock when daylight did appear,
And when the storm ceases the passengers gave a cheer,
Who had been kept below during the awful night,
Then in small groups they came on deck, a most pitiful sight.

Alas! sad and dejected, sickly looking, pale and forlorn,
Owing to the close confinement during the storm;
And for a time attempts were made to send a rope ashore,
But these proved futile owing to the raging billows which loudly did roar.

Then one of the ship’s cutters was carefully lowered over the side,
And her crew towards the shore merrily did glide,
And succeeded in reaching the shore with a leading line,
And two boats were conveyed to the sinking ship just in time.

And to save the women and children from being drowned,
Captain Gordon gave orders to the 91st all round
For the women and children to disembark immediately,
Who to God were crying for help most, frantically.

And the 91st made a most determined stand,
While lowering the women and children it was awful and grand,
As they lowered them gently into the boats over the ship’s side,
Regardless of their own lives whatever would betide.

Then the sick were to disembark after the women and children,
And next the 27th Regiment and Cape Mounted Riflemen;
And from half-past eight till ten o’clock the disembarkation went on,
While the women and children looked ghastly pale and woe begone.

The disembarkation of the 91st came at last,
And as there were only two boats available they stood aghast,
Because the boats only carried each time thirty;
Still, the work went on for four hours most manfully.

And at half-past three the last boat left the ship’s side,
And o’er the raging billows the small boats did glide,
Containing the officers and crew who remained to the last,
To see the women and children saved and all danger past.

And after a night of great danger and through a raging sea
Seven hundred souls were carried from a sinking ship providentially
And among them were trembling children and nervous women also
And sick men who were dying with their hearts full of woe.

But thank God they were all saved and brought to land,
All through Colonel Bertie Gordon, who wisely did command
The 91st to see to the women and children’s safety,
An order which they obeyed right manfully;
And all honour is due to the 91st for their gallantry,
Likewise Captain Bertie Gordon, who behaved so heroically.

We have been favoured with a copy of the following letter from the master to the owner of the Abercrombie Robinson:-

Cape of Good Hope, Aug. 31.

Sir,- It grieves me beyond description to think it has fallen to my lot to relate to you this tale of the wreck of your splendid ship Abercrombie Robinson near the Salt River, in Table Bay, on Sunday, the 28th inst. at 4 a.m.: crew and troops all saved. We arrived at Table Bay on the evening of the 25th inst. and anchored with 60 fathoms of chain on the larboard bower, at 7h. 30m. p.m. Had a visit from the port-officer and communicated with the shore directly. Fine weather; wind at north, next morning at daylight still fine weather. We veered out 20 fathoms more chain on the larboard bower, and gave the ship a broad sheer with the staysail to the eastward, and let go another anchor, viz., the starboard one, and veered away upon both with an open hawse to the N.E. until the larboard chain was out to the clinch. We then had 150 fathoms upon the larboard chain and 70 upon the starboard chain, and made them both alike; this was all done during fine weather, to give the anchors time to get well set. We sent the topgallant yards on deck, and struck topgallant-masts, and restowed all the sails afresh, and leashed them securely, ready for a hard blow. This was all done on the 26th, weather still fine, and on the 27th the barometer began to fall, but still it was fine enough weather to bring passengers to and from the shore. We landed the Colonel and Major and their families, and civilians. At 4 p.m. on the 27th inst. it began to blow from N.N.E., until it increased to a terrific gale, with a very high sea, and thunder and lightning awful to witness; but still the ship never started her anchors, for we had the deep sea lead over all the time, and she kept tight as usual, for the sounding-rod was properly attended to. At 3h. 40m. a.m. the larboard chain parted just before the bits, and immediately afterwards the other one parted outside, and she cast with her head to the eastward, and soon afterwards struck. In a few strokes she knocked away the rudder, and stove all the trunk and stern frame, the sea making a fair breach over her fore and aft. As soon as daylight appeared we saw there was no fear of life, and that we were near the Salt River. The people began to assemble on shore, and we sent a rope through the surf, and they brought the surf boats and commenced landing the troops, and we had all hands on shore by 4 p.m., but the gale after daylight became comparitively moderate. At dark, the wind and weather was much the same as daylight.

On the 29th, morning, at daylight, we commenced with the surf boats to land the officers’ baggage, and the baggage of the troops, which we continued all day, with the exception of rigging tents on shore to live in. Tuesday the 30th, we were employed as yesterday with the surf boats and rigging tents on shore. Had a survey on board. 31st, weather was moderate and fine; commenced landing baggage and Her Majesty’s stores. Lieutenant Black was still in attendance, with two naval officers from the Admiral, on the part of Her Majesty. Lieutenant Black still flies his pennant. It is my intention as soon as Her Majesty’s stores are all on shore to offer the ship for sale, as she now lies, for the general benefit, at least I have suggested this; and when all is done, I shall make the best of my way to London. The Waterloo parted also, and came on shore within two musket shots of us, and was an awful sight, near 200 drowned. I now beg to conclude at present, remaining your most obedient and much-obliged servant,

JOHN YOUNG
Master of the ship Abercrombie Robinson.

We have on the same beach the Waterloo, the John Bagshaw, the Ghika, the Fairfield, the Henry Hoyle, the Reform, and a cutter.

The Times, 14th November 1842

Notes

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, and 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-past 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-boats 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 disembarkation 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.

From Perils At Sea by Thomas Carter (Adjutant General`s Office) 1859

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