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The sinking of the HMS Birkenhead: the event that gave rise to the “women and children first” protocol

Boban Docevski

Although there is no legal basis for the protocol of women and children first in international maritime law, this unofficial practice has been used since the 19th century, and it began with the unfortunate sinking of a ship called HMS Birkenhead. 

HMS Birkenhead was launched on 30th December 1845 by the Marchioness of Westminster, and it was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the Royal Navy. In its initial designs Birkenhead was intended to be a steam frigate, but due to some technical reasons, it was converted into a troopship. She was the fastest and most comfortable troop transport ship of the time, capable of reaching the Cape of Good Hope in 37 days.

HMS Birkenhead

Unfortunately, HMS Birkenhead’s last tip towards the Cape would be her last. In January 1852 the Birkenhead, under the command of Robert Salmond, sailed from Portsmouth with the orders to take troops to the 8th Xhosa War (then called the “Kaffir War”) against the Xhosa in South Africa. After a short stop at the port in Simonstown (near Cape Town) on February 1852 the last part of the Journey to Algoa Bay began. The ship sailed from Simonstown on 25th February, 1852 with around 640 men, women and children aboard. With the goal to achieve the best speed, Captain Salmond decided that it would be best if the ship travels along the coast of South Africa. They were sailing with a constant speed of 8.5 knots (15.7 km/h) and followed the coast generally within 3 miles (4.8 km) away from the shore. The ship used only its steam engines.

Around 2 am, the headsman reported the depth of 12 fathoms (22 m) and before reporting another depth, the Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock. This reef is located near Danger Point, around the modern-day town Gansbaai, Western Cape. Although this wretched rock is visible when the sea is rough, it is hardly noticeable when it is calm, like the day when the Birkenhead was passing there.

A map showing Danger Point near which the deadly rock is located

The Captain came on deck and gave the orders to drop the anchor, to lower the quarter-boats and to turn the ship astern. As the ship slowly moved from the rock, water started to rush inside the large hole, and another collision happened that ripped the bulkheads open.

In a matter of seconds, the forward compartments of the ship and the engine rooms were flooded. Over 100 soldiers had drowned in the initial moments of the struck.

The Wreck of the Birkenhead  by Thomas Hemy

The remaining soldiers gathered on the deck and awaited orders from their officers. A group of 60 men was sent to the chain pumps, and part of the men was ordered to tackle the lifeboats; the rest were ordered to stand on the poop deck, attempting to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were sent to the ship’s cutter.

Two other lifeboats on the ship were also manned but one of them filled with water immediately, and the other was useless due to inadequate maintenance.

The remaining passengers were left with only three lifeboats, and two of the largest boats with capacity of 150 people weren’t among those.

The submerged paddle shaft of the Birkenhead   Photo source

Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took the command of all military personnel and managed to hold the highest level of order and discipline among the troops. One of the survivors gave the following statement:

“Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear, firm voice”.

Only ten minutes after the initial impact, Birkenhead struck another rock beneath the engine room and broke in two. All of the remaining men gathered on the stern section which was the only part of the ship which was still floating.

Few minutes later, this section also sank, and just before it was completely gone, Captain Salmond shouted: “all those who can swim, jump overboard, and make for the boats”. Colonel Seton disagreed with this order because he realized that if the men swim to the lifeboats, they will swamp them and sink them too, putting the women and children in danger. Seton ordered his troops to remain on board, and only three soldiers tried to swim to the boats.

The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon

The brave soldiers stayed still for more than 20 minutes, clinging to the ship remains. Later, some of them managed to swim to the shore that was 2 miles (3.2 km) away. A swim that took 12 long hours. Unfortunately, most of the man drowned or were killed by sharks. The following day, a schooner named Lioness found one of the lifeboats and later arrived at the wreckage of the Birkenhead. They found 40 survivors that were clinging to pieces of wood. Only 193 people survived the sinking. Today, a lighthouse stands at Danger Point signaling to all incoming ships that there is a dangerous and deadly reef nearby.

This terrible disaster is remembered not only because of the great death toll; it also became the first maritime evacuation where the standard known as “women and children first” was applied. Soon after the sinking of the Birkenhead, this famous phrase and rule became a standard procedure. In the memory of the courageous crew, this procedure was named “Birkenhead drill“.

The Danger Point near Gansbaai constructed after the Birkenhead sank Photo source

In 1893 Rudyard Kipling, the author of “The Jungle Book”, wrote a tribute to the brave crew and soldiers of the Birkenhead, the men who stood still in the face of death to save the lives of the women, children and their comrades:

Read another story from us: A month after the sinking of the Titanic, one of its drifting lifeboats was found containing three bodies

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too