Our speaker on 15 August 2013 was Major Willem Steenkamp, the well–known author, historian and raconteur, whose topic was “Daar Kom Die Alabama” to mark the 150th anniversary of the Confederate raider’s visit to Cape Town.
Our speaker noted that one of the definitive histories of the Alabama at the Cape was written by Dr Edna Bradlow. He then posed the question as to why the Alabama had been built in the United Kingdom. The answer to this was cotton, a raw material of vast importance to the British. At the time of the American Civil War there were 2,650 factories, employing some half a million people engaged in the manufacture of cotton goods, active in Britain. These used millions of kilograms of raw cotton each year and the bulk of this cotton came from the Southern States of the USA. This was a source of raw material which the British did not want to and could not afford to lose.
The Confederate South supplied Britain with 78 to 84 percent of its raw cotton needs and France too obtained most of its cotton needs from the same source. Cotton was the South’s main export and was a vital element in enabling them to prosecute its war against the North.
Britain had undertaken to remain neutral at the start of the American Civil War but its sympathies (and economic needs) lay with the South. So a number of ships were constructed for the Confederates in British shipyards. The South had no navy when the war started and had no shipyards able to build warships. So they needed to look for neutral states with shipyards, where ships could be built without the North’s knowledge.
Of course, secrecy was of paramount importance. The ownership of the ships and their destination after completion had to be kept secret. Crews could not be recruited in Britain and the ships could not be armed in Britain. This could only be done once the ships left British waters.
The second such warship to be built in Britain was built by Lairds of Birkenhead in the port of Liverpool. She bore the construction number 290 and [was] later named the Eurica. She was a sloop of 1,067 tonnes displacement, 70,1m long with a beam of 9,6m and a displacement of 5,3m. She was powered by two 215kW (300hp) horizontal steam engines powering a single two-bladed screw. To power this she carried 356 tonnes of coal.
The US consul attempted to have the British authorities stop and seize the ship, she was outside British waters by the time they could do so.
The Eurica had sailed from the Mersey on 28 July 1862 to a bay on the Welsh coast, where many of her crew boarded the ship. She then sailed round the North of Ireland and on to the Island of Terceira in the Azores. Here she rendezvoused with the ship carrying her guns and other armaments which were then fitted, with difficulty, while both ships were outside the 4,8km (three mile) limit. The Portuguese governor would not allow the work to be done in port. Later Captain Semmes and his officers arrived in the Bahama and the ship Eurica was renamed the Confederate Ship Alabama. She had the reputation of being the smallest ship with the largest guns and the greatest speed afloat.
The Alabama was a commerce raider, carrying eight guns. Six smooth bore 32 pounders for the broadside, a 100 pounder rifled pivot gun forward and a 68 pounder smooth bore pivot gun abaft the main mast were the weapons carried. She was a three-masted schooner with auxiliary steam power and could make 15 knots.
Most of her crew of 145 men were experienced British seamen and were somewhat unruly. Major Steenkamp explained that the ship had no armour-plating, this being sacrificed to give the ship greater speed. Two of her officers were British who had settled in the South and who decided to do their bit for their new country.
Capt Raphael Semmes became a midshipman in the US Navy in 1826 and studied law when he was on leave. He commanded the brig Somers during the war against Mexico and served ashore with the naval guns bombardment of Vera Cruz in 1847. He was present as a commander at the capture of Mexico City.
In February 1861, he was a commander in the USN and resigned to serve in the Confederate Navy. His first command was the commerce raider Sumter. He was promoted to the rank of captain in 1862 and was sent to Liverpool to command the Alabama. Our speaker explained that Capt Semmes conducted his raiding expeditions in a humane manner and, because he treated them well, he was well liked by his crew. The crew were paid in gold and they all shared in the prize money resulting from the sale of prize (or captured) ships.
The Alabama took her first prize in the Azores on 3 September 1862 and, by 1864, had captured over 60 ships. Some were sold as prizes and others were burnt and sunk. She roamed the oceans of the world in the 657 days of her combat life, cruising in the Eastern Atlantic, off New England, in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico before moving down to Brazil. She then headed down the south western coast of Africa to reprovision at Cape Town. Her next destination was the East Indies, back to the Cape of Good Hope and then up to the coast of France where she met her fate at the hands of the USS Kearsarge.
The Alabama sank one U S Naval warship, the USS Hatteras, and eluded a number of others, notably the USS Vanderbilt at Cape Town. Alabama was a fast ship and very well-armed so could either fight or run as required. While on passage to the Cape of Good Hope, Alabama attempted to stop a British warship HMS Diomede which she thought to be a federal merchant ship. Fortunately she discovered her error before any shots were fired.
Alabama was at sea for 534 days of her 657 day commission. During this time she never visited a Confederate port. Not one member of her crew was killed in action and not one of the seamen and passengers on the ships captured by the Alabama was killed. The only crew member to lose his life was the third Engineer Simeon Cummings who died in a gun accident at Saldanha.
Our speaker described the capture of the Sea Bride off Cape Town on 6 August 1863 and the excitement which this event aroused among the many Capetonians gathered on Signal Hill. The ship was later sold in Cape Town as a prize.
Major Steenkamp explained that the “Daar Kom Die Alabama” song was not written to commemorate the visit of the Alabama to Cape Town but in fact originated as a corruption of a much older Malay song. He pointed out that the second verse about the ”Nooi, Nooi” and the “rietkooi om op te slaap” was a reference to the marital bed and the special reeds used to make it!
Our speaker reminded us that Fort Wynyard, remodelled in 1861, had been known previously as the Kijk in de Pot battery which dated back to the Dutch East India company days when it formed part of the Cape defences. It was built in Granger Bay opposite the whaling station with its blubber pots. The update was built to counter a possible United States threat against the Cape.
Another reminder of the Alabama’s time in Cape waters is the now empty grave of Third Engineer Simeon Cummings who accidentally killed himself with his loaded shotgun while hunting in the Saldanha Bay area on 3 August 1863. His body was exhumed and returned to the United States some years ago. One of the Cape Town Branch’s members, Mr Stan Lambrick, was involved in this exercise and attended the reburial in the US (and subsequently gave a talk on both the events).
Our speaker then recounted the sad story of the CSS Alabama’s last action. He explained that the ship had not been able to replenish its stock of gunpowder and that the powder remaining had deteriorated in quality. The Alabama badly needed a refit and Capt Semmes had obtained permission for this to be carried out at Cherbourg in France. The frigate USS Kearsarge, commanded by Capt John A Winslow, a former shipmate of Semmes, was in port at Flushing where her Captain received a telegram advising him of the Alabama’s whereabouts. He set sail immediately for Cherbourg. Semmes decided to fight despite the fact that the refit had not been completed and his shortage of gunpowder. He issued a challenge to Capt Winslow through diplomatic channels and the ensuing battle took place off Cherbourg in international waters.
The Alabama fired rapidly but with great accuracy while the Kearsarge aimed her shots, firing at half the rate of its opponent. Kearsarge mounted 11 inch Dahlgren guns which were very powerful and hard-hitting weapons capable of causing heavy damage.
On 19 June 1864, after an action which lasted for seventy minutes, the Alabama began to sink. Capt Semmes hauled down his colours, surrendered and asked for assistance. Some of the survivors were rescued by the Kearsarge but Capt Semmes and some forty others were picked up by the British steam yacht Deerhound and other neutral vessels, which took them to England or France.
Major Steenkamp explained that nets were used to provide protection to the sides of the ship during the action. He praised the Alabama’s well-trained gun crews and pointed out that, had the Alabama’s gunpowder not been defective, she might have sunk the Kearsarge when a shell hit her sternpost but failed to explode. The Kearsarge had fewer guns than the Alabama but they were more powerful. On his return to the Confederacy, Capt Semmes was promoted to Rear Admiral.
The Federal Government demanded compensation for the losses caused to the United States by the Southern raider, arguing that the Alabama was a British ship manned by a British crew and armed with British guns and ammunition and which had sailed from Liverpool with the connivance of the British government. They needed no further evidence of the contravention of strict neutrality by Britain.
It was not until six years after the end of the American Civil War that Mr Gladstone’s government approved the payment of fifteen million dollars to the United States.
In 1984 the wreck of the Alabama was found and divers recovered various item from the wreck, including some bottles of Cape wine which, surprisingly, were none the worse for their long immersion in the sea. Numerous legal battles concerning the ownership of the wreck followed its discovery.
Mr Alan Mountain thanked Major Steenkamp for his very interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.
We note that a number of members have not yet paid their subscriptions for 2013. Reminders will be sent to those who have not paid and we would appreciate it if you could let us have your remittance as soon as possible. Members who do not heed this reminder, will forthwith be deleted from the member’s roll. Please note that full members will only receive the first Military History Journal for 2013 if they have paid.
12 SEPTEMBER 2013: CURRENT AND RECENT MAJOR ARMED CONFLICTS IN AFRICA by Major Helmoed Römer-Heitman
Major Heitman’s annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned – this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the dramatic turn of events in Central Africa as far as the deployment of South African military forces are concerned. With the emphasis falling on the South African deployment to the Central African Republic, Major Heitman will also cover the following hot points/operational theatres of interest: The French intervention in Mali; the re-hatting of the South African battalion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to be a part of the Intervention Brigade; the South African deployments in Darfur and the Mozambique Channel: An overview and a prognosis.
10 OCTOBER 2013: THE TAKING OF THE SLAVESHIP “MEERMIN”, 1766 by Dr. Dan Sleigh
The taking of the slaver “Meermin” is a dramatic tale of a desperate struggle for freedom and survival on the open sea. On 18 February 1766 some of the male slaves, held captive on the ship, managed to arm themselves and overwhelm the crew. In the process most of the ship’s officers were killed, the duty watch massacred and the remainder of the crew trapped below decks, many of them severely wounded, while the vessel drifted unmanned at the mercy of wind and current in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is a tale of not only of death and deceit, but also of courage and perseverance that sheds light on many aspects of local government and the economy in the Cape Colony’s early days. Moreover, it focuses on the cruelty and dehumanization of slavery. Dr Sleigh’s talk coincides with the publication of the book on the subject, co-authored with Piet Westra.
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