White Monday disaster 1974


13 episodes in the life of a man and his borrowed horse from the history of the Cape in 1773 based on the eye-witness report of Charles Peter Thunberg


‘Charles Peter Thunberg, professor of botany at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, reported of his visit to the Cape of Good Hope in 1773:

“On the 1st of June, being Whit-Monday, there arose a very high north-west wind, with violent hurricanes and showers of rain; at night in this storm the JONGE THOMAS, one of the four ships belonging to the company, that were still in the road, having lost all its anchors, one after the other, was driven on the sands near the shore, at Zout rivier, and, in consequence of its heavy lading, split into two pieces in the middle. The surge rose to an amazing height on the shores towards this side, and Zout rivier was so swollen that it was impassable. It is true, from the middle of May to the middle of August the company’s ships are prohibited from lying in the road, yet it sometimes happens that the governor permits it in order to avoid the inconvenience of victualling and lading the ships in False bay. Independently of the loss sustained by the company, as well in ships as merchandise, there perished also unfortunately on this occasion, a number of the crew who, for want of assistance, were lost, and met with a deplorable death very near the land. Only 63 men escaped, 149 being unhappily drowned.

The ship had scarcely struck, which happened just at daybreak, when the most efficacious expedients were used to save as much as possible of the company’s property that might chance to be thrown ashore, though I could not perceive that the least care was taken to deliver a single soul of the crew from their forlorn and miserable situation. Thirty men were instantly ordered out, with a stripling of a lieutenant, from the citadel to the place where the ship lay, in order to keep a strict look-out, and prevent any of the company’s effects from being stolen; and a gibbet was erected, and at the same time an edict issued, importing that whoever should come near that spot, should be hanged immediately, without trial or sentence of judgment being passed upon him. This was the cause that the compassionate inhabitants, who had gone out on horseback to afford the wretched sufferers assistance, were obliged to turn back without being able to do them the least service; but on the contrary were, together with me, ocular witnesses of the brutality and want of feeling shown by certain persons on this occasion, who did not bestow a thought on affording their fellow creatures, that sat on the wreck perishing with cold, hunger, and thirst, and were almost in the arms of death, the least assistance or relief.

“Another circumstance contributed to render this otherwise distressing scene still more afflicting. Among the few, who were lucky enough to be able to save their lives by swimming from the wreck, was the gunner, a man with whom I was acquainted, and met with several times afterwards in the town: he had stript himself quite naked, in order that he might swim the easier, and had the good luck to come alive to shore, which was not the case with every one that could swim; for many were either dashed to pieces against the rocks, or else by the violence of the surf carried back again to sea. When he arrived on shore, he found his chest landed before him; but just us he was going to open it, and take out his great coat, the lieutenant who commanded the party drove him away from it: and though he earnestly begged for leave to take out the clothes necessary for covering his naked and shivering body, and could also prove by the key, fastened according to the sailor’s custom to his girdle, as well as by his name cut out on the lid of the chest, that it was actually his property, he was, nevertheless, forced to retreat without effecting his purpose, by this unmerciful hero, who gave him several smart blows with a cane on his back. After he had passed the whole day naked and hungry. and exposed to the cold winds, and was going to be taken in the evening to town along with the others who had been saved from the wreck, he again asked leave to take a coat out of his chest to cover himself with; but this having been previously plundered, he found empty. On entering the town, where he arrived stark naked, he met a burgher, who took compassion on him, and lent him his great coat. Afterwards he, as well as the other unfortunate wretches, was forced to run about the town for several days together, begging for victuals, clothes, and money, till at length they were supported at the company’s expense, and taken back again into its service.

“Another action that does greater honour to humanity, deserves the more to be recorded, as it shows that at all times, and in all places, there are both good and considerate people, as well as such as have nothing human but the shape. An old man, of the name of WOLTEMAD, by birth an European, who was at this time the keeper of the beasts in the menagerie near the garden, had a son in the citadel, who was a corporal, and among the first who had been ordered out to Paarden Eiland (Horse Island) where a guard was to be set for the preservation of the wrecked goods. This worthy veteran borrowed a horse, and rode out in the morning with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread for his son’s breakfast. This hoary sire had no sooner delivered to his son the refreshments he had brought him, and heard the lamentation of the distressed crew from the wreck, than he resolved to ride his horse, which was a good swimmer, to the wreck with a view of saving some of them. He repented this dangerous trip six times more, bringing each time two men alive on shore, and thus saved in all fourteen persons. The horse was by this time so much fatigued. that he did not think it prudent to venture out again; but the cries and entreaties of the poor wretches on the wreck increasing, he ventured to take one trip more, which proved so unfortunate, that he Iost his life, as on this occasion too many from the wreck rushed upon him at once, some of them catching hold of the horse’s tail, and others the bridle, by which means the horse, both wearied out and now too heavy laden, turned head over heels, and all were drowned together. This noble and heroic action of a superannuated old man, sufficiently shows that a great many lives might probably have been saved, if a strong rope had been fastened by one end to the wreck, and by the other to the shore. Along this rope, either a basket or a large copper vessel might have been hauled to and from the ship, with a man in it each time. When the storm and waves had subsided, the ship was found to lie at so small a distance from the land that one might have almost leaped from it on shore.

“The vigorous measures taken to preserve the company’s effects and merchandise were not, however, so efficacious as to prevent certain persons in office from enriching themselves considerably on this occasion. For when whole horse-loads of iron from the wreck could be sold to the smiths in town, it is easy to conceive that their consciences would not stand greatly in their way, if they could lay their hands upon portable and valuable commodities. The soldiers also were so careful, when on guard, that nothing should be pillaged from the wreck, that they themselves every night, when relieved, marched into town with their musket-barrels stuffed full of solid gold lace, which though somewhat damaged by the salt water, answered very well when thrown into the melting pot.”

Professor Thunberg continued: “Though the hardest hearts frequently are softened by the uncommonly severe misfortunes and distresses of their fellow creatures, and though great and noble actions have at all times been able to excite the gratitude and benevolence of the fellow-citizens of the perpetrator; yet (I am sorry to say it) I have it not in my power to conclude this melancholy picture with some delightful trait of generous compassion on the part of the governor towards the poor sufferers; and especially towards the drowned hero, or of some noble remuneration of his son. For when, shortly after, this young man solicited for the employment of his deceased father, which was a post of such small importance, that it could neither be considered a recompense, nor could it be envied him by any one, it was refused him, and given to another.

‚ÄúThis unfeeling bon vivant of a governor, rich in money, but poor in spirit, permitted him, nevertheless, afterwards to do what others consider as a punishment, viz. to go to Batavia, where he hoped to find kinder patrons and a wider field for making his fortune in. And here he would doubtless have attained his desires, had he lived longer; but in the very unwholesome climate whither he was now gone to seek his only brother, a merchant, he died, before an order arrived from the directors of the company in Holland (which did as much credit to them, as it ought to have accumulated shame upon the officers at the Cape) viz. that the sons of WOLTEMAD, for the sake of their father, should be rewarded and promoted in every way that could possibly be done. On this and similar occasions, I have observed how much an enlightened mind and a generous heart are to be prized above the gifts of fortune, above riches and honours; and how infinitely these latter are exalted by the former, if they are united with them, in which case they command every one’s esteem.

“I now also perceived the reason why the Europeans, both sailors and soldiers, are in many respects treated worse and with less compassion than the very slaves themselves. With respect to the latter, the owner not only takes care that they are clothed and fed, but likewise, when they are sick, that they are well nursed and have proper medical attendance. The former go as they can, viz. naked, or dressed in tattered clothes, which, perhaps, after all, do not fit them; and when one of them dies, it is a common saying, that the company gets another for nine guilders.

“The violent hurricanes from the north-west have more than once occasioned shipwreck in these roads. In 1692, three vessels, one English and two Dutch, were driven on shore and lost. From the same cause, thirty years ago, in the month of May, seven of the company’s ships were said to have been wrecked and lost.

“On the 31st of July a slave was executed, who had murdered his master. The delinquent being laid on a cross and tied fast to it, first his arms and legs were burned in eight different parts with jagged tongs, made red hot, afterwards his arms and legs were broken on the wheel, and lastly, his head was cut off and fixed on a pole. The judge that tries and condemns the criminal is always present, and walks in procession to the place of execution, in order to give solemnity to the ceremony. The soldiers form a circle. The place of execution is between the town and the citadel. on a small eminence.

“On the 8th of August, a slave was hanged for some great crime.

“After malefactors have suffered at the place of execution. within the town, they are always brought out in the evenings to the gallows without the town, where they are either hanged, and that generally in irons, in which manner the skeleton may be preserved for a long time, or else drawn and quartered. There are two gallows out of town, one at the entrance to the harbour, under the Leeuwe-staart (Lion’s tail) on which Europeans are hanged, and the other beyond the citadel, near Zout rivier, on which slaves and Hottentots are executed.”‘