It came out of the fog.
An old ghostly Bataavian man-o-war, glowing crimson, its tattered black sails full even though the sea was silent for miles. Gunports open wide along the broadside, cannons primed and ready to fire. And not a soul of crew on board.
The look-out was the first to cry the words everyone knew and dreaded in these seas, south of the Cape: ‘The Flying Bataavian! Straight ahead!’
The sailors, always prone to superstition, fell into disarray. The captain and the officers tried to stem the chaos, but it was too late. Panic spread like wildfire. The helmsman, deaf to orders, turned the Birkenhead to the starboard, trying to evade the wraith of a ship coming towards them.
A terrible sound of iron plating and wooden hull cracking, splintering and tearing came from the bottom of the Birkenhead as it struck an unseen reef. The frigate shook and stalled. ‘Astern! Astern!’ cried the captain, and the crew obliged – backwards seemed the only way to go. The ghostly Bataavian was now almost upon them. The paddle-wheels turned with effort and the frigate started sliding off the rock. That was a deadly mistake. Sea rushed into the hole, the plates buckled, the bulkheads ripped open. Whoever was still under the deck, drowned in an instant. The flooded engines hissed and stopped. The Birkenhead began to break in two.
‘Drop the anchor!’ the captain cried, ‘lower the quarter boats! Women and children first!’
The thick oaken door of his cabin muffled the sounds of alarm whistles and bugles. With no sense of urgency an old Bataavian physician was finishing packing his meagre belongings into a black leather bag.
‘Master von Siebold,’ the cabin boy pleaded, glancing anxiously at the porthole. He could see nothing through it but raging seawater.
‘You go, boy, if you are in such a hurry,’ the old man said, nodding, ‘I have witnessed my share of sinkings. It will be hours before the entire ship submerges.’
He hesitated for a moment, picking up a small black lacquer figurine of a dragon. ‘My dear Ine,’ he smiled to himself sadly, ‘I wonder if you found a husband yet?’
The cabin boy could take it no longer and dashed for the door. At the same time, it burst open. Several soldiers grabbed the physician by his black coat, dragging him out onto the deck, their eyes mad with fear and anger. ‘It’s all your fault, Bataavian! Look, your people are coming to get you!’ they cried and hissed, pointing towards the ghostly ship. They pulled the old man, still clutching desperately to his black leather bag, over to the side of the quickly sinking frigate, ready to throw him overboard to pacify the angry spirits of the sea.
‘Seventy Fourth! Halt! Are you men or beasts? Stand to attention when an officer speaks!’
A voice demanding immediate respect barked out behind them. The soldiers turned around and stood rigid at once, as they faced their regimental commander in full Highland dress, impeccably neat and absurdly out of place in the middle of the southern ocean.
‘Release this poor man and go on the poop deck. That’s the Captain’s orders. I will deal with that insubordination later.’
The chaos on board was by now mostly under control. The discipline and sense of duty prevailed at last over fear and superstition.
‘Doctor,’ the commander said, reaching out his hand, ‘if you could please go to the boats. I believe there is still place.’
‘Thank you, Colonel Seton, but I’m sure there are younger and more useful men among your crew who would benefit from saving. I am old, and all my family is lost.’