John Dunn: Part 2 – The Journey by Sea

Now faded in the mists of time, the Bondelswarts Rebellion of 1922 is a mere footnote to the history of Southern Africa. In the early years of the 20th century, the whole of the area was in tumult. South West Africa was captured by the South Africans from the German colonisers in 1915. With South West Africa now controlled by South Africa in terms of a League of Nations mandate, the khoikhoi peoples of southern SWA were also restive.

This series of blogs covers the first-hand account of a South African Police Force officer, John Dunn, who was involved in the suppression of a rebellion by the Bondelswarts people in southern SWA.

In Part 2 of the series, John Dunn provides his personal reminiscences of a fraught sea voyage in the SS Hypatia from Cape Town to Port Nolloth in hurricane force winds which almost resulted in the loss of the ship itself.

 Main picture: John Dunn in later years

Within a few hours of our arrival in Cape Town, we embarked on the SS Hypatia – a Houston Line cargo steamer of 3000 tons – which had been commandeered, it being the only ship available at the time. Temporary stalls for horses and mules had been hastily erected fore and aft along both sides of the ship. Details with their kit, sundry motor transport and a heap of miscellaneous equipment were piled aboard in utter confusion until the deck and hold resembled a jumble-sale. The ship sailed almost within 36 hours of being commandeered – probably a record for the embarkation of mounted men. But the hasty action taken, as was disclosed later, did not seem wisely inspired or directed. 

We read very little in the official report about the terrible time endured by the men, the majority of whom had never seen the sea before or had ever been on it. The stench in the rat-infested hold in which perforce they had to take shelter or freeze, would at any time have been sufficient to make the strongest stomachs rebel, and with Hypatia snorting through mountainous seas, and the gale whistling through the rigging like an Aeolian harp, the rest can be better imagined than described. 

Horses in wooden stalls on the ship’s deck

As an instance of the conditions in the hold, there was no provision made for anyone to sleep. Descending a few steps down the companion way, I peered into the dank cavernous depths. All was dark, bleak and as cold as the quay outside. What was discernible of the steel floor appeared to be covered with a salty slime. Descending, a stench of decaying matter and bilge water nearly chocked me. I hastily retreated to a more refreshing atmosphere on deck and settled down. At 2am, a torrential downpour made me again face the squalor of the hold. Placing my bedding on the most likely looking spot of the foul steel floor, I looked around in disgust. The hold stank of the previous cargoes which had been stowed throughout the ages and seldom, if ever, been cleaned. In addition to filth and refuse, there was abundant evidence, in patches and splashes, of men having too good a time in Cape Town before going abroad 

I noticed two poker “schools” wallowing in muck and grime. The players were seated on kitbags with a service blanket spread before them for a table, evidently enjoying life. The more that I surveyed the position, the more loathsome it became. It was nauseating.

Loading horses onto a ship

It was still raining heavily, and the only alternative to being poisoned in the hold was to be drowned on deck. I decided to try slow poisoning and reluctantly made my bed. Then about to turn in, I saw a large, empty salmon tin – obviously the remains of a sumptuous repast of one of the card players – moving slowly across the floor in my direction. The ship being in dock and almost still, its apparent unaided movement was puzzling. As the mystery can got nearer and nearer something long, thin and tapering, was just discernible protruding from one end. To satisfy my curiosity, I threw an empty cigarette packet in its direction, and hit it. The result was that it moved quicker, but I could still detect nothing likely to cause its weird movement. Having partaken of nothing stringer than coffee ashore, it was definitely not a case of wanting more water with it. I stepped towards it and gave it a kick. It seemed too heavy for an empty tin. I kicked it again and this time, a large brown rat fell to the floor, using my foot as a spring board. Apparently, having squeezed into the tin, the rodent was unable to extricate itself. I consoled myself with the thought that maybe it was the only rat on the ship, or was it? I made another attempt to get down to it but when removing my shoe, I glanced casually towards a large pile of old beams stacked loosely against the ship’s side. Through the gloom, I saw that the hold was literally alive with rats. They were literally scampering in and out of the timber by the score. One of the poker players whose luck must have been out, was giving vent to his feelings by throwing empty beer bottles at the big brown devils as they passed. This was the last straw. I’d had it. I considered it was more decent to be drowned than eaten alive by brown skinned monsters and made my way to the deck, crestfallen and fed up. The rain had lessened somewhat, but it was still blowing hard, and for the third time, the first night aboard, I made down my bed.

Hypatia

 

It was cold, wet and wretched and I was beginning to think that the day when there was any romance and glory in leaving the comforts of one’s home to wander in far-off places must have died long before I left my perambulator. The cold of the night and sombre surroundings, however, failed to withhold sweet oblivion. Dreaming I was naked and sinking down – down – in a sea swarming with multi-coloured rodents adorned with long, green whiskers and red eye sockets. As fast as I tore one from my body, two returned to the attack, making for my throat at lightning speed.  Their feet – long and evil looking – whiskers trailed far behind their repulsive bodies in stream-lined formation, leaving a weird phosphorescent glow in their wake. Every monster grinned through red-lit, fiery eyes as it approached. I was slowly drowning, and with every nip of my throat with their pincer-like teeth, I felt my strength slowly failing me. I wriggled, tossed and turned like one possessed, in an effort to detach the beasts from gnawing my flesh. Like the cutworm that has been unearthed by an irate gardener and thrown onto the pathway to be trapped by ants, I was being slowly, but surely, bitten to death prior to being dragged away to their holes to be devoured. I half awoke from the nightmare in a bath of sweat.

Rain water from the tarpaulin covered hatch was trickling over me. I was drenched and could scarcely breathe. Subconsciously I began to struggle with something that had a hold in my throat and was strangling me. Eventually I got a grip on something slippery, hard and wet. The “terror” was a waterproof kitbag that had blown from a pile of kit on the hatch. It was still raining heavily. My blankets were sodden and weighed a ton as I liked on a midnight flit in search of the saloon.

I found parking place among other officers of the Squadron on the oak floor. After the atmosphere of the rat-infested hole, and discomfort of the open deck, the absence of a feather mattress didn’t mean a thing. 

The SS Hypatia at sea

Kit and equipment, comprising anything from a bayonetted rifle to a cabin trunk, was piled in confusion against the ship’s piano or a bookcase, or else stacked loosely against the saloon panelling. This didn’t look so good. Hearing the wind howling, I had visions of something happening as soon as we put to sea.

We left the docks in the early hours for Port Nolloth. It was a terribly cool morning, still raining heavily and blowing a half N.E. gale. Since the coast in these parts has been appropriately named the “Cape of Storms”, and that we had left in the teeth of a half gale at which the mail boat would probably have declined to face, it does not require a very vivid imagination to appreciate what happened to us poor mortals when Hypatia cleared the shelter of Robben Island.

SS Hypatia being towed out to sea

With every roll or lurch – and it was incessant – those on the floor of the saloon were deluged with a miscellaneous assortment of arms, baggage and wireless equipment. It called for a spot of applause if one could successfully divert a roving machine gun to somebody’s bed as it went by. With timber creaking, the noise outside of shipped water crashing from side to side, together with the ship’s library shooting across the saloon, it was pandemonium. We unanimously decided that it was time to “show a leg.” 

Throughout the day, the ship rolled alarmingly in the trough of huge seas. Towards evening, the sun peeped out for a few moments through racing storm clouds and a fantasy of coastal hills running down to the sea, took shape along the horizon, but quickly faded away. Along that storm-ridden coast even the momentary glimpse of nearby land was comforting. 

Horse stalls and hay bails on deck

With the darkness, the wind increased in violence from gale to almost hurricane force. We sorted ourselves out on the saloon floor, but sleep was out of the question. Indeed, the antics of Hypatia were, at times, really frightening. In the early hours of the next morning, we shipped two terrific seas, one after the other, and the ship staggered alarmingly. The temporary stall forward on the port side were demolished. It was a case of all hands on deck. A hazardous time was spent collecting maddened, halterless horses with decks occasionally awash to the knees. With every roll of the ship, a horse or mule went into the scuppers, or became entangled with steam pipes or winch machinery. The second mountainous sea stove in the ship’s rails on the starboard side and demolished a large portion of the flimsy stabling. With a section of the ship’s railing washed away, the rescue of the loose animals was dangerous. Notwithstanding that the engines had been slowed down, and the head of the ship kept into the seas. It is amazing that so many animals escaped without broken fetlocks or that nobody helping was swept overboard.

My contribution to the serio-comic drama in the saloon was to stop the clock. It was a massive affair and its place was on the piano. During a bad lurch, it jumped its fixtures, pitched onto a tin trunk and rebounded onto my neck, striking my chin. I nearly took the count. The troops narrowly missed witnessing a burial at sea. 

The grand finale came when we thought that the ship would never recover from an extra special roll. Over Hypatia went, almost on her beam end, and remained in that position far too long to be pleasant. While at this terrifying angle, the piano broke loose from its moorings and crashed through the panelling of the doctor’s state room. Some of us had a narrow escape. There were others whose looks indicated that they were sorry that the piano had missed them.

Dutch map of Robben island from 1731 

Yes, the Squadron had a jolly old time on the good ship Hypatia. Simultaneously with the piano running amok in the saloon, a water cart and few drums of aviation fuel, lashed forward on deck, broke away. One of the drums crashed into the temporary stalls, doing further damage and causing a miniature stampede among the animals.  Towards early morning, the hurricane abated somewhat and the seas died down, leaving little more than a very heavy ground swell and a memory. 

It was the fourth day of the voyage that usually takes about 13 hours. It was also the first time that anybody could move about the ship without risking serious injury. It was interesting to note as the day wore on that one or two of the first-time-at-sea comrades had sprung to life, although not looking so good. After such a demoralising time, my heart went out in sympathy to those seasick and inert huddled in that terrible Black Hole of Hypatia. 

We were awakened in the early hours of the following morning by the sounding every few minutes of the ship’s powerful siren. Trouble was still with us. We had sailed into a dense fog. The ship was slowed down to about 4 knots, but by tiffin, a slight breeze dispersed the fog and the sun shone from a cloudless sky of sapphire blue. It was a joy to be alive.

Early that afternoon, we rolled with the swell to a point three miles off Port Nolloth and anchored. In delightful sunny weather, I climbed to the foc’s’cle head to breath fresh air that did not convey the impression of being permeated with unpleasantries. The majority of the squadron showed traces of their recent gruelling. Many of the men seemed lost, almost scared, as they staggered around looking forlornly across the swell to firm land. 

Jetty at Port Nolloth with the copper ore building up ready for loading

Maybe the miserable discomfort was all part of the show, but the officers had little to grumble about. For the rest – hopelessly ill, wet, cold and battered – the painful few days of their maiden voyage at sea must have been a horror that they will never forget. 

The ship’s officers were really wonderful under such appalling conditions. They cheerfully went out of their way to do everything possible for your comfort, nothing was too much trouble for them at any time, day or night. The kindness shown by the officers and the food served in the saloon, which incidentally was exceptionally good, were the only redeeming features of a memorable voyage. I will draw a veil over grub-time in the “rat pit.” One or two details managed to roll up at the galley with dixies and I watched them served with an evil-looking rich stew, but there were very few in need of anything in that line. Indeed, one was courting trouble to even mention eats. 

Port Nolloth’s new jetty which caters for small boats and ships

I have travelled extensively but have never before seen such a deplorable state of affairs. There was a grave blunder on somebody’s part in allowing a ship to put to sea in such atrocious weather without adequate accommodation for man or beast. Anything could have happened during that hurricane, and larger ships than the Hypatia have been known to flounder off the treacherous Cape coast. Being a cargo steamer, it can be presume that the Hypatia only had sufficient lifeboats for the ship’s personnel. Had the ship turned turtle – and many times it seemed that it must – the majority of us would have had no hope of salvation than the rodents in the hold. 

The landing of our squadron with their horses was effected by means of lighters, the unloading being carried out by Hottentot stevedores. Naval ratings and wireless details were first away, followed by the horses and the mules. Considering that the animals were slung in belly cradles, probably for the first time, they were a well-behaved lot. It was amusing to watch an occasional mid-air four-footed, two-step or tap-dance, as the animals pawed the air, feeling for terra firma. All were disembarked without a hitch. 

There was one incident when I went over. The man at the steam winch must have misunderstood a signal. While being lowered, the ship gave a bad roll, the cage catching on the narrow ledge jutting out from the ship’s side. The operational seaman signalled to stop lowering. The driver stopped and the cage finished up in a horizontal position, nearly pitching me into the awaiting lighter. When it slipped off the ledge on the return roll, it fell the length of the rope and I received a bad shaking. By then the cage was not far from the lighter and was met as it rose on the swell. Down it went again as the swell receded leaving me swinging breathlessly in mid-air. This happened twice while the operator and driver argued as to who was at fault. When the cage was brought under control, I received a worse jar. My arrival was hailed with roars of laughter. After the episode of the clock and the piano, I was destined apparently, to get ashore intact. 

It was not the least exciting of my experiences to be in a crowded, heavily laden barge with a tug chugging its way towards a narrow channel of comparatively calm water, while on either side immense seas were breaking with a tremendous roar on the reef. Cruel black rocks were visible, protruding from the seething cauldron. The deep toll from a large bell-buoy added to the grimness of the situation. 

One could not help admiring the skill of the skipper of the tug as he dexterously steered his small craft and tiny lighters through raging serf into quieter waters. One false move of the wheel during those tense moments crossing the bar and both tug and lighters would have piled up on the reef and been pounded to pieces. 

Within 24 hours, disembarkation was completed and the ship had been relieved of its human freight. We were on shore at last and in the twilight we watched, with mixed emotions, the lights of Hypatia fading in the distance bound for the Americas, to become nothing more to use than a memory.

John Dunn aboard the Hypatia en route to Port Nolloth marked with a blue cross

Report in the Cape Times

The sub-joined semi-official statement which appeared in the Cape Times gives one a good idea as to the weather encountered by the Hypatia:

  • The passage, even within the experience of constantly seafaring men, was exceptionally rough, both on men and animals, and I cannot speak in too high terms of praise of Captain Ashley’s wonderfully efficient conduct of the situation. Without hesitation, I can confidentially express the opinion that, had it not been for his magnificent seamanship, and the superb manner in which under the most trying circumstances, he handled his vessel, we would in all human probability have lost every animal on board.
  • We experienced extremely heavy seas and weather shortly after leaving the shelter of the docks, and these continued and greatly increased in violence during the course of the day, causing the ship to roll incessantly with great discomfort to the animals on board.
  • Early the following day we shipped two heavy seas, which broke over the bows and the forward part of the ship, and in the space of a second, a portion of the temporary stabling on the port bow was demolished. The horses were thrown in a mingled heap on the steel deck amongst the winches and the derrick machinery.
  • With the assistance of Captain Ashley and his officers, and Lieut. Scott-Napier, F.N. and his naval rating, we rapidly extricated the horses, which fortunately had only sustained minor injuries and nothing of a serious nature.
  • The situation at the time was extremely grave, and both animals and rescuers were threatened every moment with being thrown through the broken ship’s rails into the sea. Almost simultaneously the stabling on the starboard bows began to give way under the weight of heavy seas and the spray pouring over the deck, and hurriedly had to be staged up with the ship’s hawsers.
  • Nineteen of the horses were placed in the starboard alley, and the ship’s carpenter with his assistants, under Captain Ashley’s guidance hurriedly rigged up from the woodwork demolished from the bows. The weather and seas subsequently increased in violence, the wind blowing a perfect hurricane, and during the whole of the afternoon, the ship managed to labour through only 14 knots.
  • At midnight one of the water carts and several large drums of aviation petrol lashed on the forward deck, became unshipped. One of the drums crashed among the horses almost causing a panic. Fortunately the mishap was immediately noticed, and the cart and drums secured and relashed. Captain Ashley gave orders for the engines to be slowed down, and merely kept the ship’s head in the seas, which lessened the dangerous motion, and abated the violent motion of the seas over the bows. Towards the early part of the morning, the wind and seas died down to a certain extent, although there was a very heavy ground swell.
  • The horses were in a wretched condition, while the majority of the men were no better off – positively helpless for all utility purposes.
  • During the following morning the ship ran into a dense fog. But about 11am, it disappeared and at about 2:30pm we cast anchor off Port Nolloth three miles from the shore. Despite the exceptionally heavy ground swell, the horses and mules were disembarked into lighters without a hitch or the slightest injury.

Sources

Typed manuscript by John Dunn

Contemporary report from the Cape Times

 


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