Xplorio Overberg

The Clyde, her Gatling guns and rediscovery

One of the less known yet very significant shipwrecks of the Overberg is the British steam-transport Clyde.

The Clyde left the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, on Saturday, 1 March 1879, with 550 officers and men who were sent out to Natal to fill up the gap in the “unfortunate 24th regiment”.

If you are wondering why the use of the words “unfortunate 24th regiment”?

Britain is known to have, at one stage or another, made war on close to every nation in the world. The year 1879 was no exception, as Britain was at war with the Zulu nation. In January 1879, a large force of British troops was encamped at Isandula, 110km North West of Durban. On the 22nd of January, the main force left the camp in search of a reported nearby Zulu force. While the main British army was away, over 10,000 Zulu impi’s (armed body of men) attacked those that had remained in the camp at Isandula. All were massacred from officers, soldiers and servants to dogs, horses and cattle. On the return of the main force and with first light, they were horrified at the scene of sheer carnage. As one Natal Mounted Policeman narrated, “Never did I think I would be the witness t such a terrible scene of slaughter. I lay in a pool of blood and saw with first light that all the white men’s entrails, noses, ears and other parts of the body had been cut-off and thrust into their poor dead mouths; horses and oxen all lying about stabbed and ripped up”. In short, the 24th regiment had been decimated.

Back to the ship. Built nine years earlier in Glasgow, the Clyde, a screw-barque of 2283 tons with a 240hp engine, built of iron with three decks and five iron bulkheads, a length of 325 feet, breath of 36 feet, and the depth of hold 27 feet, was not only carrying troops but also a large military cargo. Her stores included tons of  ammunition, in which is reckoned some seven pounder shells and a considerable quantity of small-arm cartridges. It was known that she had on board the largest and most valuable cargo of military stores probably ever brought out to South Africa. There were 15 million rounds of Martini-Henry cartridges, with powder, making up about 200 tons. Furthermore, she was carrying a large quantity of Gatling gun ammunition, and it is said that there was also four of these valuable Gatling guns. Later that year a salvage diver saw a Gatling gun but was unable to recover it.

In 1879, the Gatling gun was a relatively new invention.

This state of the art hand driven machine gun consisted of multiple barrels revolving around a central axis and capable of firing at a rapid rate. It is hard to believe that the inventor, Richard Gatling, had actually assumed that the tremendous power of his new weapon would discourage wars and show the folly there off. One thing is for sure, had these weapons of destruction made it to Natal at the time, the others of the 24th regiment would have paid the Zulu’s back big time in bullets. In 1978 two Gansbaai locals and lifelong friends of this author, Wilfred Chivell and Louis Groenewald were keen to find the resting place of the Clyde.

To assist, I did the research. Equipped with the latter, a survey vessel and a Geometrics magnetometer, we went out to the area near Clyde rock and started the search. After fruitlessly trying out all our own theories, we recapped and decided to try again. This time only relying on the historical facts as reported, we got a magnetometer reading on our first sweep. In no time after that, we had the position of the Clyde pinpointed. Due to her lying frightfully close to the shark-infested waters of Dyer’s Island and the mostly lousy visibility in that area, it took a few dives to identify the ship. I distinctly remember landing on the bottom face down. Seconds after landing I looked up to be greeted by a rare and amazing sight. The stern of the Clyde, propeller and all was still standing upright and almost complete, creating the illusion of a ship motoring passed. To this day it is still clearly imprinted in my mind. Astonishing! So it was that the discoverers of the Danish ship Nicobar (1783), Wilfred and Louis, went on to realise their boyhood dream of finding and diving on the Clyde (1879).

Through them, this part of Overberg history is also now provided to all. How cool would it be if one could have a representative sample of the Clyde’s military cargo on display (Gatling gun and all) at the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum and a local museum at Gansbaai? Why not?