The British H.M. Troopship Birkenhead was the crowning glory of her generation. The first iron-hulled vessel of war, she was believed to be unusually resilient and seaworthy. On the night of February 26, 1852, she was sailing for the coast of South Africa with about 638 men, women, and children aboard, including a large contingent of military reinforcements for the troops engaged in the Kaffir Wars. At about 2:00 a.m., the vessel struck a ledge off Cape Danger. Twenty minutes later, she was submerged.
Before she sank, an important decision was made. The men would sacrifice their lives for the women and children. They would willingly die rather than even possibly capsize the overloaded boats on which the women and children sought refuge.
Over the next few hours, wives and children watched as their loved ones drowned or were consumed by man-eating sharks engaged in a wild feeding frenzy. The heroism of these men not only established the maritime principle of "women and children first," but served to inspire generations of men and women to stand by the ancient Christian principles of heroic manhood.