This remarkable story came from a thread on the Anglo Boer War forum discussing deaths at sea. The story is from Captain JC Robinson, master of the troopship Kildonan Castle, whose articles have been published in To the Sea in Ships, Royd Press 2013.
Captain Robinson describes how an unnamed soldier who died while the ship was anchored in Table Bay. The descision was taken to bury him at sea rather rather onshore. Using the The Register, I have identified the most likely soldier as Pte 4020 J Taylor 4th bn West Yorkshire Rgt. His entry in Deaths At Sea on FindmyPast shows he died at 6:30am in Cape Town from the effects of pneumonia. There is no latitude and longitude recorded which is normal for deaths truly occuring "at sea".
"I was in the Kildonan Castle, H.M. Transport No. 44. We arrived in Table Bay one morning about six o’clock, with 2600 troops on board, the weather being very hazy, and the Bay crowded with vessels of all descriptions. I counted 70 myself, but there were more. We anchored off Moulle Point and signalled our arrival. One poor fellow, a soldier, died after we brought up — the only one we lost during the voyage.
The Port boat came off after breakfast, blowing his fog-horn, because it was getting very thick. Having received pratique, I reported the death, and requested that arrangements should at once be made to land the body for burial. This was agreed to as necessary, and the launch returned to attend to the business.
By the time he reached the dock the fog had closed down dense and white as milk, so that we could not see our own funnels 50 ft. away. The chorus of ship’s bells near and far in the calm, fog-bound bay was quite remarkable, and continued for three days and three nights without intermission!
We waited patiently for the return of the launch, keeping our ears open for any indication, but all in vain.
The third morning the surgeon and commanding officer came to me and asked what was to be done? After anxious consultation it was decided that we must bury at sea.
It goes without saying that I dare not move the ship, so the “office” must be performed by means of a lifeboat.
Let it be understood, first of all, that no “committal” must take place inside of 15 fathoms, and we were anchored in 8. A chart of the bay and approaches was laid out, and a position marked upon it with a cross upon it for the “launch.” The course from ship to the cross was laid off, and the distance measured. The lifeboat was fitted with a compass, and a patent log, as well as the chart, and a lead line. A special signal by foghorn was fixed upon, which was to be sounded every half minute exactly from the start until the return of the party. The second officer and boat’s crew who were to go, accompanied by t wo military officers, were put through a rehearsal of the programme.
The body was duly placed in the boat, and the funeral service was conducted on board immediately above; and as the firing party and the buglers made their “salute,” and sounded the “Last Post” on the forecastle head, the ambassadors of death departed on their mournful mission.
They were immediately lost to sight; even alongside the ship they had been but dimly visible from the deck, but the regular splash of the oars continued audible for a long time in the breathless calm that prevailed, and gradually died away into silence.
Our prearranged signal was religiously observed, and a tense and dramatic quietness pervaded the whole ship during the interval of sound.
I confess that I was extremely anxious myself. The conditions were so unprecedented. I knew that every human precaution had been taken, and that we had only done what was right and necessary; but the minutes dragged along with leaden measure — five, ten, twenty, forty! Hearts were thumping painfully; every ear was strained to the uttermost. A solitary boat, with nine men and a corpse, shut out from all audible or visible connection with a living world, upon a formless waste of secret waters! The mind conjured up all kinds of horrible possibilities.
Whispers here and there - listen - I think - I think - I’m sure - hush - it’s fancy - no - don’t you hear? I do - Yes! - and at last! After forty-five long-drawn minutes we did faintly hear that welcome rhythm as it gradually became audible to all — and a spontaneous cheer went up from 2000 throats that must have encouraged the still invisible members of that devoted band to a realisation of safety and renewed effort.
What a great relief it was to us all when we received them safely on board!
On questioning the second officer (whose name I cannot recall, I am sorry to say, though himself I remember perfectly) it would appear that we were not alone in conjuring up weird fancies. When they had reverently committed the body to its watery grave, it seemed for a moment to stand up in the fog and look at them; and though they pulled away manfully,-the impression remained that they were glued to the spot unable to get clear of the dread vision, until they picked up the sound of our special signal, and heard the cheers of the soldiers on board.
“Pray never send me away on such a duty again,” he added; “I would almost rather Ire buried myself!”