There comes the Alabama

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Kearsarge attacking Allabama

Every New Year the streets of Cape Town ring with this song, sung by the choirs of “Cape Minstrels”.

Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see,
Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see…

What is ALABAMA ? What originated the song?

The answer is a fascinating  story with an American, a South African and a Portuguese connection…

The song “Alabama” which is part of the Cape Town folklore for more than one hundred and fifty years is in  remembrance of the visits the city of the  Steam Ship Alabama  during the American Civil War between the South (the Conferderates) and North (the Yankees).

Alabama was built in secrecy by British shipbuilders in north west England for the American Confederate Navy to act as a privateer vessel against Yankee merchant navy .

There comes the Alabama

Under a disguise name of Erica the Alabama secretly slipped out of Liverpool on 29 July 1862 and sailed to Terceira Island in the Azores, the Portuguese connection to the story…

It was in the Portuguese Azores Terceira Island that the Alabama met two other southern  supply vessels, carrying armaments and navy ordinance guns and where with the assistance of the crews , was transformed into a battle ship for the Confederate States of America.

Under Captain Semmes, Alabama sailed southwest of the Azores and started to raid and capture American “Yankee” merchant ships.

During this mission to create havoc amongst the Yankee merchant navy the Alabama visited Cape Town various times for refitting and to get supplies while engaging in her war against northern commerce.

These visits fascinated the imagination of the colony of the Cape due to that Alabama legendary battles and nautical achievements
One of these encounters with enemy ships would take place right in front on the Table Mountain.

The population was alerted by the appearance of two ships gearing for battle and ran to Signal hill and Lions Head to observe one northern American ship being raided in front of their eyes.

Alabama-commemorative-plaque-in-Simonstown

The popularity of Captain Semmes grew as the ladies from Cape Town were bringing aboard flowers every day that he spent in port, while the husbands visited the boat to admire the powerful the pieces of artillery.

After almost two years of expeditionary raids, Alabama had been at sea for 534 days out of 657, never visiting a single Confederate port.

She boarded nearly 450 vessels, captured or burned 65 Yankee merchant ships, and took more than 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life from either prisoners or her own crew.

In early 1864 the Alabama made what it would be the last visit to Table Bay, en route to France for a much-needed refitting and reprovisioning in the port at Cherbourg .

But the Alabama was already being  pursued by the the Yankee warship USS Kearsarge that ,by coincidence,  had also been refitted  in the Portuguese port at the Azores ,with a  steel armor hull and heavier firepower.

Alabama-entering-Table-Bay

On 19 June 1864, Alabama sailed out the French port of Cherbourg to meet the Yankee cruiser.

The battle quickly turned against Alabama due to its outdated armory and the superior gunnery of the Kearsarge.

As Alabama sank and the injured Captain Semmes threw his sword into the sea, depriving Kearsage’s commander of the traditional surrender ceremony.

And that is the origin of the traditional  Cape folklore song “Alabama” ,the Confederate raider that was loved by the Cape Town population and the two ships that prepared for battle in the Portuguese Islands of Azores.

Jay Fernandes
Master’s Degree G. Ph. from the University of Lisbon. Academic and teacher. Television , radio and press reporter / commentator

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