The kindness of strangers

We have just come home from a brief stay on the beautiful Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. We chose the seaside town of Edithburgh as a base while we explored the surrounding area, and it was on our first driving adventure that I learned of the story of the SS Clan Ranald shipwreck.

On the 31st January, 1909 with 64 souls (10 officers, 54 crew) on board the Clan Ranald was loaded up with mostly grain and flour and set sail from Semaphore in Adelaide heading to South Africa. For some inexplicable reason later that same day, as they were off the coast of the Peninsula, the vessel started to list dramatically and they were in real trouble.

The ship’s lifeboats were damaged in the rough seas as it tipped and began taking on water. The crew sent up signal rockets which were seen by the passing ship Uganda, but ignored. At 10pm the Clan Ranald sank, taking 40 lives with it, which is the largest maritime disaster in South Australian history. The wreck still sits where it sank, about 700m from shore at a depth of 18m and is a popular, protected dive site.

The map in the top left corner shows the resting place of the Clan Ranald

Fortunately, locals from Edithburgh and surrounding areas saw the distress signals and rushed to the coastline hoping to assist. They lit fires to help guide to shore and then warm any survivors. They brought fresh water, bread, blankets and brandy as well. While 24 made it to shore it soon became apparent that many lives were lost.

Body after body was being recovered and each one was treated with equal loving care by the local community – being washed and prepared for burial, despite not knowing who they were. In fact, there were not enough coffins to cater for all the bodies and so floorboards originally intended for construction of a new house were repurposed.

A picture of the first funeral procession

The Edithburgh locals turned out in force for the funeral for the initial 24 victims they had recovered. Over 100 men walked behind the funeral cortège. A few days later another 12 bodies washed ashore and were also buried, officer with officer, crew with crew. 36 bodies of the 40 lives lost are buried in the cemetery – 5 officers and 31 crew.

The officer’s graves

As per the custom of the day, the officers were buried together in the main part of the Edithburgh cemetery while the crew were buried in a location towards the back of the site. The crew burial site is the largest mass grave in Australia. Over 110 years later I find it difficult to understand the differentiation in the treatment of these lost lives, but am pleased that on the 100th anniversary of this tragedy, the mass grave was given a plaque identifying the names of every crew member buried there.

The mass grave, now with brass nameplate

This story captivated me right from the start as I considered the lengths that this region’s townspeople went to in giving strangers love and care. Edithburgh was a major sea port at the time, so I could understand that they were treating these survivors and victims as they would like to be treated should the situation be reversed.

I wonder what I might have done in this situation? Would I behave like one of the locals? Or be more like the crew of the ship Uganda who sailed on by? Would I be willing to sacrifice time, resources and floorboards to assist people I do not know and would have no way of returning the favour?

The anchor of the SS Clan Ranald

I can’t help but think about the story in the Bible that Jesus shared demonstrating how our actions will be judged. Matthew chapter 25 verses 31 to 46 gives clear instruction that every person we see in need of assistance we should behave as if it were Jesus himself and reach out in some way. Sometimes the assistance is material aid, sometimes it is time and attention, sometimes it is simple acts of kindness and dignity.

I am grateful for the reminder of this important lesson as we journeyed around the beautiful Yorke Peninsula. May I respond to people and situations I encounter with at least as much grace and compassion as the residents from the community of Edithburgh, SA did in 1909.

Be blessed.

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