Tales about (model) ships

May 19, 2014 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

By Roon Lewald

For the benefit of non-South Africans who don’t know the time-hallowed Cape Coloured ditty that celebrates the visit of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama to Cape Town in 1863, here are the words in Afrikaans: 

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

Nooi, nooi, die rietkooi nooi,

Die rietkooi is gemaak

Die rietkooi is vir my gemaak

Om daarop te slaap!”


Which translates as:



“There comes the Alibama (with an “i”),

The Alibama comes over the sea!

Girl, girl, my reed-cot girl,

The reedcot’s made for me

For to sleep upon!”


It was while building a model of the historic ship that I researched the background of that plucky little steam vessel and the Cape ditty she inspired. Under Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama was the bane of Yankee commercial skippers, boarding close to 450 vessels and capturing or burning 65 Union ships. Semmes took 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life and treated his captives with great chivalry. So he and his men were already a legend when they docked in Table Bay. 

They gave a party on board and were feted by Cape Town society ashore. The population, and the Coloured dockers in particular, were so impressed that they composed the ditty quoted above. It is sung to this day, perhaps in hopes of seeing Alabama in the harbour again one day. Alas, the Alabama was sunk by USS Kearsarge in a historic gun duel in the English Channel the very next year. So angry that he broke and cast his sabre overboard rather than present it to the victor as honour demanded, Semmes was rescued by the British  yacht Deerhound, but most of his crew were captured.

But what was the “reed-cot” of the song all about, I always wondered? Well, it seems that word-of-mouth tradition somehow merged CSS Alabama with a coastal merchant sloop named Alibama (with an “i”) in her honour. Alabama’s misspelled successor would regularly sail up the eastern Cape coast from Table Bay to a reedy inlet to harvest a shipload for sale in Cape Town, where it was eagerly bought by the Cape Coloureds as cheap bedding material. Custom in that community dictated that, if you planned to marry, you first had to build a reed-cot as a wedding bed for your bride. Which suggests that the reed-cot was made for two, not just one to “sleep upon”! 

No drawings of the Cape sloop survive, but copious plans, sketches and paintings of the British-built CSS Alabama have helped hundreds of model-builders to replicate her in miniature. My model isn’t finished yet, so here’s a picture of Alabama entering Table Bay.

Another model wihereby a tale hangs is a little Venetian gondola I built as a gift for Enzo Ghirardi, the friendly proprietor of Café Venezia, the ice-cream parlour where I order a tartufo every year on the first sunny day of spring and sit there al fresco to celebrate the riot of greenery and flowering shrubs that transforms my otherwise humdrum street after the long, gloomy days of winter. Enjoying this year’s tartufo in bright sunshine the other day, I had a brainwave. “Enzo,” I said, “I’m a pensioner with nothing better to do than build models – so many of them there’s hardly any room left in my flat. So would you like a model of a gondola to display as a reminder of Venice?”

Enzo was delighted and offered to advertise my model-building skills among his customers. I finished the model the other day after some more online research and gave it to him , along with a stack of cards informing his customers that I have models of historic ships, aircraft and suchlike things to sell, or to build according to the buyer’s specifications. So now I’m awaiting callers who will help me to indulge my hobby without cluttering up my flat. Which of you is interested? Meanwhile, ecco – la gondola!  






Entry filed under: van pletzen.

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