It was dawn on 1 June 1773 and the Jonge Thomas had been straining on its moorings the whole night as a terrible storm in Table Bay grew stronger and stronger. Finally the ship’s crew felt a mighty jolt as she finally broke free and drifted towards the mouth of the Salt River and the mighty breakers pounding the shoreline.
Several other ships had come to grief during the night and soldiers were already on the beach to stop looting. They saw the Jonge Thomas start to break up and saw the passengers and crew falling into the water. The soldiers’ orders were to salvage the cargo, not people, but Wolraad Woltemade was not a soldier, he was a baker (or farmer, depending on which account you read) who had ridden in early that morning to give his soldier son some fresh bread and milk.
Woltemade was dismayed to see desperate people drowning in the freezing, raging water. He couldn’t just stand by and watch and at great risk to his own life, he urged his horse Boetie into the swirling surf to see who he could rescue.
Seven times Boetie and Woltemade plunged through the waves to rescue survivors with Woltemade encouraging his horse by saying, “just one more time, just one more time.” The eighth attempt was one too many, and Boetie didn’t have enough energy to carry the weight of more and more panic-stricken people. Boetie and Woltemade gave their own lives to save fourteen people out of the sixty seven survivors. One hundred and forty others died that day.
Acts of bravery in South Africa are today awarded the Woltemade Cross in honour of this courageous act.