In December of 1851, the Birkenhead sailed from Cork in Ireland, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond. She left Simon's Town on the morning of the 25th February, after loading 350 tons of coal and provisions. She had 638 people on board, including 20 women and children, 138 ship's officers and crew as well as 480 army officers and drafted men to aid Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith in the Eighth Frontier War being waged at the Cape (East London).
At about 02h00 on the 26th February, she struck a submerged rock off Danger Point and in an instant the lower deck flooded, drowning many men in their bunks. All the surviving men, officers, women and children went up on deck. Lieutenant -Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot Regiment took charge of all the military personnel. The men were commanded to stand drawn up in line and to await orders and 60 men were sent to man the pumps.