There will always be skeptics when presenting the Harlow witness account. Why didn't Captain Bruce make a note of the incident in the log book and report the incident on arrival at Durban? I have attempted to interpret his and the chief officer's actions, allowing for benefit of the doubt. However, Captain Bruce's explanation that the Waratah exploded met with more than a little skepticism. If the Waratah had exploded, debris would have been scattered far and wide and the noise of the explosion heard by the crew on the Harlow, and surely those on land.
It is understandable that this theory is not entirely convincing and searches for the wreck off Port St Johns (Cape Hermes) deemed an expensive and arduous undertaking with little probability of a positive outcome. However, there is one further eyewitness account (apart from the policeman on horseback who may or may not have been in the vicinity) which deserves our attention:
'In connection with the fire, a naval officer attached to one of the Cape cruisers, who pricked off the chart the position stated by the captain of the Harlow, as that in which he saw what he supposed to be a burning ship, was right at Gordon's Bay, in the mouth of the St. John's River.'
It is almost astounding that this small account mentioned in a newspaper at the time, did not receive the gravity of attention it deserved. Captain Bruce of the Harlow was convinced that the large steamer astern was on fire. The naval officer on a vessel further out to sea witnessed the exact same thing and in the same location. What is not included in the statement is the time. But we can assume that the officer correlated the date and time as well.
Nowhere else in the scanty data available to us so many years later, is there a second, independent confirmation of any kind as to what in all probability became of the Waratah. If the large steamer on fire off the St Johns river was not the Waratah, it begs the question; which steamer was it then??? There were no other reports of burning steamers.
Perhaps it was assumed that the naval officer was 'cashing in' on the hysteria surrounding the disappearance of the Waratah? But to assume that he fabricated the additional eye witness account suggests that he did not represent the navy in an honourable manner. I find it hard to believe that a naval officer would be allowed to share a fabricated account with the press and if this had been so, the navy would surely have published a retraction at a later stage - which was never the case.
We can go round and round with the Waratah mystery, imagining that she foundered in the storm of 28 July, going down quickly at some obscure location along the South African coast and her wreck lies in waters too deep for discovery off the Continental Shelf. But before we do this, are we absolutely sure that the answer to the mystery does not lie in 36 m of water off Port St Johns, waiting to give much needed closure to the descendants of the unfortunate 211 souls prematurely snatched into a watery grave?