Colonial history of Durban

The Harbour City: Introduction

Traditionally, accounts of the European settlement of the southern African eastern seaboard begin on or about Christmas Day in 1497 when three Portuguese vessels, the Sao Gabriel, the Sao Rafael and the caravel Berrio, under the command of Vasco da Gama, sailed past the coast of Pondoland on their way to India. Although it was not specifically mentioned in their journals, it is probably they who named this coastline Terra do Natal. They never landed at Durban, and their first landfall along this coast was only made on 6 January 1498 some 85km north of the Limpopo River mouth. Oblivious to the fact that their land had been “discovered” and that, technically, they were now called “Natalians”, local residents continued to lead happy, productive lives, planting grain, herding cattle, paying lobola, engaging in the occasional squabble with some neighbouring clan, and eventually joining the great spiritual body of ancestors. In the larger scheme of world affairs, Natal continued to do what it has always done best: slumber.

For the purpose of this narrative, for the next 188 years matters remained more or less the same. Some excitement was caused on 10 June 1552 when the Portuguese slave galleon Sao Joao was wrecked in a storm near the mouth of the Mzimvubu River. The majority of its passengers and crew including some 220 sailors and a cargo of 400 slaves made it to the shore where, it must be assumed, those slaves who could get away, probably escaped inland to chance their fate with the local population. The remaining survivors, including the Captain and his wife, proceeded northwards along the shoreline in an attempt to reach the Portuguese settlement at Sofala, near present-day Beira, in Mocambique. After suffering many vicissitudes and privations, only eight Portuguese and 17 slaves survived the journey and were picked up in May 1553 by a passing Portuguese trader.

Along the way the party shed a number of people, both Black and White who, either through illness or exhaustion, were left behind on the trail. Their fate is largely unknown but at least some are reported to have been nursed back to health and to have been adopted by local clans where, in many cases, they prospered. One such survivor was Rodrigo Testao, who was found two years later by the shipwrecked crew of the Sao Bento, living with local families at the Bay of Natal, thus making him Durban’s first known White resident.

Over the next century, this tale was to be repeated again and again. On 27 April 1554 the Portuguese slaver Sao Bento was grounded near the Mzikaba River, off the northern Transkei. Its survivors, 99 Portuguese and 224 slaves, also set off northwards towards Sofala, and, after crossing the Mzimkulu River, they met up with a young Bengali, a survivor of the Sao Joao, who was now living with the locals. Understandably he not only refused to join them on their trek, but persuaded two Portuguese and about 30 slaves to settle there. The same party then discovered a Portuguese and two slaves, also from the Sao Joao, living at the Bay of Natal. From the Tukela onwards the party began to steadily lose members and ultimately only 56 Portuguese and six slaves reached Delagoa Bay.

Further shipwrecks took place along the eastern seaboard on a regular basis: the Sao Thome in 1589, the Santo Alberto in 1593, the Sao Joao Baptista in 1622, the Nossa Senhora de Belem in 1635, and the Sacramento and the Nossa Serihora da Atalaya in separate incidents both in 1647. In all of these cases there were substantial numbers of survivors who then attempted to reach home by marching overland northwards to Mocambique. A few wise men stayed behind at the site of the wreck, burnt the ship’s timbers and used the iron recovered in the process to trade with local clans, thus growing wealthy from the proceedings. Others fell by the wayside through illness, hunger and exhaustion. A very small number made it back to their homes. Many however, both Black and White, stayed behind and were integrated into local society. All in all, between 1552 and 1647 over 1100 White and 2-3000 (presumably) Black slaves were dumped by storms on our eastern seashore, and a significant proportion of these must have survived.

Last updated : 20-Apr-2018

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011