Second European Settlement at the Bay of Natal

In January 1806 British forces under Sir David Baird landed at Simonstown and, after a brief battle outside Cape Town, took over control of the Colony. This occupation was prompted by the larger strategic considerations of their war against France, and a need to protect their growing interests in both Australia and India. After the Continental war had been brought to a successful conclusion in 1815, the Cape was formally ceded to the British Crown.

Apart from its strategic position, the Cape could not have been a happy acquisition for the British. The Colony was not self-sufficient, it did not have a population large enough to provide British trade with a significant market, it survived on a rudimentary agrarian economy, and had no known mineral deposits of any note. The Dutch population itself was fractious, owned slaves, and had already made two attempts under the previous Dutch administration to establish unsuccessful break-away republics in the interior. More importantly, they had been running an open campaign of genocide against their hunter-gatherer San neighbours, and had also opened hostilities against the more settled Xhosa-speaking pastoralist clans inhabiting the eastern borders of the colony. It can be argued that the political agenda for southern Africa had already been set by the Dutch long before the English had even landed.

For many years after the annexation of the Cape, British policy regarding the further colonialization of southern Africa remained vague and subject to sudden reversals dictated by changes of government in London. Dissident Dutch farmers on the eastern frontier, for example, were allowed to migrate beyond the reach of British administration but were then still held to be British subjects; the Province of Queen Adelaide, or British Kaffraria, was annexed in 1835, abandoned the following year, and then reoccupied in 1847; the Orange Free State was declared a Sovereignty in 1848, but this too was then abandoned in 1853, while Basutoland was annexed to the Cape in 1868; and Pondoland asked for British protection from the Dutch in 1842, but continued to be dealt with as a sovereign territory before rumours of German involvement brought about its annexation in 1894.

The early history of the Natal colony, and hence of Durban, was marked by similar changes of policy which saw it first in the hands of English traders, then surrendered to Dutch occupation, followed by British military intervention and finally by annexation.

In September 1822 the British Admiralty commissioned Capt William Owen RN to conduct a survey of the south-eastern seaboard of southern Africa, south of Delagoa Bay. In January 1823 Owen sailed three ships, the Leven, Barracouta and Cockburn, up the coast and charted several important stretches of coastline, including St Lucia Bay. During the voyage they were joined by a private trader, the Orange Grove, whose owners were following a separate mission of commercial exploration of their own. Upon their return to Cape Town in April 1823, the trader’s cargo of ambergris and ivory aroused intense interest in the local commercial community, leading a group of stockholders in the trading company of JR Thompson & Co to equip an expedition to establish a trading station at St Lucia Bay. The venture was to be headed by Lieutenants Francis Farewell and James King, both formerly officers in the British Royal Navy.

At the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, in 1815 Lt Francis George Farewell left the Navy on half pay to pursue a career in mercantile trade. Although his time in the military had been marked by a series of steady promotions and a number of important successes, life as a civilian was less rewarding and, for the next few years, his wanderings took him to India, Mauritius and the Seychelles, where his financial ventures met with consistently poor returns. By 1820 he had became the “managing owner” of the Frances Charlotte, and drifted into Cape Town where he met and, on 17 August 1822, married Elizabeth Catherina Schmidt, step-daughter of Cape Town merchant John Lodewyk Petersen.

The military career of Lt James Saunders King had followed a similar path to Farewell’s, and the two had met and become friends in Cape Town when Farewell had chartered King’s ship, the brig Salisbury, to run a number of trading trips to the West Indies.

Thompson and Farewell now chartered the Salisbury, under King’s command, and set sail from Cape Town on 23 June 1823. Working on the assumption that the ivory being traded by the Portuguese out of Delagoa Bay originated from the Zulu Kingdom, Farewell believed that a trading station at St Lucia Bay would be able to deal directly from source. Unfortunately, like so many of his other enterprises, this too was doomed to failure, and after Farewell and Thompson were nearly drowned in the surf attempting to land at St Lucia, the expedition was abandoned.

In an attempt to salvage something from this venture, the Salisbury stopped at Algoa Bay where, after taking on fresh supplies, they returned to Natal in a renewed effort to find a usable harbour. On this journey they ran into a severe storm, and seeking shelter from the elements, managed to sail over the sandbar and into the Bay of Natal. Once inside they found a safe mooring off Salisbury Island.

Finding the area to their liking, the party surveyed the bay, henceforth referred to in their records as Port Natal, and by December 1823 they had returned to Cape Town. Farewell then lost little time in organising a new expedition, and persuaded his father-in-law, John Petersen, and Josias Hoffman, whose son would eventually become the first President of the OFS, to join him as partners in the venture. To this end they purchased the sloop Julia, and charted the brig Antelope to carry a party of some thirty people, not all of them traders, back to the bay. Once there, they hoped they would be able to negotiate trading rights with the Zulu Kingdom and establish a trading station.

Joining him in this venture was Henry Francis Fynn, a surgeon’s assistant from London, whom Farewell had previously met, and who was now indubitably inspired by the prospect of the “immense profits (that) would be derived from the speculation”. On 10 May 1824 an advance party of 26 persons under Fynn arrived at Port Natal on the Julia, landing near present-day Maydon Wharf. In expectation of being joined by a second party, Fynn established a camp on the site subsequently used as a market, and now known as Farewell Square.

Six weeks later, in July 1824, Farewell followed him aboard the Antelope. In total the two groups numbered 35 persons, including nine English, three Germans, two French and one Dane (Fynn, 1969:68). The remainder were Dutch farmers and their servants, who were led by Josias Hoffman and John Petersen.

Upon his arrival, Fynn had immediately initiated contact with the Zulu Kingdom, whose writ included the bay area, and on 7 August a party of traders, including Fynn, Farewell, Capt Davies of the Julia, Henry Ogle and Joseph Powell, travelled to the royal Zulu court at Gubulawayo, some 190km north of Port Natal. The Zulu monarch, Shaka, took an obvious liking to what he came to regard as “his traders”, showing great interest in their muskets, medical skills and material goods, and before they left, he formally granted them a stretch of land about Port Natal, although, given indigenous concepts of land occupation, it seems unlikely that he ever viewed this as a permanent transfer in ownership (Wilson & Thompson, 1969).

After his return to the bay, on 27 August 1824, Farewell raised the Union Jack over the camp while his friends fired a volley of buckshot into the air in honour of the British nation. Despite such riotous festivities, the kind of lonely life offered by Natal did not appeal greatly to some of his comrades, and on 7 September nine of their Dutch companions boarded the Julia and headed back to Cape Town. The remainder set about building their homes, using timber posts cut in the nearby mangroves, infill walls of wattle and daub, and thatched reed roofs. Windows and doors were left as openings in the walls, and floors were made from a mixture of clay, cow-dung and ox-blood compounded to a hard shiny surface, a technology not dissimilar from that used by their Zulu neighbours.

In the meantime, fearing the worst for the Natal group, the brig Mary set sail from Cape Town on 26 August 1824 under the command of Lt James Saunders King. The party aboard included Nathaniel Isaacs, a trader from St Helena who had previously formed an acquaintance with Farewell. Their objective was to search for Farewell and to conduct trade with the Zulu kingdom in their own right. The ship reached Port Natal on 30 September where, on the following day, in a futile attempt to cross the sand bar at the Point under gale force winds, the Mary was wrecked without loss of life.

Almost immediately, a portion of the crew expressed a wish to make their way back to the Cape in the Mary’s longboat, which had survived the wreck. Although technically still the owner of the ship, King felt powerless to detain them and after five days at sea they reached Algoa Bay. The remainder of the crew, ten in number, remained behind at the bay with King, in an attempt to repair his ship.

The Julia returned to the bay later that year and when she left on 9 December the remaining eleven members of the Dutch party were aboard. On its way to Cape Town the vessel is believed to have caught alight and was lost at sea with all hands. The remaining six members of the original party, including Farewell, Fynn, Henry Ogle, Joseph Powell, Thomas Holstead, and John Cane, together with King and Isaacs, can therefore be regarded as the founders of the new settlement at Port Natal.

Their venture soon began to show positive results, and under royal Zulu patronage, the settlement began to trade in ivory, hippo tusks, buffalo hides, cattle and grain. Despite such material gains, by some accounts the party did not enjoy uniform high spirits, and in January 1825 the York, who had been sent by the Cape Government to enquire as to their well-being, brought back news “that Mr Farewell and party had been very much distressed, and would willingly have returned; but from a part of them being absent in the interior.

From this time onwards the settlement in the bay consisted of a small, fluctuating group of English traders primarily concerned with the collection and trade of elephant ivory. Many, like Fynn, learnt isiZulu, married local women and established friendly relations with their Zulu neighbours. The Zulu monarch, Shaka, valued their presence and generally made it known that they fell under his protection, a relationship that was further cemented in August 1824 when, following a failed assassination attempt, Fynn was called upon to save king’s life.

Other efforts were also made to extend this friendship to new levels. In 1827 a group of traders from Port Natal assisted in Zulu attacks on the Ndwandwe and the Khumalo clans, while Farewell, for his part, wrote to the Governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, urging the annexation of Port Natal, a request which Somerset refused in line with then current Colonial Office policy. In 1828 Shaka resolved to present six young maidens and 86 elephant tusks to the English monarch, George IV, and requested that Lt King travel to England with his envoys. The party left on the newly-completed Elizabeth and Susan, leaving the maidens behind, but only travelled as far as Algoa Bay, where they were met with hostility and rudeness on the part of officials. The Zulu delegation was also unimpressed by the squalid aspect of the recently-established settlement at Port Elizabeth, and brought home reports of Whites living in homes little better than mud hovels, and not in the mighty cities they had been led to expect (Fynn 1969:155). There is no doubt that this outcome had a negative impact upon Zulu perceptions of British power, and upon relations between the two groups. After Shaka’s death in 1828, his successor Dingane also sent a delegation to the Cape, accompanied by John Cane as interpreter, in order to declare his friendly intentions towards the British and to encourage trade with the Cape Colony. It too only made it as far as Algoa Bay where it received a frosty reception from representatives of the Cape Governor.

The relatively cordial relationship between the British traders and the Zulu kingdom was not destined to last. By this stage the settlement at Port Natal numbered some 30 White traders and 2,500 Black refugees who had fled Zululand in fear of their lives under Shaka’s rule. Despite their relocation, Shaka had remained secure in the might of his kingdom, and had refused to act against them, arguing to his councillors that they had merely fled to “his friends” and therefore remained his subjects. Then, following a series of disastrous military reversals, Shaka was murdered on 24 September 1828 at his military camp at Dukuza, near present-day Stanger, by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, together with his bodyguard Mbopha. Dingane succeeded him to the Zulu throne, and in the period of political uncertainty that followed within the Zulu kingdom many of the policies pursued by the previous administration came under review.

Initially the new Zulu king, Dingane, viewed the settlement at Port Natal in a manner similar to that of his predecessor, treating traders as subordinate chiefs within the Zulu political system. However, as rumours of British incursions on lands south of the Transkei began to filter northwards, so then the king and his advisors became increasingly suspicious of British intentions. These were aggravated during the first half of 1832, when Dr Andrew Smith, of the British Army Medical Corps, travelled through the eastern seaboard of southern Africa on a mission that included an evaluation of the nature and military capabilities of the country and its people. He visited, among others, the Zulu royal court where he was able to confirm Dingane’s peaceful intentions towards the British, although his reports also indicated a strong personal distaste for the king’s despotic tendencies.

Smith praised the fertility and abundant vegetation of Natal, which had been largely depopulated during the mfecane, and could, in his opinion, be used to settle British emigrants. Acting upon this information, in 1834 a group of 190 merchants from Cape Town petitioned the British Government to annex “Port Natal and the depopulated country in its vicinity”. In the same year a party of 22 Dutch farmers led by Petrus Lafras Uys, from the district of Uitenhage, visited Natal to evaluate its potential for farming, and by 1837 there were six American missionaries active in southern Natal. Although the British Government rejected the petition, and the Dutch returned home without tangible results, Dingane and his councillors found these events highly disturbing, and relations between Zulu and British became increasingly strained. It was obvious to all concerned that the colonial invaders from the south were now beginning to cast their eyes northwards, towards the Zulu kingdom.

Throughout this time the number of White settlers at Port Natal remained relatively stable, even though the Black population was showing signs of rapid increase. This was only partially due to political events within the Zulu kingdom. The traders were more concerned with the acquisition of ivory than with agriculture, and the bay was able to provide local farmers with a ready market for fresh produce. As a result the overcrowding of some areas closest to the bay began to threaten the ecological resilience of the land and the need to regulate both the water supply, and the disposal of wastes became increasingly manifest. Throughout this time, the settlement had been too small and too scattered to warrant the introduction of civic organisation along European lines, and the traders had initially resolved the issue by applying an African model of local government. Residential areas were divided into a series of villages, each under the management of a White resident who, effectively, became an ersatz chief and was recognised as such in the Zulu political system.

One of the key positions in the bay was taken up by Farewell who, soon after his arrival in 1824, had erected a palisaded enclosure on the site of Durban’s future Market Square, and had begun the construction of a fort with sod ramparts. His wife, Elizabeth had joined him on 6 October 1826 but, after he was murdered by Qwabe warriors in 1829, she returned to Cape Town where she married an accountant, Erich Gustaaf Aspeling, in 1836.

The Bluff, whose name was derived from a descriptive noun for a headland with a broad perpendicular face, had a stock of good timber suitable for ship building, and this area was taken over by Lt King, Nathaniel Isaacs, and the remainder of the shipwrecked crew from the Mary, who hoped to reconstruct their vessel. They named this area Townshend, possibly to signify its position at the end of the bay. By March 1828 repairs had been completed and the vessel, now renamed Elizabeth and Susan, was used by King to convey a Zulu delegation to the Cape (Fynn, 1969). Soon after his return on 7 September, King died of dysentery, and administration of this area on the Bluff, where three scattered homesteads were located, fell to Henry Fynn. His own home was located at the Umbilo River, at the head of the bay. Cane set up his camp near the present-day Botanical Gardens, and governed three homesteads, as did Ogle, on the inner side of the Bluff. James Collis, Robert Dunn, DC Tookey and Richard King all held similar positions, while Alexander Biggar and his two sons had brought a substantial number of Khoikhoi retainers with them from the Eastern Cape.

There being an absence of White women in Natal, the traders soon began to establish liaisons with local women, often entering into polygamous unions as was common in Zulu custom, and eventually began to normalise these marriages by the payment of lobola, or child-price. As a result their own homesteads began to take on the formalised aspect of a Zulu umuzi, where the position of each family member is determined by Zulu custom, with each wife having her own dwelling and separate kitchen unit.

This was not a situation which could have met with the uncritical approval of Victorian visitors to the bay. Twenty years earlier, the Rev Vanderkemp had scandalised his colleagues in the London Missionary Society by regularly appearing before his flock in Bethelsdorp “without hat, stocking or shoes, and probably without a coat”, and eventually sealed his fate within the missionary movement by marrying a 15-year old member of his flock (Campbell, 1815). One can only imagine then the effect that the lifestyle adopted by the Natal traders would have had upon their horrified compatriots. The Rev Stephen Kay reported that “incredible as it may appear, there are now in Caffraria, also, Englishmen whose daily garb differs little from the beast-hide covering of their neighbours; ”¦ and whose domestic circles, like those of the native chieftains themselves, embrace from eight to ten black wives and concubines” (Isaacs 1970: 97).

On 29 December 1834, Capt Allen Francis Gardiner, a British naval officer turned missionary, arrived in Port Natal, where he immediately attempted to bring some order to a situation which he, as a Christian missionary, must have considered to be highly undesirable to say the least. His first task though, was to intercede with the Zulu monarch on behalf of the trading community. Dingane had viewed the rising influence of the White traders with his own people with some alarm and, rightly, feared the rise of a kingdom within his kingdom. He demanded therefore that the traders at Port Natal halt the flow of Zulu deserters to their territory and return some of the fugitives to his rule. Gardiner brokered an agreement between the two parties, but when this collapsed in June 1835, he found himself vested by Dingane with control of an area running from the Thukela to the Mzimkulu Rivers. In future, it now appeared, no European could enter Zululand without the written permission of Gardiner or an appointed official of the British Government. Lacking the means to enforce such authority in December 1835 Gardiner travelled to Port Elizabeth, where he met with Sir Benjamin D’Urban. The Cape Governor was obviously unwilling to undertake any unauthorised action beyond the boundaries of the Colony, and in 1836 Gardiner sailed to England in an attempt to present the traders’ case for annexation to the Colonial Office. His arguments proved of little avail, and although he was appointed Justice of the Peace for the area, he  was given no actual means of enforcing his authority. Unfortunately, while in London, he also made a number of derogatory remarks about the traders in Port Natal, and the lifestyle that many had adopted. Inevitably these found their way back to the bay, and when he returned there in May 1837, he found that the European settlers had refused to recognise his writ.

Gardiner’s contribution to the settlement at Port Natal, however, was of a more lasting nature. On 23 June 1835 he presided over a gathering of 15 residents, held at the home of F Berkin, a Polish national who had followed Gardiner to Natal, where it was decided to constitute the town of D’Urban, so named in honour of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, then Governor of the Cape. The area as a whole was named Victoria, in honour of the young British princess who, following the death of her grandfather, George III, would accede to the throne on 20 June 1837.

A township, reaching in size from the Umbilo to the “Buffalo Spring” was proclaimed, and a set of regulations was drawn up. These included, amongst others, a prohibition upon the construction of indigenous grass structures, and the requirement that homes be built of an acceptable size and style. Although not specifically stated, it must be assumed that these clauses were also designed to act as a deterrent to the kind of extended families that many of the traders had been gathering about them.

The “Buffalo Spring” referred to was probably located near the corner of Field and Smith Streets, where a natural fountain and public well were subsequently located. Land was allocated for a church, a hospital, a cemetery and public buildings, and a “town” committee was elected, including Messrs Gardiner, Collis, Berkin, Cane and Ogle. In acknowledgement of the honour accorded him by the residents, Sir Benjamin sent £50 towards the erection of a church. Gardiner also produced an ambitious plan for the new town, which envisaged two market squares, wide streets named William, Adelaide, King and Wellington, and a splendid promenade named Brunswick Terrace. Sadly, this was never realized, and it was left for George Cato to set out the settlement along more realistic lines. However, before this could happen other matters had to take their course.

Within the year both Collis and Berkin had perished, and Ogle had accompanied Gardiner to the Cape, leaving only Cane to implement these resolutions. It seems likely therefore that, barring the naming of the settlement, this first meeting achieved little of lasting value. The land was not cleared, houses of the required standards were not erected, and for several years yet to come Durban remained a collection of mud huts, with one stone building used as a store, and its streets mere wagon tracks through sandy soil.

Gardiner, for his part, initially set up a mission station on the high ground overlooking Durban, which he named Berea. Disillusioned by the rejection he suffered in 1837, he then retired to a new mission he established at the mouth of the Tongaat River, and finally left Natal in April 1838. Undeterred, he continued his missionary work in Chile, New Guinea, and Patagonia where, eventually, he and six companions died of starvation in Tierra del Fuego in September 1851. Today St Thomas’ Church, in Musgrave Road, marks the site of his first mission.

Last updated : 18-Oct-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 18-Oct-2011