Friday, August 9, 2013

Ships and Mariners: 19th c Cape and Natal 5 Bell

During a routine call at Algoa Bay at the end of May 1842, Captain William Bell became caught up in dramatic events. Conch had made a quick, boisterous passage from Table Bay in gale force winds, Bell remaining on deck throughout the voyage and on arrival suffering from a severe cold and rheumatic pains. He was attended to by Dr Davis at the house of John Owen Smith’s brother-in-law, Mr Jarvis, while Conch’s Mate saw to the unloading of the cargo. 

Preparations for the return passage to Table Bay were in progress when Major Selwyn, R.E., came galloping into the town, bringing news that the British garrison at Natal were under siege after their defeat by trekker forces.

Bell, his cold forgotten, offered his services as he was the only master present who had previously been to Natal and Conch the only vessel then lying at Algoa Bay which was fit to cross the bar at the entrance to Port Natal. Major Selwyn felt that Bell was the very man required, explained the circumstances which had led to the garrison being besieged, and informed him that a company of the 27th Foot already on its way from Grahamstown would be embarked on Conch to be conveyed to Natal.

The story is told in a number of sources, including Bell’s own account published posthumously as the Narrative of the Entrance of the Conch at Port Natal.*

This historic landing is further immortalized in the painting by Thomas Baines from a pencil sketch made by an eye-witness of the event.

The schooner Conch is seen easing over the swell at the Bar in a light easterly breeze, with fore-course, fore-lower-topsail,fore-upper-topsail and gaff fore-sail set on the fore-mast, with main-sail and gaff-topsail set on the mainmast and the Red Ensign flying proudly at the stern. No doubt there are several stay-sails set between foremast and jib-boom but obscured by the fore-sails. Towed astern are a number of boats carrying troops as well as sailors to man the oars for the final landing. The Red Ensign, originally used to denote the senior squadron of the fleet, was abolished in 1864, then becoming the ensign of the British Merchant Service when it became known as the ‘red duster’. Patches of smoke can be seen issuing from enemy guns concealed on the Bluff.

*Narrative of the Entrance of the Conch at Port Natal with troops to relieve Captain Smith, when Blockaded by the Boers in June 1842 by William Bell, who commanded the Conch, and late Port Captain at Port Natal. Printed at the Natal Mercury Office, Durban, 1869. Now a rare piece of Nataliana, this edition has been published in reprint form. 

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