Saturday, January 25, 2014

Caithness in the Zulu Country 1879

The Hampshire Advertiser of 5 March 1879 reported thus on the preparations being made in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, should the inhabitants of that city be ‘required to go into Laager’ i.e. for their defence against a possible attack by the Zulu army.

Details are given about the various buildings selected to house people and stores, and mention of the signal to be given for people to assemble at these designated places bringing with them sufficient food supplies to last a week. This doom and gloom was hardly reassuring for ‘Southamptonians who have relatives and friends at Pietermaritzburg’ but remember that the disastrous battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Isandlwana: The Aftermath

A 20 000-strong Zulu force had swooped down on and decimated part of Lord Chelmsford’s main British column encamped under the lee of a strangely-shaped mountain in the heart of Zulu territory. 

Court House, Durban ca 1870
Natal’s population had been on tenterhooks since then. Buildings such as the Court House in Durban had been loopholed (gaps made in the exterior walls for the firing of guns) in case of attack.

From a family historian’s point of view, by far the most intriguing portion of the report is the final sentence:

We understand that there is a person named Caithness, a native of Totton, who, together with his family, has been located right in the centre of the Zulu country for some years, and has lived happily among them hitherto, but how they will fare now there is ‘war to the knife’ remains to be seen.

Who could this person be? 

Mary Ann Bell nee Caithness was still living in Durban, Natal, at this date, though her husband Captain William Bell had been dead for a decade. However, the report suggests that the individual is male, and Mary Ann’s progeny were, of course, Bells not Caithnesses.

James Ramsay Caithness the mariner brother of Mary Ann had died in 1860, and he had been Cape-based. What of his children? Could any of them be the Caithness who had been living ‘in the Zulu Country’?

James Ernest Caithness
James Edward Caithness (who later preferred to call himself James Ernest) had left home at some juncture during the years following his father’s death. It’s rumoured that he tried sheep farming, perhaps in South Africa, but it is known for certain that in December 1877 James was in London for a key event – his marriage to Eugenie Sarah Henrietta Westmacott. 

Their eldest child was born in 1878 in Calcutta and it seems that James’s career took off in India. By 1895 he was a senior partner in the Calcutta offices of Cooke and Kelvey, pearl and diamond merchants, watch and clock makers etc. There’s no evidence among these facts to support the idea that he might have been in South Africa in 1879.

Muddying the water is the terminology used in the report. What did ‘right in the centre of the Zulu country’ mean precisely? In Zululand, i.e. to the north of the Tugela River, or in the separate region then known as the Colony of Natal? It’s possible that to someone writing for a Hampshire newspaper in 1879 the distinction wasn’t clear. Had the person really been ‘living among the Zulus’ – which conveys an impression of residence in a rural area such as a missionary or trader might have experienced – or had he been part of a community in or nearby one of the main Natal towns such as Pietermaritzburg or Durban?

The emergence of an unexpected Caithness marriage record gives further pause for thought. 

Marriage entry: Emily Mary Ann Caithness and Herbert Lee Carige
 Durban 12 December 1865

On 12 December 1865, Emily Mary Ann Caithness, daughter of James Ramsey Caithness, and Herbert Lee Carige were married at Christ Church in the parish of Addington, Durban, Natal. The original entry shows the first witness’s signature to be James Caithness. If the illegible middle initial is an ‘E’ (and any handwriting experts reading this are invited to give their opinion) this could be James Ernest/Edward, brother of the bride, presumably giving her away in the absence of their deceased father:


James E might have simply made the trip up from the Cape for the occasion and at that stage, as yet unmarried, he doesn’t fit the newspaper description of a man who was living in the Zulu Country ‘together with his family’. Moreover, James could hardly be called ‘a native of Totton’: he had been born in London prior to his father leaving for South Africa and subsequently their home had been in the Cape. 

More digging is required to establish beyond doubt the identity of the Caithness in the Zulu Country.

Tom Sheldon

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