A brief inscription on a family memorial stone in the remote parish of Gamrie, Banffshire, Scotland provided the only initial clue in a search for James Donaldson born 6 September 1856, ‘drowned at Natal on 4th September 1880’. His great grandniece, hoping to discover more about his untimely fate, had checked Marine Records in
success. What James could have been doing in Edinburgh was a mystery. Natal
His date of death fell neatly between the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the First Anglo-Boer War which began in December 1880. There were certainly plenty of likely scenarios for a drowning in
such accidents often occurred during military conflict, with troops
transporting supplies by wagon across rivers like the Tugela. Natal has a lengthy coastline, and James
Donaldson could equally well have drowned in the sea, not necessarily as a
shipboard passenger or mariner, but simply fishing from a boat. Natal
The chances of finding out more about James were good, since he died in
, and the first step was to look for a
deceased estate file. One James Donaldson MSCE (Master of Supreme Court Estate)
reference emerged on NAAIRS, a file held in Pietermaritzburg Archives. There
was nothing on the index to reveal whether this was the correct individual, but
since it was the only reference and the date was right, it was well worth
accessing the original file. Natal
There weren't many documents contained therein; however, what they lacked in quantity they more than made up for in quality. The Death Notice - on pale blue paper and in the horizontal format customary for these documents at that date - gave his age as 24, which fitted perfectly with the birth year of 1856 provided by the descendant. No place of birth was given, but his father's name, George, appeared, as did the information that James was a bachelor, had no children, and had left no will ‘as far as is known’. This latter was hardly surprising: at that age one imagines one is immortal. Death evidently overtook young James unexpectedly. There was a short list of the deceased's possessions, provided by the informant, John Crawford. The most significant piece of information on the Death Notice was under the ‘Where Died’ column: ‘In the
At this point, there was little doubt that we were on the track of the correct
James Donaldson. Durban Bay
|Durban Bay 1880s|
A Minute Paper contained a note from the Resident Magistrate with reference to the effects of the late James Donaldson, ‘supposed to have been drowned.’ There was a further mention of John Crawford, who was to be ‘summarily appointed as Executor Dative’ in the estate. The Magistrate delivered himself of the opinion that ‘the value of the effects of the deceased would not fetch £40 at auction’ - this sum having been suggested by the informant, Crawford, when completing the Death Notice form.
So, what were these effects? All was to be revealed in the two-page handwritten deposition of Crawford himself:
Before me, Arthur Mesham, Resident Magistrate,
, appeared John Crawford, who, being duly sworn, states: 'I live on the Durban Point Road. I am a ship's carpenter. I am acquainted with James Donaldson now dead, having been drowned on the 4th September 1880, presumably by tumbling overboard the Lotus - I knew him in England - I know his father and mother - they are alive and living at a place called Macduff in Scotland - I came from the same place - I wish to become possessed of his property consisting of 1 chest of tools 1 chest of clothes two watches, and whatever money there may be due to him as wages from Captain Armstrong. I make application in order that I may hand them over to his family. I paid his funeral expenses £10. I am willing to act as executor dative of deceased's estate. Sgd. John Crawford.'
The official inventory of Donaldson's effects noted that £8 10s ‘in the hands of Robert Armstrong of the Bluff’ was the amount due in wages to the deceased, and that the watches were of silver. Estimated value of James's property was finally set at no more than £28 11s 2d.
Again, ‘presumably by tumbling overboard’ seemed significant: how had the accident happened and why had there been no witnesses? Where was Crawford when his friend drowned? More information was needed on the Lotus - was she a harbour vessel, such as a dredger or a tug, or just temporarily at anchor in the Bay? It appeared that James was working aboard her in some artisan capacity, probably, like Crawford, as a carpenter, considering the ‘chest of tools’ in the inventory. Robert Armstrong ‘of the Bluff’ was evidently Captain of the Lotus and held wages owing to Donaldson. This did not point towards a ship simply passing through the port.
Time to go back to NAAIRS and search on the Lotus. Several references came to light which not only showed the vessel to have been a brig but also the reason why she required repairs. On 10 August 1880, four ships, including the Lotus, had been moored at the Screw Moorings in the Bay ‘when the wind veered to SW and the moorings drew out of the bottom. The Northern Belle and Rosebud consequently ‘drove athwart hawse of the Umzinto and the Lotus’ at the adjacent set of moorings, all four vessels colliding and being driven on to the Bank with resultant damage. The Umzinto's figurehead was smashed and split, the Rosebud had several iron stanchions on her port as well as on her starboard side broken and bent, and 90 feet of iron railing buckled. The Northern Belle got off more lightly, while the Lotus had the iron work of the martingale* broken, the cutwater** split and the bowsprit shroud*** plus some railings on the starboard side carried away. Alexander Airth, Port Captain, reported all the above after personal inspection and by 13 August the vessels had been taken off the Bank. Presumably they were moved to other moorings, where James Donaldson apparently assisted with the repairs to the Lotus.
It still didn't answer the question of why he should have drowned - and why no-one seemed sure at first that this was the case. However, from the estate papers we know that there was a funeral, so a body must have been recovered. There was a strong possibility that a newspaper report of the incident could have appeared, or even mention of an inquiry into the death. Since an exact date was known, a newspaper search was feasible. It wasn't until 13 September 1880 that three brief lines, all but hidden in the general news column of the Natal Mercury, provided James's only ‘obituary’:
‘James Donaldson, of
, a carpenter,
working for some time on board the Lotus, was found drowned in the harbour on
At least James's trade was firmly established. There was no mention of cause of death, whether accidental, suicide or foul play, neither was there any sign of a subsequent inquiry. James could have slipped, perhaps hit his head, and fallen overboard, though strange that no-one noticed and that it took some time to ascertain. Suicide might not be ruled out - a young man far from home and family, trying to eke out a living on a minimal wage, could have been depressed or even desperate. Robert Armstrong, his employer, was known to be very hard on his labour, as archival references show.
The fact remains that James Donaldson had, ironically enough, journeyed all the way from the edge of the wild North Sea to drown off a ship at anchor in the waters of the
The story emphasises that even in the 1880s people leaving for the colonies might
be saying goodbye to their place of origin and to their nearest and dearest
forever. Bay of Natal
|Donaldson family ca 1875:|
James, 19, at the back
John Crawford was incorrect in his statement that James's parents were ‘still alive’. George Donaldson, James's father, a farm servant and carter, had died in 1877 at the age of 47 in a fall from his cart one February night. James's mother had been left with six children, the youngest only nine, to rear alone - she had lost 7-month-old twins through whooping cough in 1868. They were an unlucky family.
It is evident that neither John Crawford nor Donaldson himself had visited Scotland in the recent past or were aware of George Donaldson's death three years prior to James's drowning. It is also clear that Crawford's intentions of returning his friend's belongings to the Donaldson family may have been sincere, but are unlikely to have been carried out given that the cost of a passage would have been beyond Crawford's means. Yet the news of James's passing must have filtered through to
by mail to be commemorated accurately on the family memorial stone. Perhaps
John Crawford can't be blamed for appropriating James's few assets and cash -
£10 for the funeral would have been an enormous expense for a ship's carpenter. Banff
The sequence of events doesn't end there. On 2 December 1880, a memo to the Natal Harbour Board requests permission for the use of ‘Dynamite in breaking up ... the remains of the ship Lotus now lying on the Island beach’ and mentions that ‘an experienced hand ... one of Nobel & Co.'s men’ was to undertake the work. Why, if the ship was in such a bad state that it was eventually broken up, had anyone first bothered to try and repair her? The statement of Port Captain Airth in August, after the collision of the four vessels at the moorings, didn't seem to indicate major damage to the Lotus.
For good measure, a red herring arose during the newspaper search, in the shape of another vessel named Lotus This caused some confusion, but the fact that this ship, from Adelaide, was commanded by a Captain Little and left Natal bound for London in November 1880 whereas Armstrong's Lotus was due for the dynamite treatment in December of that year, proves that these were two entirely different vessels, coincidentally at Natal at the same time, the Australian Lotus merely passing through.
If your ancestor was presumed, or certainly, drowned but no trace of him appears in
records, he may have met a fate similar to James Donaldson's, in one of the
colonies. James's descendant was amazed at the wealth of detail which emerged
from South African archival and other sources, enabling her at last to answer
the question prompted by that memorial inscription thousands of miles away in UK . Scotland
* Rope for tying down the jib boom
** Forward edge of prow
*** Bowsprit, the spar running out from the ship's stem, to which forestays are fastened; shroud, a set of ropes forming part of standing rigging, and supporting mast.