Monday, July 5, 2010

American missionary letters, Natal: Dr Newton Adams, sugar and indigo

In October of 1851 Charlotte Grout writes to her mother, Mrs James Bailey, of the illness and death of the veteran ABCFM missionary, Dr Newton Adams. The Grouts had been to a General Meeting:

It was at Amahlongwa 90 miles from here. I felt as though I could not get ready to go with my family, & then go such a great distance with them. Eliza was not five months old then. But we did go, & on our way down we called at Doct. Adams, one day’s ride this side of Amahlongwa. We found him more unwell than usual from his labors the previous Sabbath, & they had reluctantly decided not to attend the Meeting, though every thing was prepared for the journey. We left, and spent five or six days. After we had started to return, a messenger came with the intelligence that Doct. A. was dead. We hastened on & arrived at the station the same night & found indeed that our dear sister was a sorrowful widow. He had died during the night, & Mr Butler very Providentially was there, having left the meeting one day sooner than the others on account of his wife whom he left at home ill. We remained till after the funeral & then returned home worn out.
Charlotte was anxious for her husband Aldin:

He is growing old fast & as one after another of our brethren fail in the midst of their years, I cannot but think that he too may soon go. He has been recently writing to the Rooms [HQ of the ABCFM] an account of the sickness and death of Doct. Adams, also a letter to his [Adams’s] afflicted mother in Bloomfield, N.Y. Mr Lindley is a little older than Mr G. He is now unable to preach, & we have some fears that he may soon follow our lamented br. A. Two others have also poor health. One would have said when I came out to Africa that Mr Grout would soonest fail, but then who were the strongest have first been called. But if we are all prepared, if our lamps are constantly trimmed & burning, it matters little who is first called.
Rev Aldin had been busy, with help from his mission Africans, building a Meeting House (chapel) for their community at Umvoti. We get a clear picture of this structure – and how much time and effort went into its creation - when reading Aldin’s report to his brother-in-law, James Bailey, in July 1855:

Some years ago … we had commenced building a Meeting House. We have not been at work on it quite as long as Solomon was in building his Temple, but it is only this year that we report it as finished. The people subscribed 15 pounds in money which bought boards enough to finish flooring and seating it. It has a roof of thatch but its walls are of burned bricks, its floor of boards, and it is seated throughout. I have made a pulpit which tho humble in its appearance, resembles pulpits which we see at home. Our people placed the boards, but I have made all the seats with my own hands, as well as to joint the floor boards and put them down. The whole is 50 feet by 32 in the extreme, and will seat 400 natives. I have not unfrequently had it full. We have had from our Society to put up this building only $50. All the other expense has been borne by our people and self, and white people who see it say it is worth $1000.
The same letter to James Bailey makes reference to two interesting developments in Natal: first, that it is becoming a ‘sugar-growing country’ and second, that ‘two men from Java’ who were experienced in the production of indigo had settled in the Colony with a view to cultivating the plant commercially and establishing an industry.

The men from Java were Dutch planters T C Colenbrander and W Van Prehn.  [See Colenbrander in the search facility on this blog.]

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

19th c Missionary letters from Natal: childbirth, journeys and daguerrotypes

There’s a gap in Charlotte Grout’s letters due to the birth of her daughter, Eliza, as is explained in a letter from Umvoti dated 28 July 1851:
Now my dear little Eliza is seldom willing to allow me time though my strength is increasing. She is at this moment lying on the bed beside me talking, laughing and tossing up her little feet. She is a very sweet child when she is well as she seems to be this evening. She is now 13 weeks old. She has been rather a crying child thus far …
My dear husband never seemed so precious to me as when at my bedside he besought the Lord to have mercy in that time of need. I have very slowly regained my strength, indeed I am not yet strong, but am comfortable. Two weeks ago we had company for a whole week of five or six persons, but Mr. G assisted me, & our girls were very faithful.
Last week we took a journey to Port Natal to obtain supplies, and I think neither myself or baby are any the worse for it. It occupied us the entire week. O!, you cannot fancy what a time we had each night in getting ready to retire, and each morning in dressing and packing up things in riding order. A. & N. had their bed made up on the bottom of the wagon in front, while we & baby slept on our mattresses elevated on a frame about a foot & a half from the bottom. Shawls, blankets & rugs all came in use in hanging up in the wagon to keep out wind and cold. You will probably be surprised to learn that each morning we were up, dressed, and riding often before sunrise, & that too in our winter mornings, when it is sometimes bitter cold. I often thought, & indeed said, that I would not think of taking the journey to Gen. Meeting in Sept. next … distant from us about 80 miles. But I have got home & rested & feel none the worse, so perhaps I shall start again in about five weeks. It is all hard work with children. The traveling & then living in the wagon after we arrive is quite trying, but we need the change. We need to meet the brethren & sisters of the Mission …
Can you believe that your daughter C(harlotte). is 40 years old?! I cannot realize it, and today I was thinking that James is 30. I was surprised to receive his Daguerreotype (sic) & see how old he looks. … Last week we received Oriana’s. How she has grown!
We hear that a man has arrived here from England who has knowledge of this art (daguerrotype) & I hope the time is not far distant when we shall be able to send you ours.

Above left: Charlotte Grout as an older woman.

The photographer to whom Charlotte refers is probably William Waller, who arrived in Natal in May 1851 and advertised in the Natal Witness in August of that year, indicating that he would be taking daguerrotype portraits. (Louis Daguerre had perfected the art, later named after him, in 1839.)

The Oriana mentioned is Oriana Grout (she never used her other forename, Relief) Aldin's daughter by his first wife.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Rev Aldin Grout and family in Natal mid 19th c.

Charlotte Grout wasn’t the only correspondent in the family: despite his busy schedule, Aldin Grout also managed to write home occasionally – even to the Baileys, his parents’ in-law.

In a letter from Umvoti, July 1850, to Mrs James Bailey, Rev Grout gives a clear picture of the isolation endured by the American missionaries on their rural stations:
Having written thus far, I went to Mr. L. Grant’s station to attend a meeting of the contiguous missionaries to see if we might not form ourselves into a sort of association for mutual improvement but as it happened instead of six or seven members present as we had hoped, we had but three. The distance is such that starting at about nine in the morning, I arrived only at about four in the afternoon riding on horseback, and this perhaps my nearest missionary neighbor, though two others, Mr. Tyler and Abraham will be about the same distance from me.
Agricultural skills or a knowledge of crafts such as building and carpentry were often of more value in the mission field than an academic education. Aldin Grout, like most missionaries, was able to undertake a variety of practical tasks. In 1848 he describes his building operations at Umvoti:

If my house when done is not as well finished as a workman would do it yet I swear that every part of it shall be strong, durable, and comfortable. The walls are of brick made of ant hill dried in the sun. My boys [i.e. Africans living at the mission] have made them all. I have an L to the house, but that was built first by itself. Then a little more than half of the main house was commenced, joining upon the kitchen. The walls of that part are now up, the roof timbers on ... Thus far have I progressed my work. When the totality is done, then comes plastering and laying floors. That done I design to move into that part and put up the other part. I submit to this slow and tedious way of building for two reasons. 1st I cannot hire workmen to build me a comfortable house for the amount allowed me for that purpose and 2nd I am in the mean time going on with my missionary work …
Parental anxieties were compounded by the family’s isolated situation:

Our children have both colds & coughs. Humphrey was so poorly last Sabbath that Charlotte stopped at home with him all day and in the afternoon I stopped with her giving him medicine and witnessing its duration. We were quite alarmed about him, but as no doctor was nearer than forty-five miles it was of no use to think of calling one, and our only alternative was to do our best and commend our case to the great [God?]. We now think them both better and hope in a few days to see them about again.
As the year 1850 approached, Natal became the focus of British emigration schemes, notably that of Joseph Byrne: 20 ships carrying about 2 700 settlers arrived at the port between May 1849 and April 1850. Other smaller private schemes followed in their wake. No doubt missionary families like the Grouts read in the local press about these interesting developments, and pondered over the inevitable changes such an influx of emigrants would bring to Natal.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

American missionary letters from Natal continued.

Although Umpande had allowed Aldin Grout to found the Inkanyezi Mission Station, two years later the King gave his army orders to kill any of his subjects connected with the mission, though Grout and his family were to be spared.

At this point the American Board of Commissioners withdrew from the field. Not wishing to abandon his work, Grout went to Cape Town, returning as a Government missionary unconnected with the ABCFM, a position he held for a year in Natal. Meanwhile, Newton Adams had also decided to stay on, setting up his station at Amanzimtoti. Lindley became a minister to the Voortrekkers for five years (during which time he baptised a boy named Paul Kruger). Later, Lindley founded the Mission Station at Inanda.

Aldin Grout resumed his ties with the ABCFM in 1845 and the following year founded the Umvoti Mission Station. By this time Umpande’s power and popularity were in decline and large numbers – possibly as many as 100 000 - of his people had crossed the Tugela and moved into Natal.

Charlotte Grout soldiered on, coping with the daily vicissitudes of a frontierswoman. She writes in housewifely mode to her father from Umvoti on 16 August 1848:

I have often thought that you may at times feel anxious about us lest we suffer for the necessaries and comforts of life. True we are deprived of many of the good things we enjoyed at home, but we seldom suffer. There is no season of the year but we have something from our garden. It is now winter, and we have sweet potatoes, beets, tomatoes, lettuce, sugar cane and gooseberries. For the last eight months we have had daily green corn … and we often have peas, beans, onions, cabbage, and cauliflower. We do not have a good variety of meats, though we have fowls in abundance and pigs. We seldom have a piece of beef unless we slaughter. We have some sheep and goats, but not enough to slaughter very often. We usually have milk enough for family use and generally make our own butter, though sometimes purchase of a Dutch farmer who lives a few miles from us. Cows are becoming far more expensive than they have been owing to the number of white inhabitants which is constantly increasing. We can generally purchase wheat meal and fine flour, though we have sometimes been reduced to Indian meal for a short time … For dinner today we had fried ham and eggs and sweet potatoes, with a dessert of gooseberry and custard pies. These Cape gooseberries are delicious. I may sometime send you a bottle preserved. We can purchase very common clothing here, though it is expensive. We frequently send to Cape Town. Shoes are very poor here and are a great bill of expense to us, as our children wear them constantly on account of poisonous reptiles …
Our postboy … takes his mail bag on his back & starts on foot early Mon. morning, arrives at D’Urban Tues. evening, and returns here on Thursday evening. The distance is 45 miles. We always receive the Natal Witness and letters from some or all of the brethren and sisters. But our letters from home are worth all the rest.

If only we all had a Charlotte among our own ancestors, someone who maintained a regular flow of correspondence, allowing us illuminating glimpses into their daily lives. Letters remained the most important means of communication for the Natal missionaries, though the inevitable delays (waiting for ships to arrive, weather to improve or for rivers to subside) must have been frustrating. If there was one quality essential to a missionary it was patience.

Engraving of the Entrance to the Bay of Natal, a sailing ship entering the channel, with the Bluff
and Signal Station at right and the sandy spit known as the Point at left. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

American missionaries writing from Natal in the 1840s

Rev Aldin Grout's meeting with Umpande of the Zulus in 1840, established amity with the King. The following year Grout founded a Mission Station at Inkanyezi (near Empangeni in ‘the Zulu Country’) where he opened a school.

From Inkanyezi, Charlotte writes in March 1842 to her brother James Bailey in Holden, Massachusetts, telling him that her husband made a further, more recent, visit to Umpande, ‘in order to secure a continuance of the friendly feelings already existing between us’ (i.e. between the King and Aldin Grout). Charlotte, rising to the challenge, makes plans of her own:

I thought it necessary to have a short vacation in my school, and not deeming it pleasant to remain here alone concluded to accompany him. We were therefore obliged to fit our wagon with every thing necessary for ‘housekeeping’ in the open field during about two weeks. Our company consisted of our interpreter and six native children, members of our family, besides Mr. G. and myself. We left one at home to take charge of things … After riding 8 ½ hours since we started we outspanned for the night on the banks of the Insileni river.
Their journey took about four days of hard travelling, much of it in rain and cold. Despite this, Charlotte was eager to meet the King and get sight of what she calls his 'Capitol':
As we approached [the King’s kraal] we saw no rising dome to mark it - no spire of churches or other public buildings - heard no sound of the bell to remind us that time was passing - but merely saw on a small elevation from the Umfolozi river a brush fence enclosing a circle of perhaps four acres. Just within the fence were huts extending around the entire circle, amounting to two or three hundred. The fence is higher than the tops of the huts. There was one entrance perhaps four ft. wide where the cattle passed morning and evening, besides one or two smaller ones. We outspanned outside the kraal …
Most of the inhabitants had never before seen a white woman. Some were amazed at Charlotte's walking alongside her husband, since in Zulu custom wives follow at a discreet and respectful distance. The visitors were conducted past the outer enclosure into the presence of Umpande in the royal hut.
We stopped before the door which was a foot & a half high, supposing he would see us outside, but he insisted upon our coming in. We therefore dropped down, and crawled in as well as we could … As we approached him he smiled and shook hands. We then sat down in front of him. My first object was to view his appearance. The mat was spread on the earth floor & he sat upon it a little elevated from the floor by his pillow which is a block of wood. He had a band of black & pink beads … tastefully bound around his forehead, and his body was comfortably enveloped in a blanket. He appeared to be 35 years of age. He had a native basket by his side containing his snuff box, which was a little squash shell and which he was almost constantly opening to partake of its contents. He had a few earthen dishes standing one side of the room … That was all the furniture in the room … except a pot of burning coals standing at the centre. He conversed on various topics – said he was sorry we came at this season of the year, when he had nothing to give us to eat.
The remainder of the Grouts’ visit passed peacefully enough that weekend, the King presenting them with a large ox before they left on the return trip to Inkanyezi. However, the missionaries’ future remained insecure, as they were well aware. But trouble was to come from an unexpected quarter a few months later.

Charlotte’s letter to her brother remained unposted until mid-June 1842, when she added a postscript in tiny handwriting:
We learn from natives the Eng. have arrived at Natal & taken the Port, with a loss of several killed both on the part of Eng. & Dutch. We feel anxious to hear from our brethren Adams & Lindlay [sic]; it has now been four months since we heard from them.
For more about the conflict at Port Natal to which Charlotte refers above, see:

Engraving of Port Natal with ox-wagon in foreground.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Grout missionary family letters from Natal.

Charlotte Grout (nee Bailey), wife of missionary Rev. Aldin Grout, writes to her father in Massachusetts from Umlazi, Port Natal, giving details of their new South African life:

Sep. 29, 1840
You perceive by the date of my letter that we are still at P. Natal ... We are both enjoying uninterrupted health for which we cannot be sufficiently grateful. We arise in the morning before the sun and while I am dressing Ira [one of the people on the mission station] has made a fire in the kitchen and boiled the kettle. He boils the coffee and toasts the bread which with a little butter is always, uniformly, our breakfast. Immediately after breakfast, family devotion. Then I attend to my domestic concerns a part of which are every day to make a loaf of bread. I spend no time on making pies or cake. The remainder of the A.M. we devote to study. At twelve we eat a lunch, and at three have dinner and tea at the same time. (I take neither tea or coffee.) So you see how our time is divided. But here let me say, it is not so easy performing domestic labor here as at home. We are exceedingly annoyed by a multiplicity of red ants. If a piece of bread or meat is laid down, it is entirely covered in a few minutes. All the way we can preserve food on dishes is to set everything in a cupboard and set the bottom of the cupboard in a trough of water. Our floors are of earth which we cover with rush mats, like what Mr. G. brought home. It is necessary that they be smeared once a week, which is done with cow dung and water. Everything must be lifted from the floor, for we have chests standing about. Mats must be taken up and carried out to dry, and then it takes all of a pleasant day to dry the floor, which when done, all things must be replaced …
These dung floors, well-rubbed when dry, could attain a glossy, polished appearance; best of all - and this may be more difficult to believe - they discouraged flies. This type of floor was traditional among the Zulu and other tribes and is still seen today in rural areas.

Charlotte, like other female pioneers, missed her garden 'back home', and requested family members to send seeds of favourite flowers, which unfortunately did not always thrive in the sub-tropics:
Tell sister A. that I have sown the flower seeds she gave me, but nothing came up except one marigold and two or three china asters, and the ants have destroyed those today. I think there are two or three pinks which Mr. G. sowed, if so I shall value them. He has some cotton, flax, broom corn, buck wheat … all of which grew well. This is a beautiful country. It is indeed a garden.
But Charlotte Grout's letters are not taken up solely with domestic detail; she is fully aware of the tenuous position in which missionaries found themselves in Natal and makes comment upon political and economic developments as well as religious matters. At the time Charlotte Grout was writing, Umpande was the Zulu King (successor to Dingane).
What is in reserve for us I know not. One thing we have confidence in. The Lord reigns and will do his pleasure notwithstanding the devices of men. The Dutch have not yet settled the affair mentioned in my last letter with Umpandi [sic]. They have sent for U. to be present at the Raad [Dutch Council] which is now in session. We think it doubtful whether he comes, but if he does it may throw some light on our future course.
In the end, Umpande refused to attend the Raad so it was necessary for members of the Raad to go to him instead. Rev Grout, with his interpreter, was to accompany this expedition. Charlotte would be left alone at Umlazi Mission: 'I expect a lonely time, but the Lord will take care of me. I shall have more anxiety on Mr. G's account.' 

In 1840 Umlazi Mission Station (seen in the drawing at left)  was a small collection of primitive buildings: if he believed Charlotte would be safe there, Aldin Grout's faith must have equalled hers as he left on his journey across the Tugela River into the land of the Zulu.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Treasure trove of American missionary letters discovered.

The recent discovery in the US of a previously unknown collection of letters written by members of the GROUT missionary family will lead to this correspondence being published in book form. In the interim, I have permission to quote extracts from the letters. Some necessary background first:

Mission work was frequently a family affair, and the GROUT and IRELAND families are a good example of the inter-connections found in the missionary world.

Aldin Grout (1803-1894) was a veteran missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). He was the father of Oriana Grout, who married William Ireland, another ABCFM missionary. Grout was born in Massachusetts, US. He married Hannah Davis 1834 and together with other ABCFM missionaries they sailed to South Africa, landing at Cape Town on 5 February 1835. Hannah Grout died in Bethelsdorp on 24 February 1836 and Grout took his daughter Oriana back to America the following year. While there he married Charlotte BAILEY (the writer of most of the newly-found letters and like Oriana a graduate of the Mount Holyoke Seminary) and the couple returned to SA in June 1840. The Mission Station at Ginani, originally founded by Champion and where Grout had worked for a time, had been destroyed in his absence. In April 1841 Grout established a Station at Inkanyezi, Empangeni, and opened a school. (Inkanyezi is Zulu for 'star'.) From 1842 he spent a short while at Umlazi Mission and then to Umgeni station 6 miles north of the Bay of Natal. In 1843 the ABCFM instructed missionaries to discontinue their work in the area. There was a hiatus in his association with the ABCFM in 1844, and he worked in Natal as a Government Missionary for about a year (at 150 pounds per annum) before resuming his position with the American Board in 1845. He founded Umvoti Mission Station in 1846, about 40 miles north-east of the Port and 6 miles inland from the sea; a church was completed in 1863. This Mission was renamed the Groutville Mission Station after its founder in 1878. In failing health, Grout returned to the US in February 1870 after 35 years in Natal. [Note: Aldin Grout was not related in any way to another ABCFM missionary, Lewis Grout, who worked in Natal and Zululand.]

William Ireland (1821-1888) of the ABCFM arrived in South Africa in 1849 and succeeded James C Bryant at Ifumi, 35 miles south of Durban. When Ireland’s first wife Jane nee Wilson died in 1862, he took leave of absence in America and while there married Oriana, daughter of Aldin Grout. She had been born in Bethelsdorp, Cape Colony, but her mother, Hannah Grout, had died of consumption when Oriana was a few weeks old. The child subsequently grew up with relatives in America and later attended the Mount Holyoke Serminary, one of the first institutions in the US for the higher education of women. South Africa was Oriana’s inescapable destiny and she was to return there with her husband. From 1865 to 1881, William Ireland was principal of Adams College at Amanzimtoti: Oriana worked alongside him at the station as well as presenting him with seven children, five of whom survived. In 1894 Oriana became principal of the Ireland Home for Zulu girls. Lilla Lacon Ireland their eldest daughter later worked at Adams and at Inanda. Their eldest son, William Fleetwood Ireland, was ordained in the Congregational ministry in 1895.
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had its roots in the historic ‘haystack meeting’ of 1806, when four students of Williams College took shelter under a haystack during a storm and while there vowed to work in the overseas mission field. The ABCFM turned its attention to South Africa in 1834 and the following year the first party of missionaries sailed to the Cape in the ship Burlington. They were Daniel Lindley, Alexander Wilson, Henry Venable, George Champion, Aldin Grout and Newton Adams. Wilson and Adams were both physicians. Lindley, Wilson and Venable attempted to establish themselves in King Mzilikazi’s territory but later journeyed to Natal to join their companions. Adams, Grout and Champion arrived in Natal at the end of 1835 having traveled from the Cape by ship due to the frontier war raging at the time. They received a fair reception from Dingane, the Zulu king, and by the beginning of 1838 four stations had been established, but work ground to a halt with the massacre of Piet Retief, the trekker leader.
The American Board suspended their efforts in this area because of the unsettled state of the country, but Adams continued at his own expense, taking up his post at Umlazi again in 1839 and later transferring his operations to Amanzimtoti on the Natal south coast – this was the birth of the renowned Adams Mission.

Lindley became pastor to the Voortrekkers but resumed ties with the ABCFM in 1847 when he founded Inanda mission station north west of Port Natal. Both Adams Mission and Inanda Mission hold an honoured place in the annals of Natal education. By 1850, 15 ABCFM mission stations had been founded and further missionaries had supplemented the ranks of those already in the field e.g. McKinney, Abraham, Rood, Marsh, Wilder and Tyler.

To be continued …

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shipwreck reports for genealogy: wreck of the Jane Davies 1872

The Jane Davies (given in some sources as Davie), was wrecked off East London, South Africa, on 26 May 1872. The Captain, Le Gallais, who had suffered an unknown accident previously during the voyage which resulted in paralysis of his arms, had his pregnant wife and child roped together and tied to a stanchion to keep them from being washed overboard, and they remained like that for three nights.

The report on the wreck, originally published in the E P Herald, was relayed in The Natal Mercury June 11 1872. The Capt Walker referred to was George Walker harbour-master of East London. The Bismarck, mentioned in the extract below was herself wrecked south of East London in 1873.

WRECK OF THE JANE DAVIES Natal Mercury June 11 1872

By the German screw-steamer Bismarck, Captain Staats, we are in receipt of the intelligence of the total wreck of the ship Jane Davies, Capt P Le Gallais. From the report made by Capt Staats, and an account furnished by one of the passengers by the Bismarck, we glean the following particulars:

The Bismarck left Port Natal about half-past 6 on Sunday morning, the weather being fine, and the bar extraordinarily clear. Three vessels were at the outer anchorage, one of them being the Durban.

About three hours after leaving port, the vessel got into the tail end of a cyclone, the wind being light, but a tremendous and confused sea. In the afternoon the wind shifted from south-west to north-east, blowing a heavy gale. During the night, it gradually wore round to the north-west again, blowing a heavy gale. About 8 o'clock on Monday morning, when about three miles off Cape Morgan, the starboard quarter-boat was washed away, and Capt Staats deemed it prudent to stand off out to sea, which he did until 7 in the evening, when he stood in again and arrived at East London at 10 o'clock on Tuesday morning, where he found all the shipping - six sailing vessels and one steamer - had gone ashore. We are informed that the crews of all the vessels were landed in safety with two exceptions - a man on board the Sharp was killed by a block falling on his head, and a boy was drowned from the Queen of the May. A signal was hoisted from the shore, 'Can you assist vessel in distress to the eastward?' It was then discovered that a large ship was in the breakers to the eastward of the port apparently in a disabled condition.
The Bismarck immediately steamed to the scene of disaster, and when abreast of the ship saw the crew clinging to the rigging. The vessel was lying with her bow inshore, her mainmast gone by the board, and evidently breaking up. Mr Buchardt, the second officer, and a volunteer crew took the starboard lifeboat, and proceeded to the wreck, but found it impossible on account of the heavy sea running, to render any assistance, and returned to the steamer. The crew of the Jane Davies say that when they saw the life boat going away their hearts sank within then, as they feared no further attempt would be made to rescue them from their perilous position.

However, Capt Staats was not the man to desert his brother seaman in their hour of need, and returned to East London at two p.m. where he signalled, 'Send the life-boat and I will tow her down to the wreck.' The bar being impassable, it was impossible to bring the life-boat out, but early on Wednesday morning it came, commanded by Capt Walker, and was towed out opposite the wreck. Another and more successful attempt was made to rescue the ship's company and the life-boat returned to the Bismarck with Capt P Le Gallais and child, and seventeen of the crew. Mrs Le Gallais (who is within a month of her confinement) was completely overcome, and sank fainting on deck, but was quickly conveyed to the cabin, and carefully attended to. The child, a bright little fellow of two years, beyond complaining bitterly of cold, seemed none the worse for the disaster, and was soon running up and down the deck as cheerful as could be. Capt le Gallais had the misfortune to get his arms paralysed about a month after leaving Liverpool, and was completely helpless. All the ship's company were treated with the greatest kindness by the officers and crew of the Bismarck who gave them their clothes and everything requisite. The crew had been on the wreck from Sunday evening at seven p.m., until Wednesday morning at half-past eight a.m., with the sea constantly washing over them. They were able to get a little wine and spirits from the cabin, but could not obtain water, which was the first thing they asked for when they arrived on board the Bismarck.

When the steamer left, the vessel had parted amidships, her mainmast was gone, and the cotton was washing out of her. The chief officer, second officer, and three seamen left the vessel on Monday morning, and struck out for the shore, but one of the sailors - the best swimmer in the ship - was drowned.

The Jane Davies was an iron ship of 806 tons built at Glasgow in 1868 for Mr James Galbraith of Glasgow. She was bound from Rangoon to Liverpool, with a cargo of rice and cotton, when the disaster occurred. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Capt Staats and his officers for their exertions to save the crew of the wrecked vessel, and also to Captain Walker of East London, whom Capt Staats in his report describes as 'always the same plucky old man'.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reports on wreck of American 1880, continued.

The UK press was prompt in publishing on 10 May names of the people landed at Madeira by the steamer Congo, allaying some fears. A list was provided of all the American’s passengers and their intended destinations in South Africa. This is a bonus for family historians as original passenger records for vessels departing England before 1890 were later destroyed. Initials weren’t given for every passenger on the American, so the ports for which they were bound are a convenient identifying clue. It’s likely that the six Wirths destined for East London were members of the famous circus family of that surname. The Lord family’s maidservant and the nurse accompanying the Southon family were not named. The identity of the stowaway remains unknown; no doubt he repented his choice of ship.

Another useful offering, the crew list of the American, arranged in order of rank, appeared in the press on 11 May 1880. There were only two female crew members: stewardess Ann Hyslop and E Packman, bathroom stewardess. The latter was fortunate in being among the survivors of the first boats to be rescued. Miss Packman, with 3 officers, 2 engineers and 23 crew were taken to England from Madeira by Currie’s RMS Balmoral Castle.

South African newspapers such as The Cape Times covered all stages of the story. There were numerous tributes to John Paterson, ‘the most talented member of our legislature’, and it was predicted that his death would influence the course of South African politics. In Port Elizabeth, where Paterson had been a founder of the city’s first newspaper, The Eastern Province Herald, flags were hoisted at half-mast.

As mentioned previously, The Natal Witness devoted an entire supplement to the shipwreck, with eye-witness narratives of astounding detail. A passenger, Charles Cox, stated that the survivors taken on board the Senegal ‘suffered very much from a low, nervous fever’ and that Mr Wilkinson had a finger severed during the debacle of the second wreck. There were individual acts of heroism: Mr Dunn, 4th officer, dived under the waves to save Mrs Lord. She appeared dead when lifted into the fishing boat and the superstitious Portuguese fishermen would have consigned her to the deep but smelling salts revived her. Mr Humphrey of Graaff-Reinet helped in the rescue of Mrs Lord before he fainted. These accounts thrilled the reading public at the time, and now present rich pickings for anyone tracing an ancestor who was on the ill-fated American.

Lesser columns shouldn’t be neglected as interesting snippets can emerge. Searching forward in The Natal Witness, the edition of 12 June 1880 contained a brief report under Local & General News: ‘a young man named Alexander Smith, rescued from the American, is now staying at Mrs Granger’s Boarding House, Church Street’ (Pietermaritzburg).

The British Board of Trade held an official inquiry into the loss of the ship. It was found that the master, his officers and men had done everything they could to save the vessel and the lives of the passengers, and that Captain Wait’s admirable maintenance of order when the ship was on the point of sinking deserved the greatest credit.

Read the report on the inquiry at

South African newspapers are available at the British Newspaper Library, Colindale

Anyone interested in an ancestor who may have been on board the final voyage of the American, either as passenger or member of the crew, contact me through the comment facility on this blog.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Shipwreck reports for family history: the American, 1880

News reports of shipwrecks are a wonderful source of information for family historians and it’s worth checking this avenue even if the incident seems comparatively obscure. Well-documented disasters such as the loss of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania have attained legendary status. The wreck of the American on 23 April 1880 is largely forgotten, yet this extraordinary story made headline news in the world’s press for months. The adverse publicity dealt a blow to the famous Union Line whose Chairman had, a few weeks before the event, announced the Company’s immunity from accident.

On 8 May 1880 The Natal Witness announced that the Union R.M.S. American had arrived at Cape Town, and that among the passengers was Mr John PATERSON of Port Elizabeth, Member of the Cape Parliament.

However, the report of the arrival proved incorrect (a reminder to read ahead when searching in newspapers) and was followed days later by the announcement that the American had been wrecked under dramatic circumstances.

This ship of 2,126 tons, built in Dundee in 1873, was one of 5 mail steamers put into service by the Union Company in that year as a result of the opposition of Currie's Line in the England to Cape route. In 1876 she had undergone some alterations which had slightly changed her appearance, but she was a fine large vessel. On this particular voyage, under Captain A MacLean WAIT, she had departed Plymouth for the Cape on 9 April 1880 carrying 76 hands, 66 passengers and one stowaway.

When she was slightly north of the Equator, on the morning of Friday 23 April, her passengers were roused from their slumbers by a violent shock and the stopping of the ship’s engines. The stern propeller-shaft had broken.

This wasn't an unusual occurrence among steamers of the period; generally the vessel would hoist her sail and go on to the nearest port for repair, or be taken in under tow. But the American's shaft had bent, tearing away plating at her stern as well as part of the bulkhead aft. Water began to pour in, and the captain called the passengers together to explain what had happened. He calmly ordered breakfast to be served while the crew and some volunteers from among the passengers manned the pumps.

In due course it became clear that the pumps couldn't cope and that the American was doomed. The aptly-named Captain WAIT took six hours before deciding to abandon ship; the passengers and crew were ordered into the boats and all were safely taken off. After another hour and a half the vessel disappeared stern first into the Atlantic.

Despite finding themselves adrift in mid-ocean in 8 boats, everyone behaved well. The weather was good and as they were in the regular West African shipping lanes they would be picked up soon. If not, the optimistic captain hoped to make Cape Palmas, 250 miles away, and accordingly set sail.

Unfortunately, the boats gradually became separated. Three of them were picked up by the liner Congo on her way home, on 25 April and these survivors were landed at Madeira on 8 May where the news of the wreck was cabled to England. Thus began a phase of terrible anxiety for relatives and friends of passengers and crew who were not among the occupants of the first three boats.

Three other boats were found by the American vessel Emma F Herriman, and later these survivors, about 60 in all, were transferred to a steamer, the Coanza, which landed them at Grand Bassa, Liberia, and they were then taken on board the Senegal which sailed for Las Palmas.

Their troubles weren't over yet. On 15 May, the Senegal, now carrying far more than her usual number of souls, ran aground off the coast. This was too much - a double shipwreck for the American’s passengers. Panic ensued, people rushed for the boats, one of which jammed then on being cut loose plunged into the sea. In the melee, John PATERSON, probably struck by the propeller, was lost. There were no other casualties and the remainder made for Las Palmas by wagon.

The captain of the R.M.S. Teuton, which was in the area, put back to Las Palmas having sighted the Senegal aground, and took on board those passengers of the American which had arrived at the town. The Teuton then headed for the Cape, stopping at Madeira to take on the survivors who had landed there from the British and Africa steamer, Congo, under Captain LIVERSEDGE.

It was only on 28 May that news came of one of the remaining two missing boats from the American - the occupants had been picked up by a German schooner, the Moltke, transferred to the steamer Kamerun, and then landed at Madeira. When almost all hope had been abandoned of the seven crew members who were in the last remaining boat, they were miraculously found by the Portuguese ship, Tarujo, four months after the first news of the disaster had reached England, and landed at Loanda on 21 July.

The story occupied column after column in the South African press with inevitable delays in news being received of the missing boats. Eye-witness accounts, such as that of a passenger, Mr COX, thrilled the reading public, and The Natal Witness published an entire supplement on the ill-fated American. The loss of the respected Cape Member of Parliament, John PATERSON, was deplored; in Port Elizabeth flags all over the town were flown at half-mast. It seems PATERSON had twice postponed his voyage before finally choosing to depart on the American: a premonition, perhaps?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Newspaper passenger lists in family history: the Maritzburg, Natal 1863

The Natal Mercury of 7 July 1863 announced the arrival at Durban, two days earlier, of the barque Maritzburg, 536 tons, commanded by W L Eastham. She had left London on 4 April. Apart from various paying travellers (including seven members of the Pepworth family) and a general cargo, this ship carried 'Government Passengers' i.e. people emigrating to Natal under the assisted passage scheme. Sometimes such 'steerage' lists are not included in the press report, and may be found in a separate column of the same edition - or, if you're unlucky, not at all. 

This particular passenger list obligingly gives most, though not all, first names.

Having established the date of a ship's arrival it's usually worthwhile searching back a few weeks to find mention of her under 'Vessels Expected' in the shipping column. In the case of the Maritzburg, a reference in the 3 July edition reports that she had 'left the Downs' on 31 March. The same report gives her captain's surname as 'Earthian' but Eastham as shown in the arrival entry sounds much more likely - a good example of how names supplied by captain, Port Captain, or ship agent, could be misinterpreted in the press. 

Searching forward for more on the Maritzburg, in the Mercury of 10 July we find a brief paragraph in the shape of a testimonial to Captain Eastham and his Officers, 'signed by 67 passengers':  

So, three reports for the price of one, all within the same month and offering the family historian a bit more than the bare bones of a name on a passenger list.

Note: The Maritzburg was one of J T Rennie's Direct line of clippers, i.e. sailing from the Thames direct to Natal, the first of which to arrive at Durban was L'Imperatrice Eugenie, closely followed by the Prince Alfred, the Tugela, the Natal and Natal Star, the Umgeni, the Quathlamba and others.
Read more about 'The Colonial Clippers' in Basil Lubbock's book of that title.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Voyage of the Silvery Wave to Natal 1863: a passenger's account

Those who have come before us into this favorite colony [Natal] have felt the anxious looking forward to their arrival lately experienced by the voyagers in the Silvery Wave, and we venture to request space … for a short account of our journeyings.

We left London on the first of August, taking advantage of a fine north-easterly breeze, but alas! the uncertainty of the wind is too proverbial and when the Isle of Wight lay basking in the sunshine on our lee, the fickle breeze became a head wind, and short tacks and little headway the order of the day; so we put into Torquay and rambled amid the beauties of Devon, until favorite winds should blow.

On the morning of the 10th we once more spread our sails, and on the 12th were clear of the Land’s End and speedily our sea-sick bodies were exposed to the tender mercies of the Bay of Biscay, where a heavy swell was setting in from the Western Ocean, and for the first time we were reduced to close-reefed topsails. Here also were tested the sea-going qualities of the Silvery Wave, for this was her maiden voyage … buoyant as a cork, quick in stays, dry as terra firma, she is meet in all things to gladden a sailor’s heart.

On then we sped and caught the north-east trades, but they were light, and progress not being rapid we made efforts to pass the time as profitably and pleasantly as might be, and so it was proposed to commence a series of lectures under the auspices of the Silvery Wave Debating Society.

Mr Jenkins of Natal was the first to open the ball in a lecture on the colony to which we were hastening. As may be imagined this excited our interest in a great degree, all information on this head being of necessity valuable, and throughout our voyage this gentleman had been always read to give advice and counsel as to our future proceedings, and I believe we shall all be indebted to him for a clearer insight into colonial affairs than we could otherwise have obtained.

Mr Scott followed Mr Jenkins in a series of lectures on Poets and Poetry, interspersed with readings from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Byron. [An] accompanying prologue was also composed and read by him ...

Mr Walter Peace [Natal Immigration Agent] also entertained us well by an account of his Journey into Russia.

On the 18th September we crossed the line and gave Father Neptune a hearty welcome on board, we paid the penalty, scraped acquaintance with the barber, and became freemen of his august dominions; concluding the day with a pleasant party and dance on the quarter-deck. This gladdened our hearts after the three weeks of the doldrums we had the ill luck to encounter.

Singularly enough, the north-east trade winds deserted us … The south-east trade winds were very favorable but off the Cape we experienced baffling winds and for a week were detained by a strong easterly breeze.

But at last this voyage, though a pleasant one, drew to a close and as we hoped in two or three days to sight land, it was desired to testify to the well-deserved respect we bore to Captain Warren, by the presentation of a testimonial expressive of our high opinion regarding him as a seaman, a gentleman, and a Christian. Mr Peace took the chair, Mr Wilkes presented the Testimonial, and Mr Jenkins a Bible as an earnest of their high regard.

The Captain spoke in a most feeling manner, reciprocating the kindly wishes, and expressing his gratification at being held so well in their estimation. A very pleasant evening was then passed. After the usual loyal toasts, the health of the Lieutenant-Governor and Legislative Council of Natal was given, and several others followed, all responded to by various passengers.

So ended a pleasant passage, made the less tedious by the kind, unwearying attention of Captain Warren, by fine weather, and all the attendant advantages with which a kind providence saw fit to bless, and in a spirit of humble thankfulness to God for his almighty care and guidance, we desire to end this short notice of the


[Source: The Natal Mercury, 1 November 1863; original spellings etc retained]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Finding more than passenger lists in SA newspapers

Newspapers, always a rewarding source, can provide a surprising amount of information if the family historian is prepared to go the extra mile, extract as much as possible on the topic being investigated, and carefully interpret the details.

An example is the arrival at Natal of the ship Silvery Wave in November 1863. The passenger list, with those of other vessels, appears in The Natal Mercury of 3 November.

Several pieces of information are evident in this report: first that it took the Silvery Wave three months to sail from London. Next, that she was a small vessel and consequently not carrying many passengers. We cannot be precise about the number of those on board, because ‘and family’ – a term used twice in the list – could mean anything from one to a dozen children. Applying a reasonable average, we could hazard a guess at 25 to 30 passengers, divided between ‘first’ and ‘second’ cabin, and an unknown number of crew. Whatever the true total of souls, the size of the ship wouldn’t have been conducive to a comfortable voyage. She was also carrying a general cargo. The passenger list is coy about initials, except in the case of ‘J Hardy’.

It’s possible that more about the passengers could be established by referring to the European Immigration Index at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, searching on the surname of your interest among the Silvery Wave’s passengers and then consulting the relevant original passenger register. In the early 1860’s the registers tended not to include as much detail as in later decades.

It would be a mistake to abandon the newspaper search at this stage. Searching forwards and keeping a lookout for further references to the Silvery Wave, the edition of 10 November 1863 offers the following:

Her tonnage is given here as 260. It seems the ship was British-built expressly for the Natal trade and is described as a ‘clipper brig’. To refer to a ship as a clipper meant she had forward-raking bows and aft-raking masts, that is, she was built for speed. Her cabin accommodation was considered ‘superior’ (by her owners, at least). The ship was busy discharging her current cargo and preparing for embarkation on the homeward journey.

Advertisements like this appeared regularly in the press. If you find one for the ship on which your ancestor sailed, it would make an attractive and appropriate illustration for the family history narrative.

Continuing the forward search, on 13 November a more substantial nugget emerges: an account of the voyage of the Silvery Wave ‘by a passenger’. Reports of this type aren't uncommon and are often combined with an expression of thanks to captains as well as ships’ surgeons for their skills in making the voyage as pleasant as possible for all on board. These ‘testimonials’ published in the press were a feature of successful mid-19th century voyages before the increase in sailings, and consequently in captains, made such personal expressions of gratitude obsolete.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

19th c South African press reports of shipping

The Abercrombie Robinson had been lying at anchor since her arrival at the Cape on 25 August 1842, carrying over 600 members of various regiments and about 80 civilians (see previous post).

Three days later a north-westerly gale struck Table Bay, several vessels being blown ashore. The troop transport Abercrombie Robinson ran aground at the mouth of the Salt River while a British convict vessel, Waterloo, became a total wreck. Because the latter was an older ship with unsound timbers, she was smashed to pieces in the surf and 190 people on board were lost. The majority were convicts destined for Tasmania and there were also men of the 99th Regiment, some with their families.

All those on the Abercrombie Robinson were saved due to the discipline and courage which prevailed during the crisis.

The South African Commercial Advertiser carried a report in its edition of 3 September 1842 stating:

‘The Abercrombie Robinson had come into the Bay on the evening of 25th, when it was dark, proceeded too far up the Bay, and came to anchor in a position unsafe for her should it come on to blow. The wind did blow a gale with squalls, and she wisely went on shore with an anchor at her bows, thereby saving some seven hundred souls, most of whom must have perished had she foundered where she rode at anchor. Had she been in a proper position, she would have rode out the weather ... Of the Waterloo it is impossible to speak with moderation. Deadly blame rests somewhere, and justice will, we have no doubt, find out the parties that deserve it.
So great a loss of life [as in the wreck of the Waterloo] has not happened in Table Bay since the year 1799. On the 5th of November of that year, His Majesty's Ship Sceptre, Captain [Valentine] Edwards, was driven on shore, and ... immediately went to pieces, being an accursed old hulk on her way home to be broken up. A few hours after she struck not a vestige of her was to be seen, but the fragments of the wreck scattered on the strand, in myriads of pieces, not a single plank remaining whole, nor two attached together. Captain Edwards, his son, ten other officers, and near 300 seamen and marines perished.'
The Sceptre had been built in England in 1781, a 64 gun ship of the line, but was clearly past her best by 1799 - 'an accursed old hulk' leaves no room for confusion.

Wreck of the transport Abercrombie Robinson and the convict ship Waterloo during a gale on 28 August 1842 in Table Bay
The Waterloo is seen on the left, engulfed by the sea; centre-stage is the Abercrombie Robinson; in the foreground some survivors are being rescued from the breakers.

For more on the Abercrombie Robinson:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Newspaper shipping reports in family history research

This report of a ship arrival at Table Bay is a good example of the usefulness - as well as the limitations - of this type of source for family history research.

The ship in question is the Abercrombie Robinson, a troop transport, and the year is 1842.

Leaving aside for the moment the dramatic events surrounding this vessel's arrival, the report emphasises the lack of detailed information given by the press about the rank and file of the military on board ships.

True to form, officers are named but NCO's and privates are not. Neither are soldiers' wives and children. Note the difference in terminology between the ladies of the officers and the soldiers' wives of the lower ranks. Class distinction was alive and well on vessels in the mid-19th c.

'454 non-commissioned officers' of the 91st Regiment's Reserve Battalion could hide numerous potential forebears from our view. Ditto the 11 NCOs and privates of the Cape Mounted Rifleman, travelling with '1 woman and 4 children' (no ladies here). 'Two pensioners' remain obscure - as do their families.

A detachment of the 27th Regiment offers 32 unnamed NCOs, with a couple of wives and '1 soldier's child'.
On a personal note, I found it curious that the two Ensigns leading this detachment were DALZELL and HAMILTON - surnames inter-linked in my own family history and an incentive to follow-up the reference.

The report underlines that wives (of all classes) did 'follow the drum', and at no little risk to themselves. Also, it gives an indication of the continual movement of British troops in and out of the Colony, back and forth between Britain and South Africa. The Abercrombie Robinson was intending to make for Algoa Bay to disembark her military passengers and embark members of other units before heading 'home'.

This was not to be: the vessel was wrecked in Table Bay during a north-west gale on 28th August 1842 - two days after the above report appeared in the South African Commercial Advertiser.
More in a future post.

Note also the brief letter below the report, concerning a lighthouse to be built on Cape Agulhas and Cape Receife. A topic to come back to later.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

19th c immigration to South Africa: a chronology

1795-1803 First British Occupation of the Cape

1814 Cape formally ceded to Britain

1817 Benjamin Moodie’s private scheme: 200 Artisans from Scotland to the Cape

1818 Henry Nourse’s private scheme brought his employees from Ireland to the Cape

1820 Government scheme brought 4 000 British Settlers to Albany, Cape; now known as The 1820 Settlers

1823 John Ingram’s scheme: contract labourers from Ireland to the Cape in the Barossa

1830s and 1840s Small parties brought by agents such as JS Christopher from Britain to the Cape.

1844 Government sponsored immigration: children and single Irish women from Britain to the Cape

1848 Jonas Bergtheil’s private scheme to bring German settlers to Natal: known as the Bergtheil Settlers or the Cotton Germans

1849 Emigration Philanthropic Society of England sponsored 20 women from British workhouses to the Cape.

1849 William Garrod and Dr Charles Johnston brought out British emigrants on the John Gibson to settle on Natal north coast at Tongaat

1849-1851 Natal Emigration and Colonization Company i.e. the Byrne scheme, brought 2 200 British Settlers; now known as the Byrne Settlers

1849-1851 W J Iron’s Christian Emigration & Colonization Society brought out 400 Wesleyan Methodists from Britain to settle at Verulam, Natal. Irons’s scheme piggy-backed on Byrne’s scheme, the Wesleyans making the voyage in Byrne’s ships.

1849-51 Immigrants from the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Hampshire travelled to Natal on Byrne’s ship the Lady Bruce; another piggy-back scheme.

1856 Alexander McCorkindale brought 80 British immigrants to Natal

1856 German settlers to Kaffraria, Cape

1857 Irish women immigrants and some artisan families on the Lady Kennaway to Kaffraria

1857-62 Assisted immigration provided by Natal Government: 1 342 British immigrants in 5 years

1858 New Gelderland settlers brought from Holland to Natal by T C Colenbrander

1857-67 Government aided immigration: the largest Cape scheme, 12 000 Settlers from Britain (including 74 immigrants from Germany)

1880 Willowfountain (Wilgefontein) settlers from Britain to Natal

1882 Norwegian immigrants to Natal: now known as the Marburg settlers

Note: use the search facility on this blog to find further detail and useful links relating to the above phases of immigration to South Africa in the 19th c.

The Last of England
by Ford Madox Brown

Ford Madox Brown's famous painting The Last of England encapsulates in a romantic, personal and unparalleled way, the story of emigration from Britain. The artist shows the moment of departure, with the white cliffs of Dover receding ever further in the background, and in the foreground a young couple huddled close together in the prow of the boat taking them away from everything they knew as home, towards the sailing ship which will transport them across the ocean into an uncertain future in a strange land. Beneath the woman's cloak, a small child is almost hidden from view and the parents' faces show their sadness and courage while they resolutely face their destiny, never looking back.  It's said that Brown intended to depict two friends who were leaving for Australia, but his picture transcends such details and gives us the archetypal 19th century British emigrant family.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

20th century landings at Natal

Sail and steam co-existed at Durban for many years. From the early 1880s progress gradually began to be made in deepening the harbour channel by dredging. This and other schemes for improvement, including the controversial breakwaters designed by several harbour engineers, continued through the following decade, though the bay remained inaccessible to vessels of a deep draft.

By 1904 as a result of continued dredging operations 33 million tons of sand had been shifted.

On 26 June 1904 the Armadale Castle was the first mail ship to cross the Bar and enter the harbour. She was the flagship of the Union Castle Line (Union Line and Castle Line having amalgamated in 1900) weighing in at nearly 13 000 tons and with a draft of 7,6 metres.

This historic crossing marked the end of the basket-landing era. Passengers would be able to disembark by gangplank directly from ship to shore. The arrival and departure of the mailships became glamorous and exciting events drawing crowds of sightseers: bands played, and coloured streamers were thrown by travellers on deck or by their friends who had come to ‘see them off’.

Between 1947 and 1848, in the optimistic years following World War II, the Union-Castle Company Immigrant Service brought 28 000 British immigrants to South Africa.

For family historians, the best way of tracking an ancestor who departed by ship from British ports between 1890 and the 1960s is via the passenger search facility provided by ancestorsonboard, powered by  This information stems from original Board of Trade passenger records; regrettably records prior to 1890 were destroyed.

Direct link to the search form:

The Windsor Castle would be the last mailship to make the regular call at Durban, in July 1977. When she departed, so did much of the romantic aspect of the port.

Note the original lighthouse close to the end of the Bluff: opened with much ceremony on 23 January 1867, its beacon went out for the last time on 15 October 1940 and the structure was demolished by the military in June 1941.

The Point, Durban, from the Bluff during the 1890s: note the mixture of sail and steam.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Disembarking troops at Port Natal

Disembarking relatively small groups of passengers at Natal's port was difficult enough. Landing entire regiments as well as horses, arms, ammunition and other supplies in time of war was a nightmare. During the years and months immediately preceding the Zulu War of 1879, the Bar across the harbour entrance was an obstacle to larger ships. Every soldier, every horse and all the accoutrements of a great military force had to come ashore in small vessels (lighters or tenders of various descriptions). While waiting in the outer anchorage, ships were always in danger from changes in wind and weather, with the real possibility of a vessel being dashed on to the rocks below the Bluff - as had happened two decades earlier in the case of the former East Indiaman, Minerva, in 1850, and other subsequent wrecks.

At the port there were no wharves as we understand the term today. Lighters carrying troops and equipment would be beached on the shore. Sometimes floating gangplanks would be used. Horses and other animals were winched up in a body-sling and transferred from the large vessel to the lighter: that can't have been as easy as it sounds, particularly not for animals which had already endured months of shipboard conditions.
Referring to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, The Times History of the War mentions that 13 000 horses died at sea and many times that number perished because they were put into the field before they had time to recover from the effects of the sea voyage. About 2 000 mules died at sea on the way to South Africa. (The Remount Department, in Britain and South Africa, during the Anglo-Boer War supplied 520 000 horses and 150 000 mules: cost, 15 million pounds.)

Early in 1880, with the conclusion of the Zulu War and the battles of Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift, Ulundi and others passing into history, the task of re-embarkation would begin. No sooner had that been achieved, than the outbreak of the First Boer War (or Transvaal War of Independence) required the landing of further troops and the usual stores and equipment. Durban had become an extremely busy port.

From 1899, if your British ancestor served in the Anglo-Boer War, he may well have been loaded into the notorious basket contraption and lowered over the side of a ship into a waiting lighter.

Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902
Troops landing by basket
at Durban

Footnote: a comment from someone in Michigan that this 'strange device' reminds him of cages used by fishermen to catch lobsters in Alaska. I'll bet they don't catch many wearing pith helmets, as seen above. 

Friday, April 30, 2010

Landing at Natal by basket

In 1882 Donald Currie's Castle Line began regular mail services as far as Durban (i.e. not terminating at Cape Town) and by 1887 both the rival companies, Union and Castle, were providing this service from England to Durban.
These mail ships still had to anchor outside the port in the 'roads' or 'roadstead'. This was due to the existence of the Bar, a sandbank across the entrance to the Bay of Natal, and a significant obstacle in the way of development of the harbour. It was a matter of vital concern because without a port the Colony could not have continued its existence - trade, immigration etc would be impossible.
The depth of water over the Bar depended on certain factors - the quantity of sand or silt built up, onshore winds, currents, tidal scour. During the history of the port, several harbour engineers were employed to remedy the situation, with varying degrees of success. 
For passengers, it meant that at the end of a long voyage and with Natal in sight from the deck of their ship, they could have a long wait before they disembarked on dry land. Not only that, but the process of disembarkation was far from easy. It took place in the outer anchorage - by basket. This contraption was made of wicker, with a door in the side through which the passengers would enter. The door would be secured on the outside and the basket winched up then lowered to the deck of the waiting tender (small ship for ferrying passengers in and out of the port). When the passengers emerged from the basket, it would go back for another group. Approximately eight to ten people could be carried each journey, depending on their size.
It wasn't an exercise for the squeamish, particularly in a strong wind and with a choppy sea causing the tender to bob up and down, not necessarily synchronised with the movements of the larger incoming vessel.
Passengers entering the basket at Durban, postcard 1901

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Settler Ancestors from Europe to Natal in the 1880s

While the majority of settlers to Natal continued to be of British origin, other countries also explored the prospect of Natal as a destination for emigrants. In 1880 the Natal Government was petitioned on the topic of Danish emigration. A couple of years earlier, Otto Witt and a business partner, Fristedt, intended introducing immigrants from Sweden into Natal, and requested land on which to locate them.

However, the next major group of immigrants from Europe were Norwegians and they arrived in 1882, founding a settlement at Marburg on the south coast of Natal between the Umzimkulu and Izotsha Rivers. UPDATE: see further posts on this topic in 2014

For passenger lists of Germans travelling from Hamburg from 1858 to 1883 see Joachim Schubert's exceptionally useful site at  These passengers disembarked at various South African ports.

By 1880, Walter Peace had taken over as Natal Immigration Agent based in London. The Natal Mercury, 19 May 1880 reported the arrival of the URMS African from England after a very good voyage.
She had on board 60 immigrants - 20 men and 10 women and children. The men are carpenters, blacksmiths, farm labourers, engineers, gardeners and joiners, and the women, housekeepers and domestic servants.  We have little doubt that we have to thank Mr Walter Peace ... for such a large and respectable class of immigrants as landed at the Point yesterday. Mr Peace has this year been instrumental in sending out a total  of 200 immigrants. Early yesterday Mr Reid of the Immigration Depot went out in the Union [tug] and boarded the African for the purpose of looking after those who were arriving here under the Immigration Act and in a short time the Union landed them safely on to the wharf. Some friends of the immigrants were present, but there were some more who found themselves on a foreign land without those who required their services being there to receive them.  For such parties Mr Reid had made preparations by having tents erected on the Market Square for their reception, and it speaks well for the friendship formed by this large body when we mention that in no instance was a poor stranger allowed to enter the tents; those who had found friends kindly looked after their less fortunate fellow passengers, and in a short time they were all distributed throughout the town in boarding-houses. They spoke highly of the treatment they received while coming out. An infant, aged a little over a year, died on the 18th of April. The names of the passengers will be found in our shipping column.

URMS African


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Natal immigration in the 1870s

West St, Durban, 1874

In its Report for the year 1879 (the year of the Anglo-Zulu War) the Natal Land & Immigration Board stated:

'During the first quarter of the year 1879 owing doubtless to the disturbed state of South Africa, only four immigrants arrived in this Colony under the auspices of the Land and Immigration Board. During the latter part of the year however the number of arrivals rapidly increased to a monthly average of nearly 31 souls, the total number during the whole year being 287. In addition to those who arrived, approved applications for 340 more persons were sent to England during the latter half of the year, and of these 72 had arrived up to February 16 1880. The total number of applications received by the Board during 1879 was 300, being 165 in excess of those received in 1878.

In all cases where free passages are granted by the Board the nominee is under engagement of service for a period of not less than one year or more than three years at the rate of wages current in the Colony, according to trade. This arrangement has been found to work very well, so much so that in some cases immigrants who came to the Colony under this system are now in their turn employers of labour introduced in the same manner.

In November last a special agent, Mr J E Methley, proceeded to England, by direction of the Board, to select 32 families to be located on the farm ‘Wilgefontein’ [Willowfountain] purchased by the Board in 1878 for the purpose of forming a special agricultural settlement in the vicinity of Pietermaritzburg. This farm 5 500 acres in extent has been subdivided in the manner specified in Government Notice No 257 of 1878 and it is expected that the immigrants will be located on this settlement in June next.

Several proposals have been received … from Missionary Societies and others with the view of forming German, Norwegian and other settlements.'

The Willowfountain settlers were to arrive on the Nyanza 12 July 1880.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Immigrants to Natal in the 1870s

This photograph shows Field Street, Durban, during the 1870s: the road is unsurfaced and could become a quagmire in the rainy season. Structures vary in size and style. It's still the era of the horse and the horse- or ox-drawn wagon. Dalton's Saddlery, in business from at least a decade earlier, (sign shown in white on the side of the first building at left), would have been kept busy. In fact, George Dalton did so well that in 1872 he opened a branch 'at the Umgeni, adjoining Allen's Ferry Hotel'.

Everything looks peaceful enough, yet the 1870s would prove to be a turbulent decade in Natal's history. The inhabitants were continually fearful of an uprising of local tribes. 1873 brought the much-mishandled Langalibalele incident: in brief, the chief of the AmaHlubi resisted orders from the magistrate to register guns held by the tribesmen and failed to report personally in Pietermaritzburg. This was regarded as rebellion and British troops assisted by Natal volunteers were sent on a punitive expedition to Hlubi territory. Langalibalele (loosely translated, Blazing Sun) escaped but was eventually arrested. In a skirmish at Bushman's River Pass, Major A W Durnford's force lost three Natal Carbineers (one of the them the son of the Colonial Secretary, Erskine) and Durnford received a wound to his arm which made it unusable for the rest of his life (only about six years, as he died on the field of Isandhlwana in 1879). Langalibalele and his sons suffered banishment and imprisonment.

Meanwhile, various political factors, including a boundary dispute with the Transvaal, were causing additional pressure on the Colony of Natal, and would culminate in the outbreak of war in 1879 - now referred to as the Anglo-Zulu War.

Yet Natal continued to be advertised in the press and elsewhere as a suitable prospect for immigrants from overseas. Certain occupations could guarantee a free passage.  The Natal Almanac of 1877, under the heading 'Immigration from Europe' states:
Assisted and free passages are granted only to persons nominated under applications and contracts by residents previously approved by the Protector of Immigrants in the Colony. Assisted passages from Great Britain are in the first instance paid in full by the Natal Government upon the written undertaking of the applicants in the Colony, ratified by their nominees, who ... become responsible for the part payment of the passage money at the rate of 10 pounds sterling for every statute adult, in two equal instalments ... Free passages are granted from the United Kingdom for immigrants of the following classes: Domestic Servants, Farm Labourers, Mechanics viz Engineers, Engine-drivers, Carpenters, Bricklayers, Stonemasons, Blacksmiths, Wheelwrights, Shipbuilders ...

Natal Almanac and Yearly Directory 1877