Monday, April 15, 2013

Sugar and Natal: the Pioneers - Morewood

For decades prior to white settlement in Natal, there was an indigenous variety of sugar cane which grew wild and was known to the Zulus as imphe. It was chewable and sweet, but its sugar content wasn't found by settlers to be high enough to make its cultivation commercially viable. There was also umoba, an imported strain of true sugarcane: in 1837 the traveller Nathaniel Isaacs mentions both these plants. In 1858, Michael Jeffels, a planter and miller at Isipingo, stated that to his certain knowledge sugarcane was growing in the area of the Isipingo River at the time of Shaka's war with Faku in 1828.


Morewood, regarded as the founding father of the sugar industry in Natal, made a very early visit to this area in 1833, before spending time in Australia, New Zealand and Mauritius. He returned to Natal in 1838, after the Battle of Blood River, when British military forces had been temporarily withdrawn and the flag of the Voortrekker Republic of Natalia had been hoisted at the port. Morewood was on good terms with the Voortrekkers and was one of the men chosen to visit the Zulu King, Mpande, in the hopes of making a peace treaty. In 1840 Morewood was appointed Harbour Master and Commissioner of Customs under the Republican government, and it was in this capacity that he became involved in the events of 1842 when the vessels Conch and Southampton brought reinforcements to assist in raising the siege of a British force at what is now the Old Fort, Durban. William Bell, Captain of the Conch, remarked that Morewood, on being rowed out to the schooner, accompanied by the Voortrekkers' Military Secretary, was astonished to find the Conch's lower deck bristling with grenadiers 'as thick as bees'. According to Bell's Narrative, Morewood 'had sufficient power of speech left to say he was a friend of the English, but at the same time I could see that he was much embarrassed by the position he had placed himself in ...' and it truly was a difficult situation for an Englishman in the employ of the Trekkers.

Morewood's farm, Compensation, in 1852
However, Morewood remained in Natal and though the British authorities retained some understandable suspicions as to his allegiance, he quickly adjusted to the new British regime and began to pursue his interest in sugar cultivation.

In November 1847 the first plant cane was brought to Natal from Mauritius on the Sarah Bell, by the Milner brothers. It's thought that this cane, or a portion of it, was imported for Morewood. He began planting towards the end of 1847 or early in 1848. At that time he was employed as manager of the Natal Cotton Company on the Umhloti River, but he resigned his position in July 1849 to focus on growing sugar on his property, Compensation.

According to John Robinson's Notes on Natal written in 1870:
... before 1850 agriculture in this colony was confined to the growth of a little wheat by the Boers, and of a fair quantity of maize by the natives. Cotton culture ... had been attempted at New Germany (by the Bergtheil Settlers) ... a few coffee bushes were bearing berries in the garden of a private householder of Durban, and a small patch of sugarcane was being planted by Mr Morewood at Compensation.' Arrowroot (to a value of £31) was the first agricultural product to be exported from Natal, in 1853, but the following year the export record showed a new export - Sugar, £2. 
It was a small beginning, but of great significance. After that date, sugar was exported every year in increasing quantities, and, as Morewood had predicted, it became the 'staple article of Natal'. 

A young man named George Lamond who arrived in Durban in June 1850 on the Byrne ship Unicorn, joined Morewood at Compensation and later wrote that he found the estate under the management of 'a surveyor named George Jackson, with some half-a-dozen ploughmen (plus native labour). We had six acres under cane ... When I left in 1854 we had more than 100 acres of cane ready for crushing. In 1851 I helped to make and eat the first sugar manufactured in Natal ... The ploughmen were Randal, South, Coward, Dykes and an apprentice named Moore, son of a Gloucester parson, and a grand old Dutch gardener named van Versfeld'. Late in 1850, Morewood constructed a simple mill, which would be used to crush his first cane crop.

Morewood, a man of apparently boundless energy, was also involved in immigration as agent in Natal for the Justina, which arrived in November 1850 under a private scheme arranged by George Murdoch and Capt Richard Pelly. Among the passengers were Thomas and Lewis Reynolds who would become leading figures in the sugar industry. The ship also brought £5 000 worth of merchandise for sale in South Africa: this venture had been arranged by Morewood's brother, J.J. Morewood, then residing in London.

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