Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sugar and Natal: the Pioneers - Sinclair, Povall, Feilden


EF Rathbone mentions that in 1881 he saw Sinclair's 'small American mill' powered by two oxen. Sinclair probably planted his first cane about 1872 - the Natal Blue Book for 1874 notes that the Ambleside Plantation mill was an 8-horse cattle power American mill and American evaporator. Sinclair farmed at Lower Umzimkulu in 1878, naming the property Ambleside after a British ship of that name which was wrecked in August 1868 on the coast between the mouths of the Umtentweni and Umzimkulu Rivers. He introduced the first sugar mill, crushed the first cane and made the first sugar at Umzimkulu.


Meadowbank Sugar Estate was started by Povall in 1850, and he began crushing cane at his own mill in 1863. By late 1874, he sold the estate for £6 000. Eventually Meadowbank became part of Natal Estates Ltd.

Povall, a Wesleyan who arrived with his wife Mary and three children on the Edward in March 1850, worked with George Cato on breaking up ships wrecked on Natal's coast, and assisted in the building of the William Shaw at Durban.


Feilden was one of the earliest sugar planters in Natal. A fellow passenger of Povall's on the Edward, Feilden's home in Durban was Feniscowles, at Umbilo. It's not often remembered that Feilden planted his first cane at Umbilo as early as 1850. From Henry Milner, he leased 130 acres on the Springfield Estate where he planted cane. It showed considerable vision on Feilden's part as it was some time prior to Morewood showing the feasibility of this crop in Natal. The sugar sold at the first public auction in Durban in June 1855 was produced by Feilden, who was Milner's largest lessee.

In 1856, the Umgeni River came down in spate and the resulting floods destroyed a portion of Feilden's crop. Though the remainder was saved, this disaster led to the Feildens returning to England in July 1857.

The Feilden farm, Feniscowles
Feilden's contribution to the sugar industry was important though of comparatively short duration. He acquired immortality through his wife, Eliza Whigham Feilden, who kept a diary of their experiences in Natal, illustrated by her own sketches. This, as well as some of her correspondence with her relatives in England, was the basis for her book My African Home published in London in 1887.

She writes: 'Alas for our hopes! The river Umgeni rose so rapidly, and so high, that the whole country in its neighbourhood became a lake. Twenty or thirty feet of water covered many of the plantations ... The effects of this sad flood were greater and worse than we at all anticipated, and finally drove us out of Natal.'

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