Monday, February 29, 2016

Passenger lists: originals

Having mentioned the difficulties inherent in published passenger lists, we come to original handwritten lists. 

Firstly, these are not complete or cover all arrivals/departures, certainly as far as Natal records are concerned.

The page at left shows arrivals during 1845, early for Natal, and gives an idea of the lack of legibility - though the writing itself is not bad. Trawling through an entire register of similar entries would be time-consuming and hard on the eyes. There was no consistency in the way passengers were listed and seldom are any initials offered.

We do get the date of arrival and name of ship, sometimes the tonnage, and the captain's name. Occasionally we learn when the ship departed the port again and what her destination would be.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tracking details of a ship arrival

By patiently going through, column by column, a relevant time-frame for the arrival of a ship in South Africa it is sometimes possible to put together a detailed account of her history from the moment of her embarkation until reaching her destination.

In the case of the Jan van Brakel, a Dutch emigrant ship, we find a report in the Natal Mercury of 23 June 1859 of her arrival at Simon's Bay (Simonstown in the Cape) on her way to Natal:

Then there is a reference on 14 July to her 'standing off the port' (Durban) and in some danger as a result - she had lost both her anchors:

There follows a mention, on 21 July 1859, of her lying at the outer anchorage off Port Natal. A long wait aboard after a lengthy voyage from Holland for her cargo of immigrants (given variously as 75 or over fifty).

Reading each separate report as well as the shipping column once she had officially arrived at Durban we find she had left Amsterdam on 15 March, so her voyage lasted four months.

Finally we find an advertisement published prior to her departure, homeward-bound:

The press had a few tries at the Captain's name but appear to have finally settled on De Roever.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Cost of digitization

The very relevant post linked above focuses on US records but applies equally to records in South Africa that may disappear forever - including my favourite soapbox subject, the Natal newspapers.

Originals held in Pietermaritzburg have deteriorated with public handling and will undoubtedly continue to do so. But it would be a mammoth and costly project to preserve them in e-format.

Americans are far more alive to heritage and preservation issues than we are in this country and they have the population - and wealth -  to support such endeavours.

Souvenir Saturday: Dacomb

The Dacomb family interests me because one of them, Charles, farmed next door to my husband's Smith ancestor at the Dacomb farm named Dunragit near Umzinto on the South Coast of Natal.

Charles was notable for having ridden a zebra to his canefields, an unusual idiosyncrasy in the 1880s/90s. It conjures up an agreeable colonial image and it was in all likelihood the original settler, Charles Dacomb, who indulged in zebra-riding.

This portrait by photographer Benjamin Kisch may be of Charles William Dacomb, his son. Three original Dacomb brothers - William, Joseph and another Charles - emigrated to Natal in the 1850s.

The farmer in the portrait, Charles William, was son of Charles, and married Elizabeth Hall in 1894. The costume, what little of it appears in the photograph, points to the 1890s so may have been taken on the occasion of the sitter's marriage, when Charles William was in his thirties.

Unidentified gentleman riding zebra

Friday, February 26, 2016

Steerage passengers

Steerage passengers, surely a rich hunting ground for ancestors, were unfortunately often not named, this privilege being reserved for the 'cabin' and 'second class' passengers.

In this Cape newspaper shipping column of April 1837 4 people are travelling steerage on the Conch (Capt Bell's ship) but we are left guessing as far as their names are concerned.

In later years, when settlers were arriving in numbers, it is sometimes possible to find a separate passenger list for steerage or 'government immigrants' as in the one below in March 1862 from an original register in Natal. Occasionally a separate list of steerage passengers would be published in the local press.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Arrivals and Departures: Port Natal

Passengers departing on Carisbrook Castle for Cape ports; Natal Witness 18 Feb 1905. (Copied from microfilmed newspaper and not very clear.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Arriving at Port Natal ca 1880s

Durban harbour from the Bluff, showing the Point at right, sailing vessels at anchor, with a tug in the centre of the photo, the buildings of the settlement of Durban spread out along the shores of the Bay, and the Berea hills in the distance. This sight met many an ancestor's eye as he or she sailed into the port. It must have been very welcome after long days at sea.

Monday, February 22, 2016

SA passenger lists: the Bottom Line

If you're looking for an ancestor's arrival by ship in South Africa, this is the Bottom Line:

If your ancestor was part of organised emigration schemes such as the Byrne Settlers to Natal, there is a good chance that his arrival is well-documented.

If he was a Lone Ranger, travelling on his own or with wife and family, having paid for the passage out and under no obligation to settle in any particular location, it is more difficult to identify him on passenger lists - the original registers are not complete, press columns may not give initials, neither do they generally give children's names. See the example left.

In many instances, first class or 'cabin' passengers only are named, while hundreds of steerage passengers may be ignored. Rank and file of the military are not individually named.

The British BT passenger lists begin at 1890 which cuts out several decades of arrivals in South Africa. So while the online facility provided by findmypast etc is useful for finding ancestors destined for SA, this only applies after 1890. Earlier records were destroyed by the Board of Trade.

No cohesive effort has been made to index all passenger arrivals in South Africa. It is perhaps an impossible task to contemplate. EGGSA provides a welcome selection of arrivals at but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Mole's Blog gives some Natal passenger lists. Local newspapers do have shipping columns but these are randomly offered and time-consuming to find.

Conclusion, it may not be the best place to start looking for an ancestor. Instead, try searching NAAIRS for a deceased estate which would contain the Death Notice.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bluff Lighthouse pre-1930s

Durbanites were proud of their lighthouse and it featured on many a postcard similar to the one above. Unfortunately the postmark is illegible. The photo can be dated to pre-1930s when the tower was encased unattractively in concrete, due to fears of the structure's deterioration.

The Bluff Light flashed in unbroken service from its opening in January 1867 to July 1922 when the optic equipment was replaced. A third order triple flashing optic mounted on a mercury bath pedestal with clockwork drive was installed. This optic, equipped with a petroleum vapour burner, exhibited a group of three white flashes every twenty seconds, the candlepower being approximately 150 000 cd. On 15 September 1932 electricity was installed. A 4 kw incandescent lamp replaced the petroleum vapour burner and the candlepower increased to
3 000 000cd.

This increase in the candlepower brought favourable as well as unfavourable reaction. In the local press appeared: 'Coming up the coast last night, with exceptional visibility, the loom of the Bluff light was picked up over 60 miles from Durban by officers of the steamer Contractor. The cycle of the flash and the intervals rendered it impossible to mistake it for any other lighthouse on the coast. This is the furthest the loom has been seen since the light has been increased'.

Further comment followed: 'When the power of the light was increased there was a considerable outcry from the residents of Durban who complained that the bright beam shining on to the white walls and through windows disturbed their slumbers'.

Screens were erected to prevent the light travelling inland between certain areas.

The writer of the above postcard states that 'a most lovely view is displayed before one's eyes from this lofty place - a breeze is delightful'.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Military passengers not named

I am often asked about arrivals of military men travelling by ship with their regiment and the extract below from the Natal Mercury of 14 April 1859 perfectly illustrates the difficulty encountered in identifying such ancestors.

Aboard the Himalaya transport were 'officers and 450 rank and file of H.M. 85th Regt.'

Rank and file were never named individually in newspaper passenger lists - and one can lose numerous ancestors in one fell swoop! Of course, one can appreciate the logistics of trying to list all the soldiers. 

The only way to track one of these men down would be to find his service record where his various postings around the world would be reflected. The men on the Himalaya may not have been bound for South Africa but for India or other points east. Check the India Office records for that possibility.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Shipping and Passengers Port Natal 1859

This snippet from the Natal Mercury 21 July 1859 emphasises that once the ancestor's ship reached its destination, Natal, there could still be any number of complications before he actually set foot ashore. The Reliance dragged her anchors and nearly came to grief, but was eventually hauled to safety.  The Jan Van Brakel lost both her anchors, spares being supplied from the shore. Apparently this incident led to a lawsuit. On board the Van Brakel were nearly fifty Dutch immigrants destined for New Guelderland on the Natal North Coast, part of Colenbrander's scheme. Note that they are merely given as a group, no individual names being supplied. These are however available in other contemporary sources. 

The Princeza, incidentally, nearly brought about the end of Captain Bell who with other men went out to this vessel in the port boat which capsized in the surf on its return nearly drowning all those on board.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

We are sailing ...

No apology for including this - I love this painting: 

Sailing Ships 1825: Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Souvenir Saturday: scrimshaw

Early mid-19th c corset busk
This is a busk or corset stay decorated in the sailor's art, scrimshaw. Made from whale or other bone, it was an intimate gift made for the crewman's sweetheart, who inserted it into her corset as a continual reminder of her faraway beloved.

Busks were used to close the centre front of the corset and came into fashion in the mid 1800s. Lacing was still used at the back or sides of the corset but the busk allowed the wearer to get into and out of the corset without help.

The Sailor's Return

Friday, February 12, 2016

North Sand Bluff Lighthouse Natal

North Sand Bluff Lighthouse, Port Edward, Natal

Located a few miles north of the Mtamvuna River. The most southern light on the Natal coast, it was commissioned in July 1968. Originally a lattice tower supporting a Chance Brothers lantern. The appearance of the structure was altered later.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Shipwrecks, passenger lists and newspapers

While the earlier local press is an invaluable source for material on shipwrecks, as well as for passenger lists (though not always accurate or very detailed) the difficulty in Natal papers is that the originals have not been digitised. 

Some microfilm copies exist e.g. at Killie Campbell Library, but it is extremely hard to search for a chance reference to an event recorded on microfilm as an entire page cannot be scanned by the eye while searching. It is so much easier to tackle the original newspaper pages, especially as one gradually becomes familiar with where the shipping columns, for example, are placed in the paper so one doesn't necessarily have to plough through an entire edition - with all its distracting and irrelevant avenues.

Original Natal newspapers going back to the earliest Natal Witness, Natal Mercury etc are held in the Pietermaritzburg (Msunduzi) Library, previously the Natal Society Library. Serious researchers are allowed to peruse these though obviously you need to know which edition to order up. Some are in poor and fragile condition, though strangely enough the earlier the better as paper quality decreased as the years advanced.

Nevertheless, it would be ideal to preserve the originals whatever their condition and the best method would be to scan them digitally, This is not a priority in the present Natal and one wonders if it ever would become so. Few of the powers-that-be would consider the copying of a lot of colonial newspapers at all important. And so the originals will eventually become unusable and a great resource will be lost. Scanners of the size required are very expensive and whoever is using them needs to know what they're doing. Perhaps the Mormons might look on our plight with favour?

Meanwhile we can only look on in envious awe at online e-newspapers such as the Australian Papers Past or Trove, all free to access, searchable and wonderfully clear to read. It is something to set as a goal for our own newspapers - or is it an impossible dream?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 16: British Merchant Seamen's Records

Diverging slightly from shipwrecks, while we're on the topic of crews there are more than 2.6 million Merchant Navy Seamen records, which are being published by findmypast in partnership with The National Archives. The Merchant Navy Seamen records comprise two main sections: 

* Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1857: records of individual seamen that the central government created to monitor a potential reserve of sailors for the Royal Navy. Over 1.6 million records are available to view between these dates. 

* Merchant Navy Seamen 1918-1941: records of index cards that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman used between the two world wars to produce a centralised index to merchant seamen serving on British merchant navy vessels. There are 998,838 records available to search between these dates.

Merchant Marine World War II

The amount of information listed varies, but the Merchant Navy records usually include the following information about your ancestor:
  • Name 
  • Age or date of birth 
  • Place of birth 
  • Photograph of your ancestor 
  • Physical description including height, hair colour, eye colour and tattoos 
  • Your ancestor's signature 
  • Name and address of next of kin 
  • Rank or rating 
  • Ship names or numbers and dates of voyages 
  • Register ticket (a merchant seaman's ID) 
  • Discharge number

    As well as providing information about your ancestor's career, it should be noted that the Merchant Navy Seamen records can also reveal what he or she looked like. Many of the records include a photograph or a physical description, bringing you face to face with your ancestor. [Information from findmypast site.] What a bonus for any family researcher.
  • Monday, February 8, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors and other arrivals 15

    If your ancestor was part of a crew on board ship arriving at a South African port in the 19th c there is little chance of finding him mentioned in shipping registers. In the 20th c, with the large liners making regular calls in South Africa, records were kept of crew members usually at the port of embarkation. The crew list of Waratah, for example, is available. All of the latter went down with the ship.

    Crew of Waratah

    I have sometimes received queries from family historians who say their ancestor 'jumped ship' in South Africa. This wouldn't be a good place to start a search. Better to go to NAAIRS and see if there is a deceased estate file held for him at archives. If the man was divorced or was involved in a court case of any kind during his sojourn in South Africa there may well be evidence of that among the references. It helps if the ancestor had an unusual name: Joe Smith would bring up an avalanche of hits.

    If the ancestor travelled to South Africa by ship but for some reason leapt overboard and was lost at sea, the only hope is the Deaths at Sea records.
    These include names of passengers and crew of the Titanic and Lusitania, incidentally.

    Records at sea are online at  
    These  cover over 150, 000 individuals (previously only searchable on microfilm) who were born, married or died on ships between 1854-1908. They are definitely not all-inclusive.

    Union Castle Ship crew

    Friday, February 5, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 14: Titanic, Waratah, American

    In more recent times, if an ancestor was shipwrecked on a large liner there is a good chance that the event was well-documented, even that a passenger list was published in the press. I am thinking of the obvious famous vessels like Titanic and Lusitania, though there are less publicised wrecks such as that of the American in the1880s. The survivors of the latter ship had to undergo a second shipwreck immediately after the first, on the ship which was supposedly taking them to safety. Not a good day for those on board.

    The Waratah, which mysteriously disappeared off the South African coast in 1909, was the topic of numerous  reports in local and international press for many months and the list of her passengers was published several times. Despite these facts being to hand, there are frequent claims made by alleged descendants that their ancestor was among those on board the fated ship.

    It is evidence of a strange desire to be associated in some way with a famous and tragic incident - rather like descendants who hold to it, buckle and thong, that their forebear fought at Rorke's Drift in 1879 when it is perfectly clear from documentary evidence that he was not among that small courageous band of British soldiers. 

    What particular claim to fame it might be for an ancestor to have been lost on the Titanic or the Waratah remains nebulous, but there's no doubt that a certain glamour attaches to such an ancestor.

    I sometimes receive queries from family historians who ask why shipwrecks are relevant to the topic of genealogy. Clearly the loss of an individual in a wreck certainly was relevant to his or her family and undoubtedly changed the course of the latters' lives. Also, the mere fact of an ancestor dying in this manner means that information will be available - on the more well-known vessels at least. All grist to the family historian's mill. 

    On rare occasions details may emerge about an ancestor wrecked on a little-known vessel. An example was finding mention of Sturges Bourne Bell, son of Captain William Bell, who was shipwrecked off a collier near the coast of Spain in 1873. This reference led to the discovery of further information on this obscure and elusive forebear.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 13: Hercules 1796

    The Hercules, commanded by Captain Benjamin Stout, is remembered in the Captain’s own Narrative of the Loss of the Ship Hercules, published in 1798. In this account the author states that the ship was wrecked on 16 June 1796 in a violent storm, at no great distance from the spot where the Grosvenor was lost in 1782. This is dubious as it rests mainly on eye-witness reports by local tribesmen. If the site had been near the Grosvenor the rate of progress of the Hercules' survivors to Cape Town on foot would have been 25 miles per day, possibly more allowing for unavoidable detours, a speed impossible to maintain. Other details given by the Captain muddy the water, so to speak, even further, and his narrative is therefore reduced in credibility. Nevertheless, Stout managed to get 60 of his men to the Cape without losing a single life.

    A traveller named John Barrow states that the Hercules was wrecked between the mouths of the Keiskamma and the Beeka (Bira) Rivers, near Madagascar Reef. He says ‘we saw the wreck of the Hercules on the coast of Caffraria at the precise spot indicated by the Captain’. But he also mentions that he met Stout and some of his crew at the Cape, which is impossible as the Captain left the Cape in September 1796 and Barrow did not arrive in South Africa until May 1797.

    However there was a wreck at the site Barrow refers to, near the Umtana. This has been accepted as being that of the Hercules but may not be. According to various experts, the guns found at the spot had been reported years earlier and that pottery found there is too early. The latter could be explained by the theory that Chinese porcelain is not always a good indication of date for a wreck as this material was often used as ballast and could be of earlier origin.

    There might have been more than one wreck in this vicinity. Some researchers have claimed that the so-called Hercules wreck might be the Bennebroek.

    Another maritime mystery left for us to ponder. The name Hercules appears on maps of the area, possibly from the wreck.


    Monday, February 1, 2016

    Shipwreck survivors 12: the Dodington 1755

    Staying with the 18th c, the Dodington (499 tons commanded by Captain James Sampson) was wrecked in July 1755 on Bird Island (Algoa Bay), at night, while outward-bound for India from England. 

    A south-west gale was the cause of the disaster. Of a crew of 270 only 23 survived the wreck. But these proved to be hardy and imaginative survivors, who built a vessel they named The Happy Deliverance from bits of timber left by the wreck. In this they sailed to Delagoa Bay.

    Before that these survivors lived on Bird Island for several months. It was far from a Robinson Crusoe idyll, the island being covered in guano from the many visiting birds. However they were fortunate in salvaging items from their wrecked ship, including gunpowder and flints, candles, water casks, beer, flour, salted pork and seven live hogs. A blacksmith among their number was able to use tools to improve their lot. They also had navigational aids washed up on shore.
    It was this combination of factors which led to the men's being able to construct the boat which would be their lifeline. On reaching Delagoa Bay they sold the boat and were taken on board another ship. A Happy Deliverance indeed.

    Later salvage attempts brought forth tons of copper, guns and lead as well as many silver pieces of eight. It is thought that this treasure, or part of it, had belonged to Robert Clive (Clive of India) who had intended sailing on the Dodington and sent some of his possessions aboard, but then had taken another ship. thus changing the course of history.

    Bird Island