Under Sail to Natal

Sailing directions written circa 1838 for wary mariners visiting Natal included the following:
"...with a NE wind you will soon run down to it (the Bay of Natal). It is easily known from the northward and you can see the entrance better than from the southward. Should the wind be from the southwest you should only run to 30° Lat. if the breeze is very strong ...but do not keep too close on shore, as the wind dies away suddenly and the strong current which inclines towards the shore may endanger the ship and lives. If intending to enter the harbour, go in with your boat first and sound for the deepest water on the bar... The course once in mid-channel is SSW and you will see a huge remarkable tree upon a hill ahead(the Bluff) going in, and keep this well on the starboard side ... A ship will not take any hurt ... for it is as smooth as London docks (but a vessel) ought to be coppered as the water fouls the wood very soon with barnacles and the worms are very bad also."

Some eight years after these warnings were issued, the brig Sarah Bell sailed into the record books by carrying the first direct mail from England to Natal, departing on 9 November 1845 and arriving off Port Natal on 18 February 1846, not putting in at the Cape to replenish her water supply.

The American missionary Josiah TYLER writing in 1849, describes the journey from the Cape to Natal in the schooner Gem:

"A more untidy and uncomfortable craft I never saw. The voyage up the coast was long and stormy, the captain a drunkard and incapable half of the time ... The Gem thumped several times on the bar, and was for a short time in danger of stranding, but no harm befell us, and in an hour we cast anchor in the most beautifully sheltered, landlocked harbour on the south-eastern coast of Africa."

The 1840s saw a wave of emigration from Europe to other parts of the world, and Natal offered a hopeful prospect. Inspired by publications advertising this "salubrious and fertile" colony, settlers flocked join the emigration schemes of Joseph Byrne and others, and soon the ships carrying them were arriving at the port. Byrne's scheme was outlined in promising terms in his pamphlet:

"Each adult will be provided with an intermediate passage, including provisions on a liberal dietary scale, for the sum of £19, or a steerage passage for £10; and on arrival in Natal have secured to him twenty acres of freehold land." Passage monies had to be paid in advance, and a passenger had to take with him knife, fork, table-spoon, teaspoon, metal plate, a hook-pot, a mug and bedding. The scale of provisions for each class of passenger was stated.
Byrne sent out 20 ships, 15 sailing from London, three from Liverpool and two from Glasgow. All were sailing ships, mostly small barques or brigs and of small tonnage. The smallest were the Wanderer (the first to arrive at Natal, on 12 May 1849) and the Sandwich (carrying only 12 passengers and arriving 27 July 1850); these vessels were 173 and 180 tons respectively. The largest were the former East Indiaman, the Minerva, 987 tons, and the Unicorn, 946 tons. They carried on average about 150 settlers with their baggage and agricultural implements. Some of the ships had schoolmasters and clergymen on board and under the Passenger Acts of 1849 each ship was obliged to carry a doctor. A number of children, elderly people and the sickly died on the long voyages of three or four months, but most passengers arrived in good health and spirits. Despite Atlantic gales and baffling winds all the ships save two arrived safely at Port Natal, anchored in the roadstead and disembarked their passengers in small boats which had to cross the dangerous sandbar at the entrance. The two exceptions were the Minerva and the British Tar, both hit by sudden storms and wrecked.

Sir John Robinson, who arrived as a settler in 1850, wrote:
"So in dozens, in scores and in hundreds, they took their passages and packed up their traps, and set sail in one or the other of Byrne's ships, to begin from the moment of their setting foot on board a piteous and inexorable process of disenchantment."

These voyages were far from luxury cruises. The ships were undermanned, passengers swept the decks and worked the pumps (and cooked their own meals in the galley). When the Henry Tanner, a leaky barque of 388 tons which had originally been a whaler, left Gravesend for Natal on 24 June 1849, the crew numbered only 11 men - there were about 160 passengers. She reached Natal on 10 October. Not all the vessels took as long. The voyage of the Lady Bruce (538 tons) in 1850 took 70 days, that of the Conquering Hero in the same year about 90 days, and the Minerva only 67 days. The fate of the Minerva is well-known: wrecked at the foot of the Bluff, her cargo and the passengers' belongings were lost. Among the survivors were George Russell (author of "History of Old Durban") and his family: young George, perhaps enthralled by the idea of travelling on a frigate with gun ports and quarter galleries, had persuaded his parents to postpone their earlier sailing on another vessel. Wreckage from the Minerva was still strewn on the beach when the Unicorn (946 tons) anchored at Natal on 19 September 1850 after a comparatively pleasant voyage, successfully landing 257 passengers by surf-boats. The Sarah Bell, mentioned above, brought off the Unicorn's cargo. In the following year, Unicorn herself was lost while carrying Irish settlers to Canada.

The captain of a settler ship was responsible for delivering his passengers safe and sound, and some immigrant parties thought captains unworthy of the post, lacking ability to command and of dubious moral character. Others thought their captains admirable. Captain ROBBINS of the Wilhelmina, not one of Byrne's ships, was greatly respected, especially by the young men on board. William LISTER, writing of this voyage, said: "He was only some seven or eight years senior to the fellows in the cabin... Near the latitude of the Cape we had for two or three days a north-west gale ... Robbins decided to scud before it under close topsails and jib. The little brig rode well over the mountainous waves and she was very carefully steered for had a wave come over the poop it would have swept the decks clean. But the finest specimen of our captain's seamanship was off the South African coast. A white squall from a cloudless sky, providentially off the land, came suddenly down upon us with studding sails set. Of course, all hands were on deck immediately. Robbins himself took the wheel and gave his orders sharp and clear, had studding sails and booms hauled on board and in due rotation royal top gallant, topsail, foresail, ditto on the mainmast spanker, jib, and flying jib were all stored and handled without the loss of a spar or a bit of canvas." The Wilhelmina crossed the bar at Port Natal under full sail on 7 January 1851.

Crossing the Line was celebrated on every voyage in the Atlantic, and Thomas MACKILLICAN, travelling to Port Natal on the Cataraqui in 1861, wrote:
"We had a very good jollification last night on the occasion. There were two of the sailors never crossed the Line before and also four to five apprentices... The excitement among passengers and crew (was) considerable... About six o'clock they turned out and got King Neptune aboard ... He was joined by so many constables, and the barber with his shearing box - they then paraded the decks. The police got hold of the two sailors that were to be shaved ... seated the first of them on a stool and I am bound to say I shouldn't like to get the shave he got ... then threw two or three buckets of water over him ... Some of them went to excess with the water by throwing buckets of it among the passengers as well as the sailors ... We had then a fine lot of comic songs given in full character by passengers and crew."

William WATSON's version of a similar event in the 1850s, interspersed by less gleeful accounts of his seasickness, reads:
"...we had such a spree all the sailors that had not crossed the line was shaved with cold tar and grease for the lather and for razor three pieces of iron hoop about a foot long with teeth like a saw and then after shaving a great sheet of water on deck and over head they go and gives them a good ducking and then after that they have plenty of drink and singing and dancing and playing every night..." Perhaps it was as well that William couldn't foresee the future: he was on the Minerva.

Leaving England was the start of the great adventure, but there were inherent irritations, as Thomas Mackillican records: "We were at the ship at 7 a.m. but she did not leave her berth in the dock yet, and judging from the way she is jammed up by other ships, it will take three or four hours to get her out... Passengers still coming on board ... We have carpenters, smiths, painters, etc. working hard to get quit of them and get to sea. Everything is in great confusion."

The Cataraqui, 522 tons, was not a Byrne vessel, but carried a group of farm-labourers and skilled artisans, as a result of an arrangement through Byrne's agent, Moreland.

By the time the Cataraqui reached Natal in November 1861 the numbers of settlers arriving each year had dwindled considerably. Joseph Byrne's scheme had ended in financial ruin. Though other companies were formed, none compared with Byrne's in the size of the immigrant groups which came out on his ships.

The arrival in August 1852 of the Sir Robert Peel, a steamship of about 250 tons (bringing with her reports of the discovery of gold in Australia), had heralded a new era but paintings and later photographs show that sail and steam co-existed for many years at the Bay of Natal. 

by Rosemary Gadsden (Dixon-Smith) 
Originally published in Lantern magazine.


Unknown said...

I'm looking for information on the Huggins and Hewett families if anyone can help. They both came out here to work building the first railways line

Mole said...

Hello, rather than make your starting point an arrival by ship (v difficult and especially if no idea of year)go to the NAAIRS index at www.national.archives.gov.za/ and search under surname and forenames for your ancestors' deceased estate files. Within those files you should (if an estate was lodged at time of death) be able to find a Death Notice (not the same as a Death Certificate) which would be informative. You'd need to establish area (Natal, Transvaal etc)and either hire a private researcher to digitally photograph the file contents, or just the Death Notice, or contact eGGSA who provide a document ordering facility see http://www.eggsa.org/sales/help_archive_docs.htm
If you area beginner with South African genealogy research have a look at my Beginners Guide on this blog. Best Wishes, Mole

Moyra said...

Morning, just seen your blog and wondered if you could find a Thomas JOYCE who came out sometime in 1860 to 1863. I was at the archives in Pietermaritzburg a few years ago and saw a list that said he came out on the Saxon in 1864 to Cape Town then either the Norman or Natal Star to Durban. Have you any passenger list for these vessels and dates? I would appreciate anything you can find on Thomas JOYCE. Thanks

Mole said...

Thanks for your comment, Moyra. I don't have complete passenger lists for Natal, though selected ones for the 1860s. Of these, most are on my blog if you search (search facility top left of blog page) under ship name (not by surname). The passenger list project at eggsa's site http://www.eggsa.org/cgi-bin/dosearchArrivals.pl does not show any arrivals for Thomas Joyce. However, since you feel certain of the decade and have some optional ship names, you could either go in person to Pietermaritzburg Archives (yes you have done so before but might have missed something) or delegate to a professional researcher to go through the original registers for the years required. There is a card index which might help so try that first. But it shouldn't take too long to search the original EI registers (European Immigration).I think your Thomas was the one who was a Corporal in the Natal Mounted Police in 1866 so your decade is probably spot on.

Unknown said...

Hi. I'm looking for anyone who might be able to help me. My grandmother, Susannah (Susie) Roberts DOB 12 Dec 1881 in Rhanbersfedd, Hope, Wales
Believed to have sailed to SA between 1901 & 1903 – she was recorded on the 1901 census as living in Hope
We can’t find her on any passenger lists sailing to SA.

2 Aug 1904 she married Patrick Doyle in Ermelo Transvaal
18 May 1885, daughter Gwladys Myfanwy was born
29 July 1906, daughter Gwendoline was born in Ermelo
We know from a passenger list that she returned to London from Durban on SS Marathon on 29 July 1907
She was recorded on 1911 census in Merthyr Tydfil.
An article in the Denbighshire Free Press dated 1 Nov 1902 states 'The women immigrants arriving by the transport Plassy have all been well looked after by the local association, says the Times correspondent at Cape Town'.
I know my grandmother went to SA, apparently as a missionary, but we don't know for sure. I can't find her on any passenger lists. 1902 is about right. She was on the 1901 census in Wales & she married in SA in 1904. Is there any way I can find out if she was on this ship? I've seen something else saying the Plassy arrived in Cape Town from Southampton on 9 Oct 1902.

Patrick Doyle - Born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1881.
I have his birth record showing DOB 28 April 1881, Lorne Street, Auckland (attached).
His father was Patrick Doyle, age 40 (so DOB 1841+/-1year), born in Kildare Ireland
His mother was Mary Doyle (prev Young), age 32 (so DOB 1849+/-1year) in Kings County (now renamed Offaly)

He went to South Africa & married my grandmother in Ermelo, Transvaal, in 1904.
They had 2 children in SA in 1905 & 1906 before he disappeared without trace.

I can’t find him on a ship’s passenger list, but I think he may have gone to work in the mines in the Transvaal after the Boer war.
It’s possible he may have been recruited to fight but I don’t know about that – he will have been a bit young, maybe.

I have tried numerous websites & archives and can find no trace of them on any ships.
Can anyone help please?

Mole said...

Unless a passenger was part of an organised emigration scheme and was instead travelling as a random/solo passenger it is extremely difficult to find him/her on a passenger list. It is not an advisable starting point for anyone trying to trace an ancestor who is believed to have come to South Africa. Sometimes it is a better route to find a deceased estate file for him/her if they died in SA. Search our National Archives (NAAIRS) under surname plus forename. That he fought in the Boer War is a possibility and in that case no sign of him would show on any passenger list. After the Boer War a number of men joined quasi police forces such as the SA Constabulary. I think you have a very long search ahead of you unless there is an unusual fact or name to help.
Best Wishes, Mole

MUDROVCIC Family said...

I am looking for records our our Croatian ancestors who sailed to South Africa circa 1890s. Would appreciate your help or where to search.
Thank you Kim

Mole said...

Unfortunately this would be almost impossible to research. While there is hope of finding a passenger from UK, Croatian passengers do not appear in the UK lists. Your ancestors may have left Europe from Hamburg (and may have stopped briefly at a UK port) but the late date 1890s is not hopeful - increase in passengers etc. Have a look on google under passengers from Hamburg https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Hamburg_Passenger_Lists

Best Wishes, Mole

Unknown said...

I'm trying to find records of immigration of a Charles Benjamin Johnson. He was born in 1877 at Alkborough, Lincolnshire, England and emigrated to Durban at some point. I cannot find him on passenger lists, but thought you might have some advice as to where I might look.
Thank you,

Bruce Clayton

Unknown said...

Hi. I am trying to find the burial of my Grandfather Charles Bird. He was a trimmer on the ss Walmer Castle and had an accident. He was taken ashore in Durban and died either 9th or 11th October 1906. He died in the Government Hospital, Durban and I have no record that his body was returned to England. So I am wondering is he buried in Durban. Margaret

Mole said...

There are no records for deaths in the Government Hospital Durban, unfortunately. As he was a crew member on the Walmer Castle he was obviously alone in Durban and there would have been nobody to pay for a funeral or a burial plot. It seems possible that his body was returned to his ship, and he was later buried at sea. No Death notice would have been issued locally as he had no assets in Durban. He could have been buried on return to UK.
This is not a satisfactory answer but with sailors it is often difficult to pin down a burial if he died in port. Thank you for your enquiry. Mole

Unknown said...

I am trying to track down the Next of Kin for my great grandfather Robert Richardson who we think arrived from UK on board the SS Stettin on 2 August 1877, Passage paid and enlisted with the Natal Mounted Police on 6 August. After his discharge in 1879 my grandmother thought he worked in Pietermaritzburg as a railway clerk before going north to Barberton in 1882. My question is: would there be any documentation that might list his next of kin in any archive?

Unknown said...

Hi. My uncle, Robert McIntosh born 1918 in Middlesbrough, UK, emigrated to SA sometime after his military service, including war service with the Durham Light Infantry. My mother (now deceased) used to visit him sometime in the 60's. And that's all I know! I need to acquire a death certificate for him so as to then unlock his service records. I'm at a dead-end otherwise. Can anyone suggest where I might start this (extensive?) search?

Thanks. Alan

Unknown said...

Even though your posts are over a year old, I may still be able to help you with information in the UK. Please give me details and I will be happy to help
you - Elizabeth

Unknown said...

Hello Elizabeh.
I am still trying to find any record of my grandmother SUSANNAH/SUSIE ROBERTS sailing from the UK to South Africa. Do you think you might be able to help please?

Unknown said...

Hi there! Not sure if you can help but am trying to get more information - a birth certificate if possible - for my grandfather who was born on a boat sailing from Cardiffe to South Africa. His name was Edward Oscar Evans and was born in 1884. He died in the Transvaal (now Gauteng). Thank you!!