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.
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.