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A History of Durban

Noticeable dates in Durban’s history

200 million years ago

Gondwanaland is ripped apart to form the southern continents, including Antarctica, Australia, South America, Africa, Madagascar and India. The Falkland Islands, once adjacent to the Natal coast, head towards their present location at a nippy 6cm a year.


Speculation exists that Phoenician sailors round the Cape in about this time and may very well have landed in what later became Durban.


Further speculation exists that Indonesian traders following the Cinnamon Route may have passed Durban and may have stopped off here. The arrival in Durban in 2003 of a replica Indonesian trading vessel, the Borobudur, proves it is perfectly possible they did get here.


Vasco Da Gama sets out from Portugal in an attempt to sail round the Cape of Good Hope to find a sea route to India and, on Christmas Day, his ships sight land which they call Natal. The harbour is named Port Natal to mark the fact that land was sighted on Christ’s birthday; the word Natal meaning birth.


On May 6, the Good Hope, captained by John Adams, is driven ashore in a storm and the crew make their home on the Bluff. The sailors eventually link up with survivors of other wrecks and build a ship which they sail to Cape Town.


The vessel Salisbury, carrying Lieutenant Francis George Farewell and James Saunders King takes shelter from a sudden gale in the bay at Port Natal. King charts the bay during his stay and names Salisbury Island after the ship.


Farewell decides to establish a permanent trading post at Port Natal and manages to collect 26 prospective settlers from Cape Town. The settlers, including Henry Francis Fynn, John Cane, Henry Ogle, Thomas Holstead and Farewell’s three Hottentot servants, Michael, John and Rachel, arrive in Port Natal in May and July, 1824.

Fynn wins Shaka’s friendship by treating his wounds after a failed assassination attempt, and Shaka agrees to cede the land stretching from 25 miles north of the port to 10 miles south and 100 miles inland, to F.G. Farewell and Company.


The dwellings in Port Natal are primitive and, when Mrs. Farewell arrives, she is forced to live in a barn of wattle and daub with no windows, a thatched roof and a reed door.


The settlers need medicines and fittings and it is decided to send an expedition to the Portuguese settlement at Delagoa Bay [now Maputo] to buy the necessary. The person chosen to lead the expedition is a 15-year-old red-headed Scot called John Ross who is accompanied by a Zulu escort and accomplishes the trip in three weeks, having averaged over 30 miles a day.


Dingane, having helped to murder his brother Shaka in 1828 and succeeding to the Zulu throne, has a dispute with settler John Cane, possibly over women, so he sends an impi [regiment] to the port to burn the settler Cane’s huts and possessions.


More settlers begin to arrive in Port Natal and, by 1835, there are thirty white male residents busily engaged in trading ivory, hippopotamus tusks, buffalo hides, cattle and maize.


The missionary Captain Allen Francis Gardiner, sets ups a mission on the Berea, and chairs a meeting in which it is decided to set up a town to be named D’Urban after the British Governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D’Urban.


Julia Gardiner, daughter of Allen Francis Gardiner, dies on the ship bringing her to Durban to join her father, and is the first white child to be buried in Durban.


The British occupy Port Natal with 100 soldiers of the 72nd Highlanders and the Royal Artillery, under Major Charters. They leave a year later on Christmas Eve 1839, and the Boers claim Natal for themselves.


The British reoccupy Port Natal but the Boers seize 700 cattle belonging to the British and Captain Smith decides to attack them in their encampment at Congella. The British are soundly beaten in the ensuing battle and are besieged in their fort.

On May 25th, Dick King, his helper Ndongeni, begin the 600-mile ride to Grahamstown to fetch help, which finally arrives on June 25th.


Sir George Napier announces the annexation of Natal by Britain. He admits that Durban’s anchorage is dangerous and that he isn’t confident that the annexation will be profitable. The danger of the anchorage is highlighted by the fact that at least 66 ships are blown ashore between 1845 and 1885.


William Bell is appointed the first Port Captain of Durban on condition that he provides a lifeboat out of his own funds, for use in the port.

Dr. William Stanger, the Surveyor General, arrives with his staff and begins to survey Natal, starting with Durban and Congella. With the arrival of Martin West on December 8th, to take up his position as Lieutenant-Governor, Natal becomes a British Crown Colony and the Republic of Natalia passes into history.


On March 8th, locations are established at Umlazi, south of Durban, and Inanda, to the north, to settle the rapidly-growing black population, who are mostly refugees from the Zulu King Mpande’s regime in Zululand. [Both Umlazi and Inanda are still important dormitory areas of Durban.]


Stanger completes his survey and, among the first erven [plots] sold on November 22nd, are 23 and 24 in Block D, which front on the western side of Field Street and run between West and Smith Street. The plots were both bought by Robert Pollybank for the grand sum of £35.12s.6d each.


Edinburgh engineer John Milne arrives in Durban as an ordinary immigrant, but soon begins work on a scheme to improve the harbour. He argues that piers should be built to narrow the harbour mouth so that tidal scour will reduce the sandbar. The projected cost of the scheme is £78,000 but, unfortunately, the annual revenue of the Natal administration is only £33,000.

The first piano to land in Natal arrives on the ship Aliwal on December 10. [It is still to be seen today in the Old House Museum in St. Andrew’s Street.]


The frigate Minerva arrives off Durban on July 3rd carrying nearly 300 Byrne settlers but, during the night of the 4th, the Minerva’s cable parts and she comes ashore on the Bluff and is totally wrecked. A photograph of the wreck is believed to be the first photograph ever taken in Natal.


An Agricultural Show is held on some of the land presently occupied by the Botanical Garden.


The first horserace meeting is held in Durban on January 14th and 15th on a course laid out in the bush [between Umgeni Road and the present-day Greyville Race Course].

The Robert Peel, the first steamship to visit Durban, arrives on August 16th and manages to get into the bay and anchors in the Bluff Channel. She carries news of the discovery of gold in Australia, which causes a sensation in the community and leads to a stream of people leaving on every ship to try their luck there.

The first issue of the Natal Mercury and Shipping and Commercial Gazette is published under the editorship of George Robinson, with an initial circulation of about 300.


Samuel Harris, a.k.a. Jemmy Squaretoes, the leader of a den of thieves and prostitutes in the Back Beach Bush, is murdered by a woman called Flatta and four accomplices. It is only later that one of the conspirators is jailed on another charge and tells his cell-mate, a West Indian called Fisher, about the murder. Unfortunately for the gang, however, Fisher had been a friend of Harris’s and he has no hesitation in informing the authorities. The murderers are condemned and hanged in public, on July 23rd at 7a.m., near the spot where the body was found. Many Durbanites attend the event and Mr Wardle officiates as executioner.


Early in the morning of July 31st, Durban wakes up to find a large ship aground on Back Beach. She is the Ariosto loaded with a cargo of pepper destined for America.

On May 15th, the township of Durban is declared a borough and is divided into four wards.

Borough Ordinance No. 1 provides for the creation of a police force for Durban and one is formed under Chief Constable Edwin Lee, consisting of six white and several black constables.


Chief Constable William Harrison takes over from Lee and is chiefly noted for his milk-white horse. A villain (or villains) unknown kidnap the horse from its stable the following year and paint it with blue stripes and circles around its eyes, to look like a police zebra.

On March 21st, the Milner brothers demonstrate the conversion of cane juice into sugar, using steam-powered machinery. The first eight tons of sugar manufactured on the estate are auctioned on June 23rd by Robert Acutt.


A severe thunderstorm on April 12th marks the start of a period of very heavy rainfall and, over the next four days, Durban receives 27 inches of rain. Many low-lying areas are flooded and the Umgeni River rises to the extent that it flows over its banks, through town, and into the bay at Cato’s Creek.

The sibling rivalry between the Zulu King Mpande’s sons Cetshwayo and Mbulazi reaches flashpoint. Mbulazi and his followers are trapped with their backs to the Tugela by Cetshwayo. So many corpses are carried down to the sea by the Tugela that, for days afterwards, they wash ashore on Durban beaches more than 80 km to the south.


The Boers of the Orange Free State are involved in a dispute with Basotho Chief Moshesh and, apparently scenting an opportunity, J.D. Koch of Gardiner Street, Durban, advertises for sale to Boers and Others, two new four-pounder cannon on carriages, together with a quantity of grape and round shot.


The first steam railway in South Africa is opened in Durban by Acting Lieutenant-Governor Major Williamson on 26 June. The green-painted engine is named Natal, and is described by the Natal Mercury as a ‘rather strange-looking, but withal very neat little engine …{which}… savours of Yankeedom, and is new to most English eyes’.

In response to the growing shortage of labour, especially in the sugar cane fields of Natal, the recruitment of indentured labourers in India begins. The first group of Indians leaves Madras Harbour aboard the paddle steamer S.S. Truro on 12 October and arrives in Durban on 16 November, disembarking the next day.


Berea Road is hardened, and to pay for the project, tollgates are erected on the road where it crosses Ridge Road, and in Umgeni Road. The first toll keeper is Henry Bird and the charges range from a farthing each for small animals, such as sheep, to a shilling for riders and two shillings and sixpence per wagon.


The Durban High School opens under the headmastership of Robert Russell and is still going strong today.


A lighthouse is built out of cast iron sections on the Bluff and it is the only one on the East Coast of Africa at the time. It is converted to electric light in 1932.


John Langalibalele Dube is born in the township of Inanda, outside Durban and, in 1903, he launches the first newspaper, called Ilanga Lase Natal [Sun of Natal], for Blacks, and it is still going strong.

In 1912, he becomes the first chairman of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which later metamorphoses into the African National Congress.


An English lady visitor to Durban takes a ride on the train, where she meets all grades of people including ships’ captains, merchants, and several nondescripts. She also meets the Anglican Minister Reverend Lloyd, whom she describes as the most talkative and amusing of her fellow passengers, and a ‘thorough specimen of the good type of country clergyman, of good birth, social instincts, and genial sympathies’.


A hospital is commissioned at Back Beach and Mrs. Jane Drebble is brought in from England as Matron, along with 14 nurses. Six of the nurses stay in Durban and the rest go on to Pietermaritzburg. [The hospital, named Addington, is still one of Durban’s leading hospitals.]

A drought and shortage of water prompts Councillor H.W. Currie to sink an artesian well in search of water in the area below the Botanic Gardens. Water is struck and the well, named Currie’s Fountain, delivers 50,000 gallons of water to the town every day, through pipes which are laid for the purpose.


The outbreak of the Zulu war and the smashing Zulu victory over the British at Isandhlwana, leads to panic in Durban and the civilian and military authorities order a parade of military volunteers on January 24th.

Business at the Royal Hotel booms because of the Zulu War and Louis Napoléon, the Prince Imperial of France, stays there shortly before joining Lord Chelmsford’s staff and being killed on June 1st, when he and some companions dismount for a rest after a patrol.


The Theatre Royal opens in West Street, between Russell Street and Theatre Lane, in the face of much opposition. It is thought that drunken patrons might frighten the pupils attending the Durban Young Ladies’ Collegiate Evangelical Institution nearby.


The Jummah Musjid Mosque in Grey Street is expanded to accommodate 200 prayer mats. It had been built a few years earlier by Aboobaker Amod Jhaveri, the first Indian trader in Durban.


The Jacaranda tree is introduced to Durban and the first two examples are planted in the Botanic Gardens. [One of these may still be seen near the Gardens’ St. Thomas’ Road entrance.] There are many Jacarandas planted in and around Durban, which give stunning displays of colour each year in spring. It is often said that scholars and students are bound to fail their end-of-year exams unless they have already begun their revision when the Jacarandas flower.

The Town Hall [now the Central Post Office] is officially opened on October 25th and is the largest building in South Africa.


Durban runs out of ha’penny stamps and Postmaster John William Coleman is reduced to signing envelopes, certifying that the postage has been paid.


Borough Engineer John Fletcher is responsible for the introduction of Durban’s first sewage disposal system, which becomes fully operational on July 1. The system involves the discharge of sewage into the sea from the Point when the tide is going out, which effectively disperses it. The system serves the town so well that it is only in 1938, that the council votes the funds to begin replacing it.

An electricity generating plant is built by the council at the Point to provide electric power for lighting in the town. The plant is formally switched on by Mayoress Mrs. George Payne in the following year.


The Portuguese community donates a clock to mark the 400th anniversary of Vasco Da Gama’s arrival off Port Natal, and it is set up at the Point.


The Natal Volunteers are called up on September 29th because of the fear of a Boer invasion of Natal. The Durban Light Infantry sets off to the conflict the next day by train, from Durban Station. The occasion is the first of many that the regiment is deployed, including during the Bambata Rebellion of 1906, WWI, the Rand Revolt of 1922, WWII, the 1948 Riots, and during South Africa’s counter-insurgency war.

The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war in October is the cause for some concern about the possibility that the Boers might try poisoning the Umbilo and Umlaas Rivers, from which Durban obtains its water. Borough Engineer John Fletcher conducts daily tests to see if the water is safe to drink.


Winston Churchill arrives in Durban aboard the S.S. Induna from Lourenço Marques [now Maputo] on December 23rd, having escaped from Boer captivity in Pretoria. He is met by an enthusiastic crowd and carried on their shoulders to the front steps of the Town Hall [the current Central Post Office], where he makes a speech telling of his experiences.


The Royal Hotel plays host to the Duke and Duchess of York – later King George V and Queen Mary. The hotel, with 100 rooms and a 200-seat dining room, is sold the following year for £46,000. The hotel’s daily tariff is 15 shillings per day.


Work has been going on apace at the harbour and, on June 26th, the 12975-ton Armadale Castle enters the harbour and ties up at a jetty marking, the success of the dredging operation in the harbour mouth. June 29th sees the first test of Durban’s spanking new floating dock, which manages to lift the 7000-ton S.S. Kent out of the water.


The Durban Central Fire Station has six horses on strength, with room for nine. Violet Miller, who later writes Dear Old Durban, remembers being told by her grandmother that the fire horses were so well-trained that, when the alarm sounded, they would come out of their stalls and stand under their harness, waiting to be buckled into it.

King Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry, visits Durban to star in a number of productions at the Theatre Royal, and stays in the Marine Hotel. She is a keen racehorse owner and her personal ricksha puller, called Jim, wears a loin cloth in her racing colours of fawn and turquoise.


Durban’s first permanent cinema, the Electric Theatre, opens.

The S.S. Waratah, flagship of the Blue Anchor line, leaves Durban harbour on 26 July for Cape Town, where she is expected to arrive on 29 July. On the next day, she signals the ship Clan Macintyre in passing but then, in what becomes one of the enduring mysteries of the sea, she vanishes together with 92 passengers, 119 crew and 6500 tons of cargo.


The first powered flight in Durban takes place in March 1910, and is performed by Albert Kimmerling in his 50h.p. Voisin biplane.

The Natal Government builds a wireless installation on the Bluff with a range of 400 to 480 miles.


Isaiah Shembe founds the Nazareth Baptist Church at Ekuphakameni in Inanda, just up the road from Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement. By 2003, the Shembe Church [as it is usually known], has over two million members, making it the biggest religious grouping in Kwazulu-Natal.


The Natal Motorcycle Club is formed and holds its first meeting at the Lords Ground in Old Fort Road, on 20 January.


Durban becomes an important transit point for troops on their way to or from WWI and, at one stage in 1917, over 23000 troops of various nationalities are quartered in the town. Prominent among the people of Durban who work to make the troops welcome is Ethel Campbell. Dressed in white and standing on the breakwater, she signals messages of welcome or farewell in semaphore to the passing troopships.


On 13 May, anti-German riots break out in Durban and a number of business premises, belonging to people with German names, are set alight and damaged. One of these is a bread and cake factory, owned by Mr J.M.L. Bauman, and located in the area bounded by Palmer Street, Brickhill Road and West Street.


The Umgeni River comes down in flood and the seine-net fishing boat DNA 17, captained by Mariemutho Pradavattan, rescues 150 people from its flood waters.


The epidemic of Spanish Flu kills many people all over the world but, according to Yvonne Miller, Durban escapes comparatively lightly. She attends Durban Girls’ College where all the pupils are instructed to gargle with salt and water every morning before school. In addition, all pupils are marched out into the front garden [on Musgrave Road] at midday to stand in the sun for 10 minutes. These precautions work, apparently, because she later remembers that only one pupil dies, out of the 250 in the school.


On December 10th, more than 60 people gather in a broadcasting studio located in the City Hall to witness the first wireless programme to be broadcast from Durban. It is the first municipally-controlled station in the world.


Natal Mercury cartoonist Evo (Charles Evenden) is the main inspiration behind the formation of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats and the first MOTH parade is held in November, when 3000 men march through Durban to the Cenotaph.


After considerable excitement and much discussion in the press, Durban’s first traffic signal is installed in the middle of the intersection of Pine Street and Field Street, and is switched-on on 12 May.


Who’s Who in Natal reports that William Arthur Kerr, resident of the Ritz Hotel, Durban, had made a South African record parachute descent on November 25th the previous year, by jumping from 17,300 feet at Hillcrest.


The first National Croquet Championships are held in Durban, and are won by Captain R.G. Belcher.

Durban achieves the status of City.


Fitzsimons Snake Park is established to produce snake anti-venom, and goes on to become one of the city’s most enduring tourist attractions.


The 5th Cricket Test between England and South Africa, begins in Durban at Kingsmead, on March 3rd, and it is decided that the game will be played to a conclusion, no matter how long that takes. The match, which goes down in history as the Timeless Test, is declared a draw on March 14th [after eight days of actual play] when the touring side, requiring only 42 runs for victory, is forced to leave to catch the ship home. Five thousand and seventy balls are bowled during the course of the match and 1981 runs are scored.

With the outbreak of WWII, Durban becomes strategically very important because of its port and shipyards capable of repairing battle-damaged ships. Well over three million men have passed through the town by 1945. The South African Women’s Auxilliary Services (SAWAS) is quick to establish a canteen on Maydon Wharf to feed arriving and departing troops.


While on a visit to the harbour, in April 1940, the 50-year-old Perla Siedle Gibson is called upon to sing for the men on a departing troopship. She vows to meet and sing for every ship connected with the war, which arrives or leaves from Durban. Dressed in her trademark white dresses and floppy red hat, she meets and sings for well over 1300 ships before the war ends, even on the day she receives news that her son Roy has been killed fighting in Italy. She sometimes sings 250 songs in a day and achieves worldwide fame as the Lady in White.


One of the most talked-about social events in Durban in 1940 was the marriage of Sir Delves Broughton and Diana Caldwell, prior to their departure for Kenya. Durbanites are fascinated to hear, early in 1941, that Sir Delves had been arrested for the murder of Lord Erroll, who had been carrying on an affair with Lady Diana.


On May 30th, an unidentified aircraft, believed to be a Japanese spotter plane flies about over Durban for 15 minutes. The event is repeated five days later and this time leads to the imposition of a blackout in the town.


The Italian submarine Ammiraglio Cagni, passing near Durban and hearing of the Italian armistice on September 8, enters Durban harbour on September 20 under escort.


Over 20,000 children attend the birthday celebrations of Nellie the Elephant in Mitchell Park. Originally presented to the park by the Maharaja of Mysore in 1928, Nellie became a firm favourite with Durbanites and soon learned to play a mouth organ, crack coconuts and let children ride on her back. Nellie left South Africa in 1949 to go to Taronga Zoo in Australia where the authorities, not knowing what a people-loving animal she was, put her in an enclosure with a moat and a fence around it. She is starved for company and one day, while trying to reach over the moat, falls in and breaks her back.


On January 13th, an argument between a black youth and a young Indian shop assistant in Victoria Street, ends up with the black being pushed through a window and being slightly injured. The incident immediately sparks off a riot in which blacks attack Indians and vice versa. The riot spreads rapidly, with busses going up Berea Road being stoned, and fighting taking place in Victoria Street, Grey Street, Warwick Avenue, Toll Gate, Mayville, Musgrave Road and Cato Manor. The violence continues through the night and the hospitals have filled up with casualties by the early hours. The day after, Friday, is pay day and large crowds of blacks swarm into town attacking Indians and damaging shops.


Durban girl Penny Coelen becomes Miss World and we Durbanites contend that there hasn’t been a more beautiful holder of the title since then.


The city council changes a bylaw in December, allowing bikinis to be worn for the first time on the city’s beaches.


On February 29, Mayor Margaret Maytom officiates at the opening of a new water reservoir for the city at Durban Heights. The 555-foot diameter structure holds 75 million litres, and is the largest covered reservoir in Africa.


Durban loses one of her most famous landmarks as the Marine Hotel, on the corner of Gardiner Street and Victoria Embankment, is demolished. The lifting of the siege of Mafekeng in 1901 was celebrated in the hotel and a framed copy of the dinner menu in the reception area, reveals that the dishes on offer had included Kruger Marrow Bones on Toast [Paul Kruger being President of the Transvaal at the time].


The Union Whaling Station on the Bluff, which has been in operation since 1908, closes down for good. It was the largest land-based whaling station in the world and, in its heyday in 1965, processed 3640 whales killed by its catcher fleet.


Morris Fynn, a descendent of original settler Henry Francis Fynn, sets out on a campaign of cutting down apartheid signs on Durban beaches in protest at the city council’s policy of enforcing racial segregation on its beaches. During the next three years, he becomes a thorn in the side of the city fathers and is arrested and imprisoned four times for his crimes. The opening of Durban beaches to all and the repeal of the Separate Amenities Act in 1990 finally allows him to hang up his trusty saw. [The saw he used is on view at the Old Courthouse Museum in Aliwal Street.]

This history prepared by Allan Jackson