Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reports on wreck of American 1880, continued.

The UK press was prompt in publishing on 10 May names of the people landed at Madeira by the steamer Congo, allaying some fears. A list was provided of all the American’s passengers and their intended destinations in South Africa. This is a bonus for family historians as original passenger records for vessels departing England before 1890 were later destroyed. Initials weren’t given for every passenger on the American, so the ports for which they were bound are a convenient identifying clue. It’s likely that the six Wirths destined for East London were members of the famous circus family of that surname. The Lord family’s maidservant and the nurse accompanying the Southon family were not named. The identity of the stowaway remains unknown; no doubt he repented his choice of ship.

Another useful offering, the crew list of the American, arranged in order of rank, appeared in the press on 11 May 1880. There were only two female crew members: stewardess Ann Hyslop and E Packman, bathroom stewardess. The latter was fortunate in being among the survivors of the first boats to be rescued. Miss Packman, with 3 officers, 2 engineers and 23 crew were taken to England from Madeira by Currie’s RMS Balmoral Castle.

South African newspapers such as The Cape Times covered all stages of the story. There were numerous tributes to John Paterson, ‘the most talented member of our legislature’, and it was predicted that his death would influence the course of South African politics. In Port Elizabeth, where Paterson had been a founder of the city’s first newspaper, The Eastern Province Herald, flags were hoisted at half-mast.

As mentioned previously, The Natal Witness devoted an entire supplement to the shipwreck, with eye-witness narratives of astounding detail. A passenger, Charles Cox, stated that the survivors taken on board the Senegal ‘suffered very much from a low, nervous fever’ and that Mr Wilkinson had a finger severed during the debacle of the second wreck. There were individual acts of heroism: Mr Dunn, 4th officer, dived under the waves to save Mrs Lord. She appeared dead when lifted into the fishing boat and the superstitious Portuguese fishermen would have consigned her to the deep but smelling salts revived her. Mr Humphrey of Graaff-Reinet helped in the rescue of Mrs Lord before he fainted. These accounts thrilled the reading public at the time, and now present rich pickings for anyone tracing an ancestor who was on the ill-fated American.

Lesser columns shouldn’t be neglected as interesting snippets can emerge. Searching forward in The Natal Witness, the edition of 12 June 1880 contained a brief report under Local & General News: ‘a young man named Alexander Smith, rescued from the American, is now staying at Mrs Granger’s Boarding House, Church Street’ (Pietermaritzburg).

The British Board of Trade held an official inquiry into the loss of the ship. It was found that the master, his officers and men had done everything they could to save the vessel and the lives of the passengers, and that Captain Wait’s admirable maintenance of order when the ship was on the point of sinking deserved the greatest credit.

Read the report on the inquiry at

www.plimsoll.org/resources/SCCLibraries/WreckReports/14403.asp

South African newspapers are available at the British Newspaper Library, Colindale
http://catalogue.bl.uk/

Anyone interested in an ancestor who may have been on board the final voyage of the American, either as passenger or member of the crew, contact me through the comment facility on this blog.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Shipwreck reports for family history: the American, 1880

News reports of shipwrecks are a wonderful source of information for family historians and it’s worth checking this avenue even if the incident seems comparatively obscure. Well-documented disasters such as the loss of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania have attained legendary status. The wreck of the American on 23 April 1880 is largely forgotten, yet this extraordinary story made headline news in the world’s press for months. The adverse publicity dealt a blow to the famous Union Line whose Chairman had, a few weeks before the event, announced the Company’s immunity from accident.

On 8 May 1880 The Natal Witness announced that the Union R.M.S. American had arrived at Cape Town, and that among the passengers was Mr John PATERSON of Port Elizabeth, Member of the Cape Parliament.

However, the report of the arrival proved incorrect (a reminder to read ahead when searching in newspapers) and was followed days later by the announcement that the American had been wrecked under dramatic circumstances.

This ship of 2,126 tons, built in Dundee in 1873, was one of 5 mail steamers put into service by the Union Company in that year as a result of the opposition of Currie's Line in the England to Cape route. In 1876 she had undergone some alterations which had slightly changed her appearance, but she was a fine large vessel. On this particular voyage, under Captain A MacLean WAIT, she had departed Plymouth for the Cape on 9 April 1880 carrying 76 hands, 66 passengers and one stowaway.

When she was slightly north of the Equator, on the morning of Friday 23 April, her passengers were roused from their slumbers by a violent shock and the stopping of the ship’s engines. The stern propeller-shaft had broken.

This wasn't an unusual occurrence among steamers of the period; generally the vessel would hoist her sail and go on to the nearest port for repair, or be taken in under tow. But the American's shaft had bent, tearing away plating at her stern as well as part of the bulkhead aft. Water began to pour in, and the captain called the passengers together to explain what had happened. He calmly ordered breakfast to be served while the crew and some volunteers from among the passengers manned the pumps.

In due course it became clear that the pumps couldn't cope and that the American was doomed. The aptly-named Captain WAIT took six hours before deciding to abandon ship; the passengers and crew were ordered into the boats and all were safely taken off. After another hour and a half the vessel disappeared stern first into the Atlantic.

Despite finding themselves adrift in mid-ocean in 8 boats, everyone behaved well. The weather was good and as they were in the regular West African shipping lanes they would be picked up soon. If not, the optimistic captain hoped to make Cape Palmas, 250 miles away, and accordingly set sail.

Unfortunately, the boats gradually became separated. Three of them were picked up by the liner Congo on her way home, on 25 April and these survivors were landed at Madeira on 8 May where the news of the wreck was cabled to England. Thus began a phase of terrible anxiety for relatives and friends of passengers and crew who were not among the occupants of the first three boats.


Three other boats were found by the American vessel Emma F Herriman, and later these survivors, about 60 in all, were transferred to a steamer, the Coanza, which landed them at Grand Bassa, Liberia, and they were then taken on board the Senegal which sailed for Las Palmas.

Their troubles weren't over yet. On 15 May, the Senegal, now carrying far more than her usual number of souls, ran aground off the coast. This was too much - a double shipwreck for the American’s passengers. Panic ensued, people rushed for the boats, one of which jammed then on being cut loose plunged into the sea. In the melee, John PATERSON, probably struck by the propeller, was lost. There were no other casualties and the remainder made for Las Palmas by wagon.

The captain of the R.M.S. Teuton, which was in the area, put back to Las Palmas having sighted the Senegal aground, and took on board those passengers of the American which had arrived at the town. The Teuton then headed for the Cape, stopping at Madeira to take on the survivors who had landed there from the British and Africa steamer, Congo, under Captain LIVERSEDGE.


It was only on 28 May that news came of one of the remaining two missing boats from the American - the occupants had been picked up by a German schooner, the Moltke, transferred to the steamer Kamerun, and then landed at Madeira. When almost all hope had been abandoned of the seven crew members who were in the last remaining boat, they were miraculously found by the Portuguese ship, Tarujo, four months after the first news of the disaster had reached England, and landed at Loanda on 21 July.

The story occupied column after column in the South African press with inevitable delays in news being received of the missing boats. Eye-witness accounts, such as that of a passenger, Mr COX, thrilled the reading public, and The Natal Witness published an entire supplement on the ill-fated American. The loss of the respected Cape Member of Parliament, John PATERSON, was deplored; in Port Elizabeth flags all over the town were flown at half-mast. It seems PATERSON had twice postponed his voyage before finally choosing to depart on the American: a premonition, perhaps?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Landing adventures at Natal 1871

The Beethoven’s machinery (cargo) is not yet landed. The weather has been unfavourable, and in consequence, the steamer is not to sail tomorrow as originally intended; her mails are postponed to Monday. The swell outside has been very heavy. The Natal was to have taken a supplementary mail, which was advertised to close the morning after the regular mail at five o’clock, and two passengers trusted to get on board by some boat – unfortunately as the morning turned out rough there could be no communication. Mr MOHR, the German explorer*, is one of the two unfortunates. It is particularly annoying to him, as his luggage, containing the results of his trip, is parted from him, and consequently in some danger of being lost. The Beethoven leaving so soon after the mail steamer, will enable him to rejoin without much loss of time.

There was such a heavy swell on part of the time that the two steamers were lying outside as to make the Natal roll almost gunwales under and shipping water over the side …The Beethoven, from her superior size, although also very uncomfortable, did not roll so heavily. I heard that in the process of shipping cargo, a chain-hook swinging about in the air struck one of the Natal’s men with such force in the chest that he died shortly after. It will be a wonder if the boiler or pan on board the Beethoven which they intend trying to unship, will get successfully on shore without accident.

The boatmen have had experience of landing machinery from outside lately. The Margaret Wilkie although she came inside to unload the most unwieldy portions of her cargo, did unload some large pieces from outside and the boatmen got so terrified that they were like to decline going out any more to her. They used to have to flee for their lives sometimes, when some of the heavy pieces of machinery were swinging about in mid air, pendulum like, above their heads. The landing of the Beethoven’s heavy boiler and pan is a problem which has yet to be wrought out and as yet except at the first, they have not had favourable weather for it.

An intending passenger by the Natal has had the courage to try the point, whether passengers, embarking or disembarking, must pay the boatmen, or whether the passage-money paid does not entitle him to be placed on board and landed at the ship’s expense. Many passengers have objected to the charge, but in the hurry and anxiety of leaving and arriving, they have not had the courage or opportunity to stand out against it, and this time one has, although his luggage was already on board.

The Natal took a box of diamonds away, the property of the agents Messrs Escombe, Gladstone & Co, value some £1,500 or £1,800. The Beethoven takes away from the Natal Bank the largest shipment of diamonds that has yet left the colony - insured for £10 000, but various estimated by the owners to be worth £25,000 to £40,000. Among them is the largest South African diamond yet found, Lucas’s 107 carat gem. I think there are not a dozen larger diamonds in the world.

Mr COODE’s report on the Harbour Works is carefully conned here. Mr MILNE’s pertinent reply to congratulations on its agreement with his works and plans is “Aye, but you have spent your money.” The bitterness of the disappointment is, no doubt, after this lapse of time, past to him. The captain of the Beethoven expressed astonishment when he saw the Breakwaters, at their being erected nearly a mile from the entrance, as anyone with common sense but perhaps a skilled engineer, would do; strange how too much elaboration of the senses seem sometimes to dull what is called the balance of the senses, common sense ...

Mr BAINES, the explorer of the interior, is in town just now. We hope to hear soon of his giving the promised lecture. The drawings, and water-colour sketches of up-country scenes, are interesting in the extreme; they would form invaluable illustrations to a book of his travels. Perhaps they may appear in that form some day.
 
[Source: The Natal Witness 28 Feb 1871]
 
See passenger list of the Beethoven at www.genealogyworld.net/rose/maritime/beethoven.html



*Edouard Mohr, the German explorer, visited the Victoria Falls in
1869. He was returning from this trip with various trophies and specimens he had collected,
when he tried to board the ship Natal, as described in the above press report.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Newspaper passenger lists in family history: the Maritzburg, Natal 1863


The Natal Mercury of 7 July 1863 announced the arrival at Durban, two days earlier, of the barque Maritzburg, 536 tons, commanded by W L Eastham. She had left London on 4 April. Apart from various paying travellers (including seven members of the Pepworth family) and a general cargo, this ship carried 'Government Passengers' i.e. people emigrating to Natal under the assisted passage scheme. Sometimes such 'steerage' lists are not included in the press report, and may be found in a separate column of the same edition - or, if you're unlucky, not at all. 

This particular passenger list obligingly gives most, though not all, first names.

Having established the date of a ship's arrival it's usually worthwhile searching back a few weeks to find mention of her under 'Vessels Expected' in the shipping column. In the case of the Maritzburg, a reference in the 3 July edition reports that she had 'left the Downs' on 31 March. The same report gives her captain's surname as 'Earthian' but Eastham as shown in the arrival entry sounds much more likely - a good example of how names supplied by captain, Port Captain, or ship agent, could be misinterpreted in the press. 

Searching forward for more on the Maritzburg, in the Mercury of 10 July we find a brief paragraph in the shape of a testimonial to Captain Eastham and his Officers, 'signed by 67 passengers':  


So, three reports for the price of one, all within the same month and offering the family historian a bit more than the bare bones of a name on a passenger list.


Note: The Maritzburg was one of J T Rennie's Direct line of clippers, i.e. sailing from the Thames direct to Natal, the first of which to arrive at Durban was L'Imperatrice Eugenie, closely followed by the Prince Alfred, the Tugela, the Natal and Natal Star, the Umgeni, the Quathlamba and others.
Read more about 'The Colonial Clippers' in Basil Lubbock's book of that title.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Voyage of the Silvery Wave to Natal 1863: a passenger's account

Those who have come before us into this favorite colony [Natal] have felt the anxious looking forward to their arrival lately experienced by the voyagers in the Silvery Wave, and we venture to request space … for a short account of our journeyings.

We left London on the first of August, taking advantage of a fine north-easterly breeze, but alas! the uncertainty of the wind is too proverbial and when the Isle of Wight lay basking in the sunshine on our lee, the fickle breeze became a head wind, and short tacks and little headway the order of the day; so we put into Torquay and rambled amid the beauties of Devon, until favorite winds should blow.

On the morning of the 10th we once more spread our sails, and on the 12th were clear of the Land’s End and speedily our sea-sick bodies were exposed to the tender mercies of the Bay of Biscay, where a heavy swell was setting in from the Western Ocean, and for the first time we were reduced to close-reefed topsails. Here also were tested the sea-going qualities of the Silvery Wave, for this was her maiden voyage … buoyant as a cork, quick in stays, dry as terra firma, she is meet in all things to gladden a sailor’s heart.

On then we sped and caught the north-east trades, but they were light, and progress not being rapid we made efforts to pass the time as profitably and pleasantly as might be, and so it was proposed to commence a series of lectures under the auspices of the Silvery Wave Debating Society.

Mr Jenkins of Natal was the first to open the ball in a lecture on the colony to which we were hastening. As may be imagined this excited our interest in a great degree, all information on this head being of necessity valuable, and throughout our voyage this gentleman had been always read to give advice and counsel as to our future proceedings, and I believe we shall all be indebted to him for a clearer insight into colonial affairs than we could otherwise have obtained.

Mr Scott followed Mr Jenkins in a series of lectures on Poets and Poetry, interspersed with readings from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Byron. [An] accompanying prologue was also composed and read by him ...

Mr Walter Peace [Natal Immigration Agent] also entertained us well by an account of his Journey into Russia.

On the 18th September we crossed the line and gave Father Neptune a hearty welcome on board, we paid the penalty, scraped acquaintance with the barber, and became freemen of his august dominions; concluding the day with a pleasant party and dance on the quarter-deck. This gladdened our hearts after the three weeks of the doldrums we had the ill luck to encounter.

Singularly enough, the north-east trade winds deserted us … The south-east trade winds were very favorable but off the Cape we experienced baffling winds and for a week were detained by a strong easterly breeze.

But at last this voyage, though a pleasant one, drew to a close and as we hoped in two or three days to sight land, it was desired to testify to the well-deserved respect we bore to Captain Warren, by the presentation of a testimonial expressive of our high opinion regarding him as a seaman, a gentleman, and a Christian. Mr Peace took the chair, Mr Wilkes presented the Testimonial, and Mr Jenkins a Bible as an earnest of their high regard.

The Captain spoke in a most feeling manner, reciprocating the kindly wishes, and expressing his gratification at being held so well in their estimation. A very pleasant evening was then passed. After the usual loyal toasts, the health of the Lieutenant-Governor and Legislative Council of Natal was given, and several others followed, all responded to by various passengers.

So ended a pleasant passage, made the less tedious by the kind, unwearying attention of Captain Warren, by fine weather, and all the attendant advantages with which a kind providence saw fit to bless, and in a spirit of humble thankfulness to God for his almighty care and guidance, we desire to end this short notice of the

FIRST VOYAGE OF THE SILVERY WAVE.

[Source: The Natal Mercury, 1 November 1863; original spellings etc retained]


Friday, May 14, 2010

Finding more than passenger lists in SA newspapers

Newspapers, always a rewarding source, can provide a surprising amount of information if the family historian is prepared to go the extra mile, extract as much as possible on the topic being investigated, and carefully interpret the details.

An example is the arrival at Natal of the ship Silvery Wave in November 1863. The passenger list, with those of other vessels, appears in The Natal Mercury of 3 November.





Several pieces of information are evident in this report: first that it took the Silvery Wave three months to sail from London. Next, that she was a small vessel and consequently not carrying many passengers. We cannot be precise about the number of those on board, because ‘and family’ – a term used twice in the list – could mean anything from one to a dozen children. Applying a reasonable average, we could hazard a guess at 25 to 30 passengers, divided between ‘first’ and ‘second’ cabin, and an unknown number of crew. Whatever the true total of souls, the size of the ship wouldn’t have been conducive to a comfortable voyage. She was also carrying a general cargo. The passenger list is coy about initials, except in the case of ‘J Hardy’.

It’s possible that more about the passengers could be established by referring to the European Immigration Index at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, searching on the surname of your interest among the Silvery Wave’s passengers and then consulting the relevant original passenger register. In the early 1860’s the registers tended not to include as much detail as in later decades.

It would be a mistake to abandon the newspaper search at this stage. Searching forwards and keeping a lookout for further references to the Silvery Wave, the edition of 10 November 1863 offers the following:



Her tonnage is given here as 260. It seems the ship was British-built expressly for the Natal trade and is described as a ‘clipper brig’. To refer to a ship as a clipper meant she had forward-raking bows and aft-raking masts, that is, she was built for speed. Her cabin accommodation was considered ‘superior’ (by her owners, at least). The ship was busy discharging her current cargo and preparing for embarkation on the homeward journey.

Advertisements like this appeared regularly in the press. If you find one for the ship on which your ancestor sailed, it would make an attractive and appropriate illustration for the family history narrative.


Continuing the forward search, on 13 November a more substantial nugget emerges: an account of the voyage of the Silvery Wave ‘by a passenger’. Reports of this type aren't uncommon and are often combined with an expression of thanks to captains as well as ships’ surgeons for their skills in making the voyage as pleasant as possible for all on board. These ‘testimonials’ published in the press were a feature of successful mid-19th century voyages before the increase in sailings, and consequently in captains, made such personal expressions of gratitude obsolete.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

19th c South African press reports of shipping

The Abercrombie Robinson had been lying at anchor since her arrival at the Cape on 25 August 1842, carrying over 600 members of various regiments and about 80 civilians (see previous post).


Three days later a north-westerly gale struck Table Bay, several vessels being blown ashore. The troop transport Abercrombie Robinson ran aground at the mouth of the Salt River while a British convict vessel, Waterloo, became a total wreck. Because the latter was an older ship with unsound timbers, she was smashed to pieces in the surf and 190 people on board were lost. The majority were convicts destined for Tasmania and there were also men of the 99th Regiment, some with their families.

All those on the Abercrombie Robinson were saved due to the discipline and courage which prevailed during the crisis.


The South African Commercial Advertiser carried a report in its edition of 3 September 1842 stating:

‘The Abercrombie Robinson had come into the Bay on the evening of 25th, when it was dark, proceeded too far up the Bay, and came to anchor in a position unsafe for her should it come on to blow. The wind did blow a gale with squalls, and she wisely went on shore with an anchor at her bows, thereby saving some seven hundred souls, most of whom must have perished had she foundered where she rode at anchor. Had she been in a proper position, she would have rode out the weather ... Of the Waterloo it is impossible to speak with moderation. Deadly blame rests somewhere, and justice will, we have no doubt, find out the parties that deserve it.
So great a loss of life [as in the wreck of the Waterloo] has not happened in Table Bay since the year 1799. On the 5th of November of that year, His Majesty's Ship Sceptre, Captain [Valentine] Edwards, was driven on shore, and ... immediately went to pieces, being an accursed old hulk on her way home to be broken up. A few hours after she struck not a vestige of her was to be seen, but the fragments of the wreck scattered on the strand, in myriads of pieces, not a single plank remaining whole, nor two attached together. Captain Edwards, his son, ten other officers, and near 300 seamen and marines perished.'
The Sceptre had been built in England in 1781, a 64 gun ship of the line, but was clearly past her best by 1799 - 'an accursed old hulk' leaves no room for confusion.





Wreck of the transport Abercrombie Robinson and the convict ship Waterloo during a gale on 28 August 1842 in Table Bay
The Waterloo is seen on the left, engulfed by the sea; centre-stage is the Abercrombie Robinson; in the foreground some survivors are being rescued from the breakers.






For more on the Abercrombie Robinson:
http://web.archive.org/web/20070406123221/http://www.cronab.demon.co.uk/peril.htm



Monday, May 10, 2010

Newspaper shipping reports in family history research




This report of a ship arrival at Table Bay is a good example of the usefulness - as well as the limitations - of this type of source for family history research.

The ship in question is the Abercrombie Robinson, a troop transport, and the year is 1842.

Leaving aside for the moment the dramatic events surrounding this vessel's arrival, the report emphasises the lack of detailed information given by the press about the rank and file of the military on board ships.

True to form, officers are named but NCO's and privates are not. Neither are soldiers' wives and children. Note the difference in terminology between the ladies of the officers and the soldiers' wives of the lower ranks. Class distinction was alive and well on vessels in the mid-19th c.

'454 non-commissioned officers' of the 91st Regiment's Reserve Battalion could hide numerous potential forebears from our view. Ditto the 11 NCOs and privates of the Cape Mounted Rifleman, travelling with '1 woman and 4 children' (no ladies here). 'Two pensioners' remain obscure - as do their families.

A detachment of the 27th Regiment offers 32 unnamed NCOs, with a couple of wives and '1 soldier's child'.
On a personal note, I found it curious that the two Ensigns leading this detachment were DALZELL and HAMILTON - surnames inter-linked in my own family history and an incentive to follow-up the reference.

The report underlines that wives (of all classes) did 'follow the drum', and at no little risk to themselves. Also, it gives an indication of the continual movement of British troops in and out of the Colony, back and forth between Britain and South Africa. The Abercrombie Robinson was intending to make for Algoa Bay to disembark her military passengers and embark members of other units before heading 'home'.

This was not to be: the vessel was wrecked in Table Bay during a north-west gale on 28th August 1842 - two days after the above report appeared in the South African Commercial Advertiser.
More in a future post.

Note also the brief letter below the report, concerning a lighthouse to be built on Cape Agulhas and Cape Receife. A topic to come back to later.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

19th c immigration to South Africa: a chronology

1795-1803 First British Occupation of the Cape

1814 Cape formally ceded to Britain

1817 Benjamin Moodie’s private scheme: 200 Artisans from Scotland to the Cape

1818 Henry Nourse’s private scheme brought his employees from Ireland to the Cape

1820 Government scheme brought 4 000 British Settlers to Albany, Cape; now known as The 1820 Settlers

1823 John Ingram’s scheme: contract labourers from Ireland to the Cape in the Barossa

1830s and 1840s Small parties brought by agents such as JS Christopher from Britain to the Cape.

1844 Government sponsored immigration: children and single Irish women from Britain to the Cape

1848 Jonas Bergtheil’s private scheme to bring German settlers to Natal: known as the Bergtheil Settlers or the Cotton Germans

1849 Emigration Philanthropic Society of England sponsored 20 women from British workhouses to the Cape.

1849 William Garrod and Dr Charles Johnston brought out British emigrants on the John Gibson to settle on Natal north coast at Tongaat

1849-1851 Natal Emigration and Colonization Company i.e. the Byrne scheme, brought 2 200 British Settlers; now known as the Byrne Settlers

1849-1851 W J Iron’s Christian Emigration & Colonization Society brought out 400 Wesleyan Methodists from Britain to settle at Verulam, Natal. Irons’s scheme piggy-backed on Byrne’s scheme, the Wesleyans making the voyage in Byrne’s ships.

1849-51 Immigrants from the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Hampshire travelled to Natal on Byrne’s ship the Lady Bruce; another piggy-back scheme.

1856 Alexander McCorkindale brought 80 British immigrants to Natal

1856 German settlers to Kaffraria, Cape

1857 Irish women immigrants and some artisan families on the Lady Kennaway to Kaffraria

1857-62 Assisted immigration provided by Natal Government: 1 342 British immigrants in 5 years

1858 New Gelderland settlers brought from Holland to Natal by T C Colenbrander

1857-67 Government aided immigration: the largest Cape scheme, 12 000 Settlers from Britain (including 74 immigrants from Germany)

1880 Willowfountain (Wilgefontein) settlers from Britain to Natal

1882 Norwegian immigrants to Natal: now known as the Marburg settlers

Note: use the search facility on this blog to find further detail and useful links relating to the above phases of immigration to South Africa in the 19th c.



The Last of England
by Ford Madox Brown

Ford Madox Brown's famous painting The Last of England encapsulates in a romantic, personal and unparalleled way, the story of emigration from Britain. The artist shows the moment of departure, with the white cliffs of Dover receding ever further in the background, and in the foreground a young couple huddled close together in the prow of the boat taking them away from everything they knew as home, towards the sailing ship which will transport them across the ocean into an uncertain future in a strange land. Beneath the woman's cloak, a small child is almost hidden from view and the parents' faces show their sadness and courage while they resolutely face their destiny, never looking back.  It's said that Brown intended to depict two friends who were leaving for Australia, but his picture transcends such details and gives us the archetypal 19th century British emigrant family.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

20th century landings at Natal

Sail and steam co-existed at Durban for many years. From the early 1880s progress gradually began to be made in deepening the harbour channel by dredging. This and other schemes for improvement, including the controversial breakwaters designed by several harbour engineers, continued through the following decade, though the bay remained inaccessible to vessels of a deep draft.

By 1904 as a result of continued dredging operations 33 million tons of sand had been shifted.

On 26 June 1904 the Armadale Castle was the first mail ship to cross the Bar and enter the harbour. She was the flagship of the Union Castle Line (Union Line and Castle Line having amalgamated in 1900) weighing in at nearly 13 000 tons and with a draft of 7,6 metres.

This historic crossing marked the end of the basket-landing era. Passengers would be able to disembark by gangplank directly from ship to shore. The arrival and departure of the mailships became glamorous and exciting events drawing crowds of sightseers: bands played, and coloured streamers were thrown by travellers on deck or by their friends who had come to ‘see them off’.

Between 1947 and 1848, in the optimistic years following World War II, the Union-Castle Company Immigrant Service brought 28 000 British immigrants to South Africa.

For family historians, the best way of tracking an ancestor who departed by ship from British ports between 1890 and the 1960s is via the passenger search facility provided by ancestorsonboard, powered by www.findmypast.com/  This information stems from original Board of Trade passenger records; regrettably records prior to 1890 were destroyed.

Direct link to the search form: www.findmypast.co.uk/passengerListPersonSearchStart.action?redef=0

The Windsor Castle would be the last mailship to make the regular call at Durban, in July 1977. When she departed, so did much of the romantic aspect of the port.



Note the original lighthouse close to the end of the Bluff: opened with much ceremony on 23 January 1867, its beacon went out for the last time on 15 October 1940 and the structure was demolished by the military in June 1941.


The Point, Durban, from the Bluff during the 1890s: note the mixture of sail and steam.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Disembarking troops at Port Natal

Disembarking relatively small groups of passengers at Natal's port was difficult enough. Landing entire regiments as well as horses, arms, ammunition and other supplies in time of war was a nightmare. During the years and months immediately preceding the Zulu War of 1879, the Bar across the harbour entrance was an obstacle to larger ships. Every soldier, every horse and all the accoutrements of a great military force had to come ashore in small vessels (lighters or tenders of various descriptions). While waiting in the outer anchorage, ships were always in danger from changes in wind and weather, with the real possibility of a vessel being dashed on to the rocks below the Bluff - as had happened two decades earlier in the case of the former East Indiaman, Minerva, in 1850, and other subsequent wrecks.

At the port there were no wharves as we understand the term today. Lighters carrying troops and equipment would be beached on the shore. Sometimes floating gangplanks would be used. Horses and other animals were winched up in a body-sling and transferred from the large vessel to the lighter: that can't have been as easy as it sounds, particularly not for animals which had already endured months of shipboard conditions.
Referring to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, The Times History of the War mentions that 13 000 horses died at sea and many times that number perished because they were put into the field before they had time to recover from the effects of the sea voyage. About 2 000 mules died at sea on the way to South Africa. (The Remount Department, in Britain and South Africa, during the Anglo-Boer War supplied 520 000 horses and 150 000 mules: cost, 15 million pounds.)

Early in 1880, with the conclusion of the Zulu War and the battles of Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift, Ulundi and others passing into history, the task of re-embarkation would begin. No sooner had that been achieved, than the outbreak of the First Boer War (or Transvaal War of Independence) required the landing of further troops and the usual stores and equipment. Durban had become an extremely busy port.

From 1899, if your British ancestor served in the Anglo-Boer War, he may well have been loaded into the notorious basket contraption and lowered over the side of a ship into a waiting lighter.



Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902
Troops landing by basket
at Durban


Footnote: a comment from someone in Michigan that this 'strange device' reminds him of cages used by fishermen to catch lobsters in Alaska. I'll bet they don't catch many wearing pith helmets, as seen above.