Friday, March 30, 2012

Sydney Turner: Portrait of a Pioneer

'Portrait of a Pioneer' by Daphne Child (published 1980 by Macmillan SA) offers transcribed selected letters of Sidney Turner written from South Africa 1864-1901, the originals of which were bequeathed to the Local History Museum in Aliwal Street Durban (The Old Court House) by Constance Burton, one of Sidney's daughters.

For those who don't know this slim volume, its size belies the wealth of information and interest found within its pages.

Turner came to SA from England in 1864 and for the next 40 years led a chequered and exciting life of adventure and enterprise. He was in turn storekeeper, ferryman, farmer, transport-rider, fisherman, lighterman, prospector, captain of a small coaster and sub-manager of a shipping company. He was the first man to attempt to salvage SA's most famous wreck, the East Indiaman Grosvenor, from which he recovered cannon and gold and silver coins.

In his letters home, Turner describes people he encounters, white and black, governors, missionaries, chiefs, and relates anecdotes concerning African customs, wildlife, hunting and events of historical interest. He explored much of the Natal South Coast and Pondoland, visited the Orange Free State just before the outbreak of the Basotho War 1865, and tried his luck at the diamond-diggings in Griqualand West and the goldfields of Barberton.

Sidney Turner, son of John Turner, a tenant farmer of Norfolk, at age 22 married Bella Compton at St Patrick's Anglican Church, Umzinto (Alexandra County) on 18 June 1868. Her father was Walter Compton, Sidney's partner, who with Sidney bought in December 1867 600 acres of undeveloped Crown Land on the Natal South Coast (between Umkomaas and the present village of Clansthal) and called the property 'Ellingham', a name which it retains to this day. Ellingham was later to pass into the hands of Samuel Crookes, founder of the Crookes family of Renishaw, and son-in-law of another famous south coast farmer, Joseph Landers.

During various trading trips to Pondoland, Sidney had heard of the wreck of the Grosvenor in 1782, possibly from Rev Thomas Jenkins a missionary and advisor to Chief Faku who had picked up gold coins and sighted old cannon and ship's timbers near where the Indiaman was said to have struck the rocks. Having passed by the site in January 1880, Sidney decided to return with salvage equipment and try to recover the treasure believed to be embedded in the ship's hull. On 20 May 1880, the Natal Mercury published the news that Turner and a friend, Lieut Beddoes, of the Durban Volunteer Artillery, had sailed to Port St John's in the Adonis and had made their way to the site of the wreck, where they hired labour and commenced blasting the rocks with dynamite, finding a large number of coins - some were Venetian ducats and others were minted in India; he also found spoons, shoe-buckles, buttons and ear-rings. He and Beddoes salvaged several of the ship's cannon, two of which were later preserved and displayed at the Local History Museum Durban. As a result of his salvage work, Sidney was able to float a company in 1881 which commissioned the building of a small coastal steamer, the Lady Wood, which was built in a Greenwich shipyard. Other shareholders included George Hall Rennie, son of the famous J T Rennie, who was to be the recipient of a ship's cannon and some pig-iron used as ballast, all recovered from the wreck site. Several of Sidney's discoveries, including a goblet made of silver rupees which he had melted down by a silversmith, found their way into the Local History Museum's collection.

The Lady Wood made frequent trading trips, going as far north as Delagoa Bay and to the Mzimvubu River in the south.

Sidney's visits to Pondoland in 1883 and 1884 kept him in close touch with the Paramount Chief, Mqikela, who controlled the east bank of the Mzimvubu. (The Mpondo royal lineage was divided into two sections, a great house and a righthand house. Faku allowed Ndamase, a son of the latter house, to establish himself west of the Mzimvubu River and after Faku's death in 1867, Ndamase assumed the rights of an independent ruler, thus splitting the Mpondo state in two. Faku was succeeded by Mqikela, the senior son of his great wife.)
On the opposite side of the river lay the embryo Port St John's which Mqikela's rival, Nqiliso (successor to Ndamase, Chief of Western Pondoland) had ceded to the British in 1878 in return for a thousand pounds and recognition of himself as independent ruler. Port St John's had been annexed to Cape Colony. The British government had first approached Mqikela requesting him to cede the Crown a site for a Customs post with strip of land adjoining, but the Chief had refused to do this and for this and other reasons was on bad terms with the colonial government.

By the beginning of 1885 the trade carried on through Port St John's had become so lucrative that Mqikela decided to open a port of his own; he converted the Customs dues which were passing to the Cape government and may also have hoped to arm his tribesmen with the help of gunrunners who dared not operate under the eyes of the British. Since Sidney Turner was high in his favour, the chief invited him to select a suitable place for a harbour and undertake the necessary construction work, and in return he gave Sidney a concession of 20,000 acres of land with a seaboard of several miles which included the site of the wreck of the Grosvenor.
A formal agreement was drawn up by Mqikela's secretary, a well-educated Englishman named McNicholas. The Paramount Chief made his mark at the foot of the document, with his chief councillor, Mhlangaso, Mr McNicholas and Mr W. Pleydell-Bouverie, a relative of the Earl of Radnor, signing as witnesses. This document granted Sidney Turner and his heirs the sole right to land and ship cargo from such port or ports that he may open up at any time between the rivers Umtata and Umtafuna (Umtamvuma).

Mr Harold Napier Devitt, the SA magistrate and author, saw this document many years later and described it in his book 'People and Places' (1944 Cape Town) as 'a sheet of foolscap, yellow with age, bearing the rubber stamp of the Great Place, Pondoland, the head kraal of the chief'. Professor Percival Kirby, author of 'The True Story of the East Indiaman, Grosvenor' stated in 1954 that the document was then held by one of Sidney Turner's descendants living in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Kirby presented a photograph of it to the Africana Museum in Johannesburg. The original is now held by a member of Turner's family.

The site which Sidney chose for the new harbour was at the spot where the little Mkweni river enters the sea, not far from the site of the Grosvenor wreck. He named it Port Grosvenor and Mqikela granted him, as Port Captain, authority to collect Customs dues and make and enforce regulations for the control of the harbour and pilotage at the port. Sidney had no real desire to go and live in Pondoland but due to financial circumstances was forced to accept the offer - by this time, 1884, he had seven children and a wife to support. The port was officially opened, despite strong opposition from the Cape government, and Sidney and his family moved to their new home in 'a place that was as perfect a wildnerness as Robinson Crusoe's island' - which was Pondoland at the time. Their nearest neighbour was the missionary, Rev Jenkins, 35 miles away.

Sidney wrote home: 'Being entirely dependent on ourselves for doctoring, I often wish I had a good family medical work, also one with simple operations that could be managed by anyone who knows nothing of surgery ... I have a good supply of medicines, as a Dr Rylands who had been staying at the King's kraal in Swaziland came down to Delagoa Bay ill with fever and incipient D.T's and became a passenger with me in the Lady Wood. He left some things in pawn with me to pay his passage, as he had no money ...'

Regrettably, Sidney's venture was doomed to failure, as the Cape government declared his concession invalid under tribal law, and he lost his land and home, his position and means of earning a living. He moved to Port St John's with his family, and after their departure Port Grosvenor became nothing more than a memory. The last ship to call there was the coaster Somtseu in January 1886. Sidney was not unlawfully dispossessed of his concession, since Mqikela had had no right to dispose of tribal land without first calling a tribal meeting and obtaining his chiefs' and headmens' unanimous consent to his proposals. The acquiescence of his councillors alone was insufficient in a matter of such importance.

During the Turners' first few months at Port St John's Sidney was desperately short of money. He opened a trading store but it did not prosper and neither did Bella's guest house, the Needles Hotel.

Despite help from his friend George Rennie, by September 1886 Sidney felt it wasn't worth continuing the struggle at Port St John's (510 km from Durban), and, leaving Bella and the children behind he went to the Eastern Transvaal to try his luck at the Barberton goldfields.
Bella Turner stayed on at Port St John's after Sidney's death on 15 September 1901 aged 51 at his farm 'Cremorne' on the east bank of the Mzimvubu River. He was buried on the farm and the site of his grave is marked by two Norfolk pines. The house he built is still standing. Bella died at the age of 80 having taken a great interest in local affairs. Six of their children married (their daughter Florence married Charles Maytom of Port St John's in April 1889) and there were 22 grandchildren.

There is a wealth of information in Daphne Child's book - including the alleged discovery of copper in Pondoland - but Sidney's own fascinating accounts of his journeys paint a vivid picture of the country at that period. There are some inaccuracies in his statements - e.g. numbers of British killed at Majuba - but these are small points.


See Shelagh Spencer's 'British Settlers in Natal' vol 4 for more on Turner and his wife Bella's family, the COMPTONs.

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