Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Natal in the 1860s: what the settlers saw.

Although immigration to Natal from Britain and other parts of Europe slowed to a trickle, especially during the early years of the decade, settlers who chose this Colony as their destination would find themselves living in interesting times. The wooden barques on which they sailed still faced difficulties on arrival: the problems of the Bar across the entrance channel to Natal’s port had yet to be solved, despite the engineering work carried out by John Milne* in the 1850s.

The Bluff with the remains of Milne's North Pier in
foreground. There was no lighthouse until 1867.
Around the wooded promontory known as the Bluff, which held the bay of Natal in its embrace, the sea ebbed and flowed, depositing sand and sediment on the ocean floor and continually changing the depth of the tidal channels. Usually the depth of water over the Bar was about six feet at low tide or 12 feet at high spring tide. It was this narrow tidal range and lack of water at peak tides that caused trouble, making the entrance inaccessible to ships of heavier draught. Vessels had to anchor outside in the ‘road’ or roadstead, where they were at the mercy of wind and weather and might well be wrecked. Many wrecks occurred during the 1860s.

Passengers could have an unpleasant day, or several days, while their ship rode unsteadily at anchor outside the harbour and they waited to be transported to shore in a lighter or other small craft. Dry land must have looked inviting after the lengthy sea voyage but most settlers got their feet wet before reaching the shore as the lighters stopped in shallow water some distance away. There were no wharves. A Customs House stood precariously among the scrubby bush of what was originally called, with good reason, Sandy Point (later the Point). The Customs House was saved from disappearing into the bay by Milne, who used pole groynes to stop the sand erosion.

*JOHN MILNE R.E., b 1802 Kincardine Scotland, was a civil engineer who had worked on harbours such as Leith and Inverkeithing in his home country before emigrating to Natal on the Dreadnought in 1849. A widower, he was accompanied by his daughter Jessie. Jessie married a soldier, Captain Robertson, who was later wounded in India in 1857 and died in 1861. Subsequently, Jessie married Captain William Michael Tollner, (Her 2nd husband Tollner’s Death Notice gives her maiden name as Robertson, which is misleading and emphasises the necessity for checking sources.) Milne had his critics (including the influential George Cato) and by 1858 he was no longer harbour engineer at Durban. He died in 1877.

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