Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ships and Mariners: 19th c Cape and Natal 8 Bell

There had been a groundswell of opinion, in both Cape and Natal circles, that Captain William Bell was deserving of reward for his actions in June 1842. A letter to the Cape Frontier Times, written from Port Elizabeth on 13 November 1843 and signed Justitia, left nobody in any doubt that the Government so far had been remiss in failing to acknowledge Bell’s gallantry under fire ‘by something more substantial than praise’.

Captain Smith's camp, Port Natal, 1842

We remember the sympathy felt here for the almost helpless situation of parts of the 27th Reg. confined there within their entrenchment … Captain Bell going with the relief was considered as going to almost certain death. Yet, in defiance of all the promptings of prudence he proceeds … he enters the narrow channel, where more than ordinary caution is requisite, in the coolest frame of mind; a double range of guns from sheltered enemies stare him in the face … Captain Bell … without personal interest, save in the company of kindred brave hearts, without arms, but his hands placed on the helm, takes his measures as coolly, shapes his course as steadily, exposed to the hottest fire of the secreted enemy … [and] endangered his little all.
 We have heard that Captain Bell has been nominated as Port Captain of Natal. He well deserves such a situation to look after the well-being of a place which he so mainly contributed to preserve. 

This letter was republished in the Carlisle Patriot of 26 July 1844, under the headline ‘Captain Bell of the Conch’, as ‘of some local interest, Captain Bell being a native of Glasson, in the parish of Bowness, in this county.’*

It’s interesting to note that despite this clarity Bell’s birthplace continued to be stated (even by members of his family) as Dumfries, Scotland, an error perpetuated in the comparatively recent reprint edition of his Narrative of the Conch.

Sir George Napier KCB
Perhaps in response to such public promptings, on 16 December 1844, Sir George Napier offered Bell the position of Harbour Master at Port Natal at a salary of 200 pounds per annum. There was a proviso that Bell would also act as Pilot for ships entering the port and that he would have to furnish a Boat and a Crew out of his own salary. The offer was gratifying and Bell accepted the conditions, undoubtedly recognizing the benefits of a regular income and a settled home as well as an end to the hazards of coastal voyaging.

In March 1845 the family duly arrived at Natal on the schooner Pilot but the new post wasn’t to be all plain sailing. There were difficulties in obtaining a crew for the Port Boat and Bell’s remuneration wasn’t enough to meet the expenses involved, the Boat Crew alone costing 136 pounds a year.

It was then proposed that the Government should provide the Crew as well as the Boat but that Bell’s salary would be reduced to 125 pounds. His appointment as Harbour Master would be terminated and he would be employed as Port Captain and Pilot. The tortuous workings of colonial bureaucracy thus undermined the spirit of the original offer and Bell declined the post. He was asked to reconsider, but stuck to his guns. In April 1847 the Government appointed a temporary Port Captain at Natal in his place while Bell returned to the Cape at his own expense.

He would continue sailing in coastal waters though not with Conch, which had been taken over in June 1845 by Captain W Moses. On 18 December 1847 the back page of the Grahamstown Journal carried the following report:

We regret to hear that the Conch was wrecked on the 7th ult. on the Bar of the St Johns or Umzimvoobu River. But we are glad to be able to add that no lives have been lost. The greater part of the cargo has been landed, chiefly in a damaged state. 

Port St John's: the mouth of the Umzimvubu River

*Glasson, Bowness-on-Solway, Cumberland

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