History of Durban

There’s something inevitably foolish about reducing hundreds of years of history to a few pages. For one thing, the texture of history evaporates without the countless individuals whose lives have been played out on its sweeping canvas. For another, in a multicultural society such as Durban, many important contributing strands are bound to fall by the wayside. But perhaps a little historical context will nonetheless prove useful to visitors to our fair city who would like to understand, in some way, how we got where we are now.

Timeline of Human Habitation in Durban

The timeline of human habitation in Durban goes back to long before the advent of recorded history in the region. While some of the earliest remnants of humanity are found in the nearby Drakensberg, it is now established that prior to the arrival of the Nguni people and subsequent European colonialists, the area was populated by the original people of Southern Africa – now collectively called the Khoi/San. Then, several thousand years later, on Christmas day in 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama passed the mouth of Durban Bay and promptly named it Rio de Natal (Christmas River), presuming that several rivers flowed into the bay.

Beyond the Bay Lay a Ridge of HillsBack then, before the intrusive advent of industrialisation, the bay was separated from the sea by a sandbar, where crocodiles, hippopotamuses and flamingoes spent their days in the vast waters of the bay while its swampy edges were densely populated with mangroves. Beyond the bay lay a ridge of hills which was home to elephants, hyenas and lions until about a century ago, and now houses Durban’s suburbs. Over the subsequent years, Rio de Natal came to be a popular stop-off point for explorers and traders, mainly because the bay offered one of the few protected anchorages on the southern coast of Africa.

First European Settlement

In 1823, the first European settlement arrived on the vessel the Salisbury under the command of Lieutenant James King with the aim of trading up and down the South African coast. While inclement weather forced the Salisbury to shelter in the roadstead off Durban, her accompanying ship, the Julia, sailed over the sandbar and surveyed the bay.

King immediately recognised the importance of the bay and returned to England to try and garner support for an English settlement. Despite his efforts he was unsuccessful, and so he returned to Port Natal as it had come to be called by the Europeans.

King Shaka Zulu

King befriended King Shaka Zulu who granted him land around the bay, and sent him to England with two of his chiefs. But the party got no further than Port Elizabeth and King returned to Port Natal once more, moving to the Bluff across the bay, where he died of dysentery in 1828. This rough, uncertain life frequently had lethal results and at one point the number of settlers at the bay was no more than six.

At a meeting in 1835, attended by the full complement of settlers at the time – 15 in all – a town was proclaimed, and named in honour of the Governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D’Urban.

Despite initially grandiose plans, little development took place in the early settlement. Dwellings were of rudimentary mud and wattle nestled in the coastal bush, and a full 12 years after the proclamation, there were still no streets in the settlement.

Dingane Showed Open Animosity

Although the settlers maintained cordial relations with the powerful founder of the Zulu nation to their north, matters changed for the worse when his successor Dingane took over. Dingane showed open animosity and aggression, while Shaka instructed his citizens to live in peace with the white settlers. Natal was regarded by the Zulus as their own territory and they tolerated the white settlers, whose trading habits had become useful to them.

1838 the Voortrekkers Arrived

In 1838 the Voortrekkers arrived from the Eastern Cape, already having laid claim to the territory, despite the fact that several columns of wagons had been massacred by the Zulus along the way.

Later that year at the battle of Ndondakusuka, a number of British traders lost their lives, along with hundreds of Zulus, and were forced to flee. The British sent a force in 1842 to maintain order in the area, and were promptly besieged by the Voortrekkers. It fell to Dick King and his Zulu servant Ndongeni to ride to the British Garrison in Grahamstown to get help.

Dick King Rode 960 Kilometres in 10 Days

King earned a legendary place in local history by riding the 960 kilometres in 10 days, past the Voortrekkers and through wild, uncharted territory, crossing more than 120 rivers. A month later the besieged British were relieved. King, seemingly always on the side of the underdog, also walked from Durban to northern Natal to warn the Voortrekkers there of the massacre of Piet Retief by the Zulu king Dingane.

The British annex the southern portion of Natal

In 1844, the British annexed the southern portion of Natal to their already existing Cape Colony. This annex was significantly boosted in the early 1850s, when several thousand settlers arrived courtesy of an Irishman named Byrne, who had once visited Durban, and who hoped to make money by shipping in settlers to this difficult paradise.
In 1860, finding the Zulus to be uncooperative labourers, the British imported the first of several thousand indentured labourers from British India to take up work in the sugar cane fields. Along with them came “passenger” Indians who were not indentured, and who were free to engage in business.

George Cato Laid Out the Town

It took a young immigrant named George Cato to lay out the town properly with three main streets, each 100ft wide – enough to turn a wagon and 16 oxen (the reason why city centre roads in South Africa are so wide). In 1860, a railway linked the harbour with the small town, and within 30 years, it reached all the way to Johannesburg, as the town of Durban began to expand from the swampland to the cooler hills of the Berea.

The discovery of gold was a major boost to the port, and the discovery of coal in Dundee resulted in many ships using the port for bunkering. The progress of the port led finally to the troublesome sandbar at the harbour entrance being removed.
As a result of the increased use of the harbour, many marine-related industries such as ship building, stevedoring and chandling were established in Durban, along with a dry dock.

Sewerage System, Hardened Roads and Water Reticulation

By 1900, the town had a sewerage system, hardened roads and water reticulation. The expansion of the railways also had the effect of attracting people from the Transvaal, who wished to vacation in the town. This established Durban as a major tourist destination, a position it retains over a century later. During the frequent conflicts in the colony, Durban was also the major disembarkation point for British troops.

In 1932, a number of satellite suburbs were incorporated into the town and in 1935, Durban was granted city status. In the years after World War II, the history of Durban was defined largely by the implementation of apartheid, and the struggle for equal humanity that ensued. Today, this legacy has resulted in the construction of extensive shack settlements throughout the region.

Group Areas Act

As the Group Areas Act got under way, the City Council decided to build more formal communities, and large townships were constructed to house African workers both north and south of Durban.

In 1994, South Africa had its first democratic election, which changed forever the tone and flavour of Durban. In 1996, Durban was further enlarged to become the Durban Metropolitan Region, or Durban Metro, by including large areas both north, south and west of the city. Four years later, a further expansion resulted in the inclusive Durban Unicity.

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