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A Puzzle from Old Durban

By Robin Lamplough - October 2009.

Visiting museums can be confusing. This is especially true if the information given in one place differs from that given in another. Here is a conundrum about Old Durban that illustrates the point.

If you visit the excellent Maritime Museum on Durban's Embankment, for example, you will learn from one of the wall panels that the first Port Captain was William Bell, one-time master of the Conch, which landed a contingent of British troops in 1842.

If, however, you go to Westville's equally impressive Bergtheil Museum, you will be told that one of the early landowners in the district, Edmund Morewood, was Natal's first harbourmaster. Is there a conflict here and, if so, which authority is one to believe? But the problem does not end there!

Reading Janie Malherbe's splendid book Port Natal, now sadly out of print, you would find yet another contender for the disputed title. Janie wrote, without citing any supporting evidence, that the first harbourmaster of Port Natal was a young Dutchman (as they called Afrikaners in the 19th century) named Cornelis Botha.

WHAT A PUZZLE! Who would have thought that such an innocuous seeming question could be so fraught with possible answers? And how on earth does one find a solution? The only way is to burrow into the old records and accounts of the early days in Durban, 170 years ago. The answer is quite straightforward. Janie Malherbe was absolutely right. Cornelis Botha was appointed harbourmaster of Port Natal in 1839. So the information in our two museums need at least a little tweaking, if not some outright correction.

Cornelis Botha came from the Western Cape, perhaps from Swellendam, where someone of the same name, perhaps a direct ancestor, appears in the town records from the 18th century. As a youngster, Cornelis Botha ran away to sea, serving on British merchant ships. When the Voortrekkers settled in Natal, he came to the port and became the master of a small coaster, the Eleanor. He was then 23 years old. In 1839 his little vessel was wrecked at the entrance to the harbour.

Soon after this, Botha was appointed harbour master at the port. He lived in some huts at the Point and acquired a residential stand in the growing town. Before long, however, charges of maladministration were laid against him and he left the service.
Botha then turned up in Pietermaritzburg, where for a while he tried his hand at running an hotel. Before long, however, he moved again, taking over a little roadside inn between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. This small establishment, started by a man named Edwards, was first named Albenia, in honour of Natal's first lieutenant-governor, who came here from the Albany district near Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape.

BOTHA'S HILL Botha named his inn The Halfway House and made some renovations to it. Inevitably, the massive hill in whose afternoon shadow it stood came to be known as Botha's Hill, like Cowie's and Field's Hill, one of the major obstacles to any road user, especially in the wet weather. In 1849 a small farm was registered in Botha's name. A mere 600 acres in extent, it lay between Albinia to the east and Assagay Kraal to the west, the sites of the present settlements of Hillcrest and Botha's Hill respectively. The suburb, today known as West Riding, is occupied at its northern end by the Camelot complexes

Although the property remained in his name until 1876, Botha did not stay long at the Halfway House which over the years had a succession of names and proprietors. It probably became best known as Padley's Hotel, although there is some evidence that it was then officially known as the Yorkshire Arms. It was served by a railway halt known as Padley's, traces of which can still be seen on the lower slopes of Botha's Hill. Forty years ago the road giving access to West Riding from the R 103 crossed the line at what was still labelled Padley's Crossing.

The name of Botha's Hill, however, has survived into the 21st century, and serves as a reminder of the role played in the early colonial period by a young Afrikaner with naval experience. But what about the other contenders: Edmund Morewood and William Bell?

MOREWOOD & BELL Edmund Morewood, an Englishman of Chartist sympathies who later was the first to produce sugar commercially in Natal, was originally appointed Cornelis Botha's assistant. When Botha left the harbour service under a cloud, Morewood was promoted to succeed him. So Morewood was Durban's second harbourmaster, not its first as the Bergtheil Museum claims. But what about William Bell?

As noted above, Bell arrived in Durban with a contingent of British troops in support of HMS Southampton, sent from the Cape to assert British authority in the region. Later that year, the British government decided to annex Natal and Bell was appointed by the new authorities to run the port. From that time forward, the man in charge of Durban's harbour was known as the Port Captain, no longer the harbourmaster. So the information given in the Maritime Museum is quite correct, if not immediately sufficiently illuminating.

Edmund Morewood, however, was aggrieved at the treatment he had received from the British administration. Eventually, after repeated application for redress, he was awarded a farm inland of present Ballito, then a remote border area. Sardonically, he named the farm Compensation. It was here that he built the first Natal sugar mill and offered for sale the sugar he had produced. But Morewood was ahead of his time. The new crop did not immediately take off and eventually, in disgust, Edmund Morewood sailed for Brazil to try his luck there. He does not appear to have had any contact with Natal after that

A hundred years later, in 1950, a member of the Hulett family, which had become prosperous through the production of sugar, turned the site of Morewood's mill into a memorial garden. By then, Morewood's connection with the port of Natal had all but been forgotten. At my last visit, some years ago, it was badly run down and neglected.

But the conflicting claims with which we started this little story have given us a picture of Old Durban that we might otherwise have missed.

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