The Story of Port Natal is taken from The Natal and Zululand Annual published 82 years ago on 25 December 1926. I don't recall who sent me the photocopy but I eventually had the opportunity to get the text into my computer with charactor recognition software. I tried my best to ensure that the text is totally accurate but you never know... Allan Jackson.

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The Story of Port Natal

By P.C.B. 1926

R.M.S. Britton homeward bound.
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Looking at Port Natal to-day, with its bustling wharves, its giant coaling appliances, its constant coming and going of the world's argosies of commerce, how difficult it is to visualise the primitive conditions that obtained when the Borough of Durban was in its swaddling clothes, and when sailing ships of a few hundred tons burthen could cross the harbour bar !

By the same token one might say that it was a difficult, if not an impossible task for the early settlers on the Natal coast to form any true conception of the great future that awaited Durban as a maritime centre. Not so, however. There is evidence --plenty of it--that the future prosperity of the port was clearly foreseen by the Natal worthies of three quarters of a century ago. The history of Durban's early days is full of the efforts made to interest the outside world in the port's potentialities. As long ago as 1855, the year following the elevation of Durban to the dignity of a borough, the inhabitants petitioned the then Governor of the Cape Colony, during his stay in the town, to champion the cause of the budding port in his despatches to the Home authorities.

The document is historic. I shall be forgiven, I hope, if I quote from it those portions which relate to Durban's development as a port of entry for the commerce of the Colony of Natal.

"As the inhabitants of the only maritime town of the District" -so ran the petition-: "Your excellency will not be surprised that we are anxious prominently to bring under your notice the capabilities and requirements of the port as the entrepot for the commerce, not only of the District of Natal, but of extensive regions beyond its borders.

"Your Excellency has already had an opportunity of viewing the natural position of this port, and its capacious, secure, and landlocked harbour. Along the entire seaboard of South-Eastern Africa there is no other harbour affording such perfect shelter, while at the same time capable of being rendered accessible to shipping of any burthen. Your Excellency is aware that in ordinary circumstances vessels of from 300 to 400 tons can at present cross the bar ; and the General Screw Steam Company's ships, the Natal and the Cape of Good Hope, each of 700 tons, experience no difficulty, and scarcely ever any detention, in entering the harbour or departing from it.

" The harbour works now in progress have, undoubtedly, had some effect in scouring the sand bar, and thus deepening the entrance to the port ; but we beg to represent to Your Excellency that the ordinary colonial revenue is totally inadequate to supply the funds requisite for a vigorous and effective prosecution of these works ; and, therefore, that the great natural capabilities of Port Natal must depend for their development upon assistance obtained elsewhere."

To obtain such assistance elsewhere, however, proved to be a thing easier said than done. For many years development was slow, though it was sure and sound. There is to-day abundant criticism of South Africa's premier commercial port, but this is mainly confined to points of detail. In the main -the newspapers notwithstanding- the harbour has been developed on sane and salutary lines.

Durban, as is the case with most communities preponderantly British, indulges in frequent moods of self-criticism. It was Earl Balfour, a great maker of phrases, who said that the British people take a gloomy joy in self-depreciation. Well, Durban in that respect is singularly British. Its people are tireless complainants. They find fault, in turn, with every amenity and facility they possess, while knowing deep down in their hearts that they inhabit one ofthe finest towns of its size in the Southern Hemisphere and that the Port of Durban, for equipment and efficiency, and for the volume of trade that passes back and forth across its harbour bar, can quite comfortably challenge comparison with any port of the Continent of Africa.

Sir William Raeburn, one of the world's great shipowners, not long ago made a tour of all the Union harbours and on returning to England told an interviewer that the harbour and docks at Durban were a revelation on to him. "Unquestionably," said Sir William. " the most up-to-date port I have ever visited, both for loading and discharging cargo, is Durban."

Extraordinarily high praise, this from a man from a man who has travelled the world, and whose personal position in regard to the vast shipping undertakings of Glasgow and the Clyde invests his utterances with special authority. It would seem that Durban, a town which in former days must need apply "elsewhere " for financial assistance, must nowadays look beyond its own borders for a complete appreciation of its own merits and advantages.

Well, it is really no bad thing, this "gloomy joy in self-deprecation," to quote once more the Balfourian phrase. It is a habit of mind that makes for constant vigilance in the public interest. It stirs sluggish Governments to action ; it keeps Harbour Boards up to concert pitch. Every harbour controversy in Durban, I feel quite certain, has advanced in some degree the interests of the port and therefore of the town also ; for the town in large measure depends upon the port for its own material welfare.

"What is Wrong with the Harbour?" It is a favourite and oft-recurring newspaper headline. Virtually nothing is wrong with the harbour - nothing, at any rate, that menaces Durban's great position as a shipping and commercial centre --yet it does no harm, but in some mysterious way it makes for progress and improvement to suggest that in this, that, or the other respect, local conditions might be bettered.


Just as the old Natal Government had a clear vision of the tremendous asset it possessed in the Port of Durban, so successive Union Governments from 1910 to the present time have recognised that this is the natural ocean gateway of South Africa for the conveyance of goods and produce to and from up-country destinations.

In the matter of local expenditure for developments, all governments are proverbially slow to move. The necessity for the expenditure must be demonstrated beyond cavil ; reports and plans must be prepared and scrutinised with the utmost vigilance ; committees must drag their slow length along, narrowly cross-examining engineers and harbour authorities ; estimates of cost must be prepared and closely checked, and when all these things are done the item may perhaps he placed on the estimates of the Department for a year later. However, all things end in due time, even the circumlocutions of Governments ; and once the plunge is taken the desired work is, as a general thing, carried through with efficiency and despatch.

On the whole money for port development in Durban has never been stinted by the Government. From first to last the capital expenditure on the harbour has amounted to no less a sum than £5,500,000 sterling as against £3,130,000 for Capetown, £1,474,000 for East London, £1,326,500 for Port Elizabeth, and smaller items for Mossel Bay, Port Alfred and Walvis Bay. It is mere justice to the Union Government, which is invariably blamed for everything that goes wrong, and seldom applauded for anything that goes right, to say that the importance of keeping our leading harbours abreast of modern requirements has always been kept steadily in view.

How shall one tell the full story of the growth of Port Natal in sequential form ? It is best to take, in imagination, a trip around the Bay-that picturesque Bay that has been transformed from a shallow lagoon to a fair, broad sheet of tidal water, traversed from point to point by navigable channels, and affording safe harbourage, if need be, for as many ships of size as would ever be likely to foregather in South African waters at one and the same time. By the route we shall pursue in this our imaginary voyage many cruises have been made in the taut and businesslike tugs of the Railways and Harbours Administration by South African Ministers of State on their periodical visits of inspection. The present writer has participated in many such excursions in company with General Smuts, Mr. J. W. Jagger, M.L.A., when Minister of Railways, Sir William Hoy and other notabilities. It is the only way in which to view, comprehensively and with expedition, the manifold resources of the harbour area.

First then, the main wharf. Here at Sheds " A " to " I " great passenger vessels and cargo steamers, big and little, find berthage -the large liners of the Aberdeen, White Star and P. & 0. lines usually at Shed A, the Mail steamships of the Union-Castle Company invariably at Shed B, and others, including vessels of shallower draught at other stations along the lengthy water-frontage that extends from the Harbour Entrance at the Point to that quiet corner of the Bay where Cato's Creek, a ditch so named in honour of the first Mayor of Durban, discharges a varying stream of storm-water from the hills surrounding the town. Once in the long ago the Umgeni River forced for itself a new channel to the Bay at approximately this spot, temporarily converting the Eastern Vlei and the Point area into an island and obliging the municipality to inaugurate a ferry service-one of the very first of the municipal trading undertakings of the Borough.

A full page Union Castle advert.
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While in this neighbourhood one must give a thought to the Floating Dock that rides the waters of the Bay hard by Shed " I," for this marks one of the stages by which Durban temporarily satisfied the need that has now, at long last, been fully satisfied by the constructing of the great graving dock at Congella -the need, that is to say, for an adequate means of raising and overhauling local or visiting vessels in need of repair.

The graving dock at Congella.
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It is a further evidence of a pre-vision of which I have already spoken that as long ago as 1888 the view was taken that a graving dock for Durban was urgently required ! That was 36 years ago ; yet not until last year was the dock provided. Meanwhile repeated makeshifts were requisitioned. A temporary wooden slip at Salisbury Island was the first expedient. This failing, a second slip was erected on the Bluff side of the Bay, but its wooden ways soon became weather-worn, and another and better site was selected at the town end of the main wharf. The pass to which Durban had been reduced at this period in respect of overhauling facilities may be judged from the fact that local shipping interests were actually under contract to send their work to East London ! The recollection may call a smile to many a countenance in Durban. In East London also. However, the Legislative Council of Natal, realising the urgency of the case, sanctioned a vote of £3,000 for the completion of the new slip, and this proved adequate, for the time being, to the harbour's needs.


Not for long, however, was such a makeshift acceptable at a port whose growth was like that of a vigorous sub-tropical plant, so that one could almost watch its steady expansion with the naked eye. It was known, even in the " nineties," that a graving dock must come, but, pending the time when the money should be available, practical Port Natal set itself the task of providing a floating " repair shop " capable of raising vessels of 4,500 tons, and even ships up to 5,500 tons and of 450 feet in length by the addition of 80 feet run of pontoon. Eventually this dock-just as one sees it to-day, but for the fact that it has now lost a good deal of its lifting capacity after the work of years - was purchased, brought to Port Natal in the year 1904, and at its official trial answered the most sanguine anticipations by raising a vessel of 7,000 tons dead weight. Albeit its lifting capacity is now some 2,500 tons less, the floating dock still stands staunchly to its tasks and is seldom unemployed. The smaller steamships and sailing vessels, the harbour tugs and units of Durban's whaling fleet, all find entrance here and ready attention to their needs in the way of overhaul and renovation.

By such stages did Durban arrive at a realisation of its dream of a great graving dock which should accommodate the largest vessels sailing the Southern Seas. That dock--of which more anon-was opened by the Prince of Wales last year, and named in His Royal Highness' honour.

Working back to the Point, where the waters of the Indian Ocean, tumbling over the harbour bar, lose their force in the shelter of the Bay, we may make choice of tug or launch or ferry-boat to carry us across to the Bluff. Around us, as we wend our way Pointwards, swarm the myriad activities of the harbour area-native dockers, chanting a dirge-like chorus as they labour ; " coalie " boys filling ships' bunkers from the quay ; the engines and goods trains of the Railways Administration puffing fussily to and fro ; great derricks and cranes in action ; ships loading or discharging, and here and there, in sharp contrast to all this feverish activity, an angler squatting placidly on the quayside, watching his bobbing float in the unquiet waters below !

Near by are the offices of the Port Captain (Capt. Stephens) and behind these the conning-tower of the Point Signal Station rears its head, while along the Point Road, where the municipal tram-cars ply backwards and forwards to Durban Town, are situate the offices of the principal shipping lines, shipping and forwarding agents and, lastly, in a prominent position near the Vasco da Gama Fountain, the offices of the Railways and Harbours Administration, where the Port Manager (Col. A. Herschell) spends busy days, and sometimes nights, in the supervision of the thousand-and-one details of the commerce of a great port.

On the Bluff side many engineering marvels await us-the huge coaling appliances, the largest and most efficient in South Africa ; the oil station at Island View ; the slipways of the whaling industry, where the vast carcases of marine monsters are hauled ashore for the blubber that is in them.


Here a substantial wharf, built on reclaimed land, and in recent years much extended in length, affords firm footing for the leviathan coaling appliances, and a sure anchorage for the great vessels that come here to load Natal coal, either for export or for hunkering purposes. So familiar to the people of Durban are the existing coaling appliances that one is apt to overlook the fact that their installation was a matter of comparatively recent date. Here again Port Natal knew what it wanted but had to wait over long to get it.

Away back in the early 80's there were suggestions put forward for the coaling of vessels by mechanical means. Gravitation from the Bluff heights was the first means proposed, and strangely enough that eminent harbour engineer, Sir George Buchanan, who inspected and reported upon our harbour methods a few years back, marvelled that the gravitation facilities ready to our hand had never been employed in this important phase of Port Natal's business. The very first fact to engage his attention (one gathers from Sir George's report) was that the plant in use was all worked from the quay level as a base, and that no advantage had been taken of the hills at the back of the reclaimed area for the purpose of gravity loading.

However, it is probably too late to go in for anything of the kind now. Sir George Buchanan himself recognises this, and has suggested means whereby the working of the appliances as they stand could be rendered speedier and more economical. To admit that there is room for improvement in these respects is not for a moment to minimise the value of these great coaling appliances, whose erection completely revolutionised the coal business of Durban and may be said to have brought Port Natal at a single bound into the list of the world's recognised coal-exporting centres.

Completed in April, 1907, the first coaling plant erected at the Bluff was taken over provisionally by the Durban Harbour Board on the first of the following month, after certain necessary tests had been carried out. In the course of these trials certain weaknesses were disclosed, but, with these remedied, it was found practicable to work the appliances continuously by day and by night, coal being loaded into the vessels lying alongside at the uniform rate of 400 tons per hour. In the first six months of actual working, that is June to December, 1907, the plant handled only 161,243 tons of coal. It was a giant trying its strength. From that time forth the output steadily increased, the quantity dealt with during 1908 being 600,000 tons, in the following year over 800,000 tons and in 1910 over a million tons.

The mammoth appetite of the appliances called for greater and speedier deliveries from the collieries, and thus port development led to a great speeding-up of the railway system. In 1907 the average time taken in transit from the coalfields to the port was 90 hours--nearly four days and nights !-but by 1917 the urgent necessities of a growing trade had reduced this to less than 5o hours.

Meantime it had been brought home to the authorities that the demand for coal for export and bunker purposes had outgrown the capacity of the loading plant. A still more powerful equipment was needed. In April, 1914, the erection of new appliances was commenced and in June, 1917, the system as we see it to-day was completed.

The plant, thus perfected, has worked with splendid results down to the present time. One of its manifest advantages is the system's flexibility, permitting its ready adaptation to the loading of vessels of varying size, type and tonnage. An increased delivery-capacity of boo tons per hour has gone far to solve Durban's loading problem during rush periods at the harbour. Ships now line up at the coaling quay to take their turn at the appliances in the sure and certain hope of being attended to with a promptitude and speed that in the old days would have been regarded as bordering on the miraculous.


Thus the harbour and the collieries of Natal have helped one another to develop, and when we allot due praise to the men who have laboured for the greatness of Port Natal we must never forget that the colliery undertakings of the Province have to a very large extent contributed to the harbour's growth and prosperity. Does the average man ever take the trouble to visualise to himself what Durban would be without its coal trade ? I trow not ; but in any history of Port Natal the fact must be acknowledged and recorded. The coal-owners by their energy and enterprise have assisted the growth of the port by contributing one of the most important branches of its commerce ; and it cannot be claimed that the Government Departments managing the national transport interests under, firstly, the old Natal Administration, and, secondly, the Union Government, have at any time gone out of their way to foster the coal business of the Garden Province by generosity and in the matter of railway rates.

Durban, in fact, has frequently been placed at a great disadvantage in relation to other exporting centres by the imposition of railway transport charges which have made it difficult, if not impossible, to compete for ships' business in the world-market. Here is short-sightedness, indeed, for increased coal exports are surely a matter of greater national advantage than the grabbing of an extra moiety of profit by the Railways and Harbours Administration. In this matter the Administration has too often played the role of a stingy stepmother, lavish of profit to her own transport interests, while denying to her principal harbour the enormously increased traffic that would result from a more generous railage policy.

The time must surely come when a change of principle will he inaugurated, the Administration then charging merely a fair economic price per ton for railage to the coast instead of mulcting the coal industry, as it does at present, of the last possible penny that the colliery companies' selling prices will yield. There is, after all, no real reason-apart from the fact that other Governments pursue the same policy-that the Administration should differentiate between the railage rates on coal destined for export and bunker use respectively. The coal is the same coal ; the haulage cost must n ecessarily he the same.

Again there is no commonsense reason why Natal coal should he hauled all the way to Capetown for only a trifle more per ton than it is brought to Port Natal. In such matters as these, and in others that could be quoted, the premier port of South Africa certainly owes little gratitude to the powers that he. Indeed, it has often been said, and with no little truth, that Port Natal has not grown or prospered because of the Government, but in spite of it.


Perhaps one can better realise the extent and the importance of the coaling industry by a reference to .the annual tonnages handled at the harbour. Here are the figures for each year from the time when the existing coaling appliances first got into their full stride :-

Year. Tons. Year Tons.
1918-1919 .. 2,414,110 1922-1923 3,592,277
1919-1920 2,555,760 1923-1924 4,410,370
1920-1921 3,137,08 1924-1925 4,520,271
1921-1922 3,434,728    

Four-and-a-half million tons in a year ! Contrast this return for 1924-1925-the last completed year for which have the official figures -with the figure for 1918-1919 and the vastly smaller volume of trade of still earlier years. In 1904, for example, when the mechanical loading appliances were still among the blessings to come, the total output of all the Natal collieries, both for export and for internal consumption, was well under a million tons ! Figures like these do more than reveal the progress made. They serve also to suggest what in finitely greater development might be brought about if the coal industry of Natal were enabled fully to put forth its uttermost energies with the full and generous co-operation of the Government.

Side by side with these great coaling activities at the Bluff an important oil and petrol industry is being developed. At Island View are stationed the mammoth oil tanks of various important British and American corporations, some used for the storage of crude oil, some for motor-spirit. Petrol is now imported here in bulk, tinned locally in a well-equipped factory, and dispensed to dealers throughout Natal and the other Provinces.

" Oiltown," as the place has been nicknamed, is the birthplace of an industry whose importance to the Union and to Durban it would be difficult to overestimate. It is perhaps not too much to hope that some day oil in paying quantities may be " struck " in South Africa. Then, maybe, if conditions are favourable, a share of the product handled at Island View may he veritably the oil of the country brought to this well-equipped centre for dissemination throughout South Africa. For the time being, and probably for many years to come, the industry's products must be brought hither from overseas in the huge tankers that find berthage alongside the oil sites, where a vast acreage of level land has been reclaimed from the waters of the Bay.

Pursuing our itinerary there yet remain to be inspected the great graving dock at Congella, the huge grain elevatoroone of the great terminal elevators of the Union system-and Maydon Wharf, the first tangible and thriving result of the dream of Maydon and others, of a great industrial settlement at the head of Durban Bay.

Exporting wool.
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A standing refutation of the belief that the fashioners of Port Natal's resources have lacked vision is to be found in the Great Prince Edward Dock at Congella, where the largest ships afloat in the Southern Hemisphere may find snug asylum what time they are being overhauled or repaired.

For the necessity for this great dock was perceived, as I have shown, a full generation ago ; and if it has been long coming, Durban possesses at last one of the world's greatest docks and a facility which brings her abreast of any port in the world. The dimensions and the capacity of the Prince Edward Dock, its huge caissons and its wonderful power station, have been so often and so recently detailed that it would be needless repetition to recount them anew. Suffice it to say that the work of construction, under the guidance of Mr. Crabtree, the resident engineer-now retired from the Administration's service after this, the last and greatest task of his career--was carried out within schedule time and well within the estimated limit of cost. The dock has already proven its value to Durban-and to Durban's engineering industries.

Hitherward of the graving dock the maize elevator rears its head. An enterprise with an unfortunate history, this ; but all initial difficulties having been successfully overcome, the Durban maize elevator will henceforth play its part in the hurly-burly of Port Natal, helping to relieve that " Congestion of the Wharves " which has in more seasons than one proved the despair of the Port Manager's staff when the tide of export maize has been at its flood. Successive years will prove beyond cavil the wisdom of installing the elevator system as expeditious and economic means of handling South Africa's annual output of maize for overseas markets.


A word as to the Maydon Wharf and our round of visits terminates. The " Congella Wharf," as erstwhile we called it, has been most fittingly re-named in honour of the late Hon. J. G. Maydon, for it was mainly due to that statesman's zeal and insistence that the extension of the harbour works in that portion of the Bay abutting on Albert Park was brought about. Mr. Maydon was Colonial Secretary When, in September, 1903, the Natal Parliament resolved " that in view of the report of Sir Charles Hartley and Sir John Wolfe Barry on the proposed harbour improvements, it is necessary that further wharfage facilities be provided, and this House is of the opinion that a quay wall from Albert Park to the Umbilo River be constructed without delay, and that the present swamp known as the Congella Flats be reclaimed for the purpose of stacking cargo and providing warehouse accommodation.

Accordingly the Flats were drained, the land reclaimed, and the Maydon Wharf established. There, at the present time, ships of many nationalities and types -ships that sail under canvas as well as steam and motor vessels- call to discharge their cargoes of timber for the timber-yards, metals and plants for the engineering firms, raw materials of all descriptions for the many factories that are establishing themselves in Durban's recognised industrial area. That from this starting-point a vast industrial settlement will materialise at the head of the Bay is regarded as certain ; and there are many who go still further and dream of a large ship canal paralleling the great headland of the Bluff and finding its farther marine outlet at Isipingo.

But I am writing only of the story. of Port Natal in its present stage of development. The achievements to date have been tremendous, but who shall say that the Port's potentialities are not greater than even the most sanguine among us has dared to predict ? And, meantime, Port Natal has many problems yet to solve. The further improvement of the harbour entrance, for example. This one must leave to the wisdom of. the engineers. Another problem is that of the mole across the Bay, whereby the Point Railway would be diverted from its present obstructive route across the main streets of the town and carried across the Bay upon a concrete viaduct to link up with the main railway line at Congella. This scheme has been hotly opposed, and, indeed, there is much to be said for the opposition. A mole straddling across our picturesque Bay would menace the amenities of Durban's only boulevard, the pleasant Esplanade, and if the further proposition to provide new wharfage accommodation by constructing a series of jetties jutting out from the aforesaid mole, then the objections would be re-doubled, for it would be argued that the harbour area, with all the objectionable features inseparable from harbour activities, would be brought into too close proximity to the heart of the town.

A further grave objection to any such scheme is that it necessarily implies a further contraction of the water area of Durban Bay. Already by dint of extensive land reclamation at Congella and Umbilo and along the Bluff shore the total area has been seriously reduced. Perhaps the day may dawn when Durban will awaken to a realisation that she has reclaimed too great an area of land and left too small an area of blue water for the ever-growing traffic of her harbour.

These things the wisdom of the harbour authorities must decide. The mere layman can but fold his hands and pray that the good fortune of Port Natal, which has tided her over shoals and shallows in the past, will still serve her in the spacious years to come.

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