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Durban, South Africa
Durban, South Africa (Image by kfw1018 from Pixabay)

History of Durban, South Africa

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, on Christmas day in 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gamy passed the mouth of Durban Bay and promptly named it Rio de Natal (Christmas River), presuming that several rivers flowed into the bay.

Back then, before the intrusive advent of industrialisation, the bay was separated from the sea by a sandbar. In the vast waters of the bay and the mangrove swamps on its edges, crocodiles, hippopotamuses and flamingoes spent their days. Beyond the hay lay a ridge of hills which was home to elephants, hyenas and lions until about a century ago, and which now houses Durban's immediate 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.

in 1823, the first European settlement arrived on the ship, 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 vessel to anchor in the sheltered area off the coast of 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. He was unsuccessful, and soon sailed back to Port Natal, as it had come to be called by the Europeans. King then befriended King Shaka Zulu who granted him land around the bay, and sent him to England with two of his chiefs on a diplomatic mission. 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 this early settlement. Dwellings of rudimentary mud and wattle nestled in the coastal bush, and a full 12 years after the proclamation, there were still no streets.

Although the settlers maintained cordial relations with the powerful founder of the Zulu nation to their north, matters changed for the worse when Shaka's successor Dingane took over. Under Shaka's rule, the Zulus considered the area to be their territory but had tolerated the white settlers whose trading habits were useful to them. Whereas Shaka had instructed his citizens to live in peace with the white settlers, Dingane showed open animosity and aggression.

In 1838 the Voortrekkers arrived from the Eastern Cape, already having laid claim to Natal, despite the fact that several columns of their 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. In 1842 the British sent forces 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.

King earned a legendary place in local history by riding 960 kilometers 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 of the massacre of Piet Retief by the Zulu king Dingane.)

In 1844, the British annexed the southern portion of Natal to their already existing Cape Colony. This annexe was significantly boosted in the early 1850s when several thousand settlers arrived, courtesy of an Irishman named Joseph 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 workers, the British imported the first of several thousand indentured labourers from British India to work in the sugar cane fields. Along with them came 'passenger' Indians who were not indentured, and who were free to engage in business. But Durban was still a rough looking outpost and it took the efforts of a young immigrant named George Cato to lay out the town properly with three main streets, each 100 feet across -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, while the town of Durban began to expand beyond the swampland to the cooler hills of the Berea.

The discovery of gold in the Transvaal was a major boost to the port, while the presence of coal in Dundee resulted in many ships using the port for bunkering. The progress of the port finally led 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.

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 seaside town. This established Durban as a major tourist destination, a position it retains more than a century later. During the frequent conflicts in the colony, Durban was also the primary 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 is most visibly evident in the existence of extensive shack settlements throughout the region.

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 the Municipal boundaries were expanded to become the Durban Metropolitan Region, or Durban Metro, by including large areas to the north, south and west of the city.

Four years later, a further expansion resulted in the inclusive Durban Unicity. Today Durban is the third largest city in South Africa and of vital economic importance to the country. The city continues its role as South Africa's most popular tourist destination, while its complex history has ensured a rich and diverse multicultural future.


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