History of Durban

Mother Earth Travel > South Africa > Durban > History

The KwaZulu-Natal region has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Remnants of Rock Art are readily found in caves throughout the Drakensberg Mountain range, where the Khoi-San people lived as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. These same people were still living in the Natal Midlands when the much darker skinned, 'Bantu' African tribes moved from the north sometime during the last millennium.

Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, while discovering the passage from Europe to India, landed along this coast on Christmas day 1497 and, as a result, called the area 'Natal'. His sailors fished off of the coast of modern day Durban. Slowly, trade developed along the coast, particularly for ivory, and marooned mariners built temporary shelters around present day Durban.

The Bantu tribes went through bloody periods during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Inter-tribal wars were common and the Zulu's, under King Shaka (Chaka), became the dominant tribal force. They remain the largest ethnic group in the province.

The modern city of Durban dates from 1824, when a party of 25 men, under British Lieutenant F. G. Farewell, arrived from the British Colony in the Cape and established themselves on the northern shore of the Bay of Natal, in what is now Farewell Square. The previous year, Lieutenant Farewell had taken shelter there during a violent storm, and had built a small settlement. With Farewell was the adventurer Henry Fynn. Fynn befriended the Zulu King, Shaka (claiming, falsely, to be an envoy of King George), and having helped him to recover from a stab wound received in battle. In thanks, Shaka granted Fynn some prime land, a "25-mile strip of coast, a hundred miles in depth" (over 9,000sqkm). Fynn styled himself 'King of Natal' and took numerous Zulu wives, producing many children by them. On the 23rd June 1835, at a meeting of the 35 white residents in this ?kingdom?, it was decided to build a town and name it D'Urban after Sir Benjamin D'Urban, then Governor of the Cape.

In 1838 'Voortrekkers' (whites of continental descent trekking from the Cape colony to escape British rule, now known as ?Afrikaners?) established the Republic of Natalia, just north of Durban, establishing a capital at Pietermaritzburg. Fierce conflict with the Zulus led to the famous ?Battle of Blood River?. The conflict spilled over into the Durban area and the city had to be evacuated. Finally, under military pressure, the Afrikaners accepted British annexation in 1844. As a result, many Afrikaners left Durban, heading north and helped to establish the Orange Free State and Transvaal. In Durban, a British governor was appointed and settlers came in significant numbers to the area. The municipality of Durban was set up in 1854. You can see the British influence, evident in all of the older buildings around the city, particularly in Farewell Square.

In the 1860s the sugar-cane industry was established. Zulus did not readily leave Zululand (the area to the northeast of Durban) to work on the plantations, so the British brought thousands of 'indentured labourers' from India, to Natal, on five year contracts. Many stayed, creating the Asian communities, now among the strongest in the region, with influence throughout South Africa. The sugar-cane farms they initially came to work, are still farmed by the ancestors of those first labourers. The main religious groups of Hindu, Moslem and Sikh are all very active and play a big part in the character of Durban and the whole province of KwaZulu-Natal. Trade with India has become a large part of the local economy.

The most famous Indian immigrant was the young, British trained lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in 1893 and worked for 21 years in Natal latterly becoming the social activist we all know. His approach to political leadership was to have a deep resonance in the activities of the African National Congress later in the twentieth century.

During the apartheid era that dominated the twentieth century in South Africa, Indians were regarded as second class citizens, but enjoyed a freedom in business, which allowed them to develop a strong economic base as well as political influence, in the province. In this period, Zulus migrated in large numbers up to Johannesburg and other mining districts. In Natal a nominally independent 'homeland' of KwaZulu was established, led by the bombastic leader Mongosuthu Buthelezi (he has the world record for the longest speech). Political tension between Buthelezi's IFP and the ANC created unrest in many parts of the province, but rapprochement, led by Nelson Mandela in the post 1994 democratic era, eased tensions dramatically, with the ANC making Buthelezi ?Minister of the Department of Home Affairs?. The Zulu King, Zwelentini, continues to play an important, symbolic role, as do the chiefs in their districts.

Durban is still an important port (the busiest in Southern Africa) and tourist destination. The Golden Mile developed a 'Miami' feel in the 1970s and the city provided a happy playground, particularly for people on vacation from Johannesburg. It lost its holiday pre-eminence to Cape Town in the 1990s, but remains an important location. Umhlanga just to the north is now the favoured destination for more affluent tourists. The city and province are a curious blend of British, Zulu and Indian and this is quickly apparent in the multicultural feel of Durban.