I came across the following article in “The Sheffield Daily Telegraph” Saturday, June 14, 1879. It is the only source that I have read which mentions this incident. The one error in the article that I must point out is that of the ship’s commanding officer. He is referred to as “our commandant being Lieutenant J. G. Smith” which should read “our commander being Lieutenant S. G. Smith.”
The writer of the letter is not named, but is quite likely Sub-Lieutenant Wrey.
A BRUSH WITH THE ZULUS AT PORT DURNFORD
FROM ONE OF OUR NAVAL CORREPONDENTS ON BOARD
HER MAJESTY’S SHIP FORRESTER
TUGELA MOUTH, MAY 8
“Early in April it was considered possible by the authorities that the mouth of the Umlalasi, or Port Durnford, as it is set down upon the maps, might, if a landing place could be made, be utilized for the disembarkation of troops and stores to reinforce any column operating upon the coast line of attack, and consequently the commander received orders to hold out ship in readiness at any time to cruise in that direction and take soundings and observations. In case you may not have seen or heard of our craft, I may tell you that the gunboat Forrester carries four guns, is manned by 60 men, and has engines indicating 360 horse-power. We were commissioned on 15 January, 1878, at Devonport, and sailed for the Cape of Good Hope station in the month following, our commandant being Lieutenant J. G. Smith. During our year’s cruising, and now and then holiday shore lift, we have had plenty of opportunities of studying the two colonies of the Cape and Natal, and the general verdict of naval men, we have observed, has been that no better colonial need be wished for a sailor to make his time. During our stay in Simon’s Bay, which you are aware is the arsenal and naval depot of the whole of the South African colonies, we had time and occasion to make long and interesting excursions for sporting as well as scientific purposes into the interior, and the only way I could convey to a stranger my general idea of South African scenery would be to describe the country as consisting of mountains and plains, the latter for the most part covered with bushes, and traversed here and there with water courses, swollen into monster torrents in the summer and almost dry in the winter. During our cruises I could not avoid noticing that there is no point of the coast from the Kei to Saldanha Bay, at which the interior can be reached without crossing the mountains, and there is no spot in the colony where the traveler is out of sight of the mountains. Nothing can equal the bare and barren nature of the coast line where we now are, but this makes us remember more vividly the mountain interiors we have seen in South Africa. The kloofs, ravines, and precipices which opened to our view with magnificent effect as we travelled by roads and passes, over which the colonial engineers, with a skill which would have made their names famous in European countries, have open communication.
After leaving Duran, which, as I have explained, is the only real port in Natal, we came to the Tugela mouth, a run of some fifty mile, and the river here is rather more than half a mile wide. The mouth is both sheltered and deep, and were it not for the bar would be by no means a bad haven for small vessels. We discovered a passage through this bar at the eastern end and adjacent to the neighboring heights, and there is now a practicably and tolerably safe landing-place near the mouth. A well made pontoon bridge is now completed between the two forts, across the Lower Tugela, a little above Fort Pearson. This task has been performed admirably under the supervision of Captain Blood, R.E. Before the pontoon was in operation rafts were employed, and the detachments were taken over by warping, which, with the river in flood, was a tedious and certainly dangerous process. Sixty men at a time were taken across with a crew of six bluejackets to manage the warping. From the Tugela to the next stream, the Inyoni, is but a few miles, and the landing in this part of the coast would be difficult and dangerous. The coast line is low and in most places swampy, while a quantity of unwholesome looking jungle is suggestive of hidden savages and wild animals. We managed a landing at Inyoni, with no small amount of difficulty, and our boats’ crew had no sooner lit their fires, and commenced to cook their breakfasts, than we were fired upon by a small body of Zulus, who however took very good care to keep out of sight. From reports of a missionary, who had obtained permission to accompany us in our survey, we were given to understand that the Zulus residing on or near the Inyoni represent the poorest class of natives, depending almost entirely on their gardens for subsistence, and having no cattle. No stock of any kind will thrive, horses and cattle are always sick here, and sheep will not live. We found little difficulty in driving off our assailants, and proceeded a short distance inland, where we found the old camping ground fist used by our troops, about a mile north of the Amatikula. Having made a sketch of the ground on our return to our boats, during which we were again twice fired upon, but quite out of range, we embarked and were signaled by the Forrester to make sail as close in shore as possible towards the mouth of the Amatikula, the next stream falling into this part of the Indian Ocean. The day had not long dawned, and the sun was just rising over a bank of purple clouds towards the horizon, and seaward to our starboard. It was a splendid fresh morning, the breeze, which at first was scarcely enough to fill our sails, soon begun to freshen. Our gallant little gunboat kept away on our starboard quarter in a line almost parallel to our course, ready at any moment to stand in shorewards, should we again be fired upon. The wind now veered round to the north-east, and we ran merrily before it lying to occasionally to take soundings. It was about seven in the morning when we found we had made such rapid progress through the water that we sighted the promontory which runs out near the mouth of the Amatikula, and our telescopes being brought into play, showed a low sandy beach, dotted here and there with small rocks and mangrove bushes drooping into the water. We had now to alter our course a point or two to the east to gain an offing, as our sounding showed shallow water and indications of a reef running out some distance from the shore. Having made signals of these facts to our consort, the two boats were brought close to each other, and a consultation was held as to the best means of approaching the land. The sea, which up to this time had been calm as a pond, soon became chopped and broken even with the moderate wind which was blowing. The wind and the current, as we could see, being opposed to each other, caused the waves to break more than they otherwise would have done, and as the wind gradually freshened, we considered it safer to stand out further from the shore. We were now about two miles from the land, and the surface of the sea began to be sprinkled with the most brilliantly coloured seaweed, some of which was floating in detached portions, while other portions were evidently growing from the rocks beneath. Both boats were now closely reefed, and hauling upon the wind slowly and cautiously, the officer in command of each boat directed his respective coxswain to keep a sharp look-out and a light hand upon his tiller, so as to thread his was cautiously through the masses of seaweed, which now eddied and surged round our little vessels. Having noticed a small heading jutting out where we knew the mouth of the river should be, the order was given to lower each lug sail, and keep only the job and mizzen to steady our boats, we approached sufficiently near to see where the bulk of the surf was breaking. Here was evidently a bar or reef, but our experience of African coasts was sufficiently good to teach us that most of these reefs near the mouth of a stream have breaks or channels worn in them.
Entering carefully round the little headland we found ourselves in what could scarcely be called a bay, but which is evidently capable of being made a practicable landing place for boats drawing little water at certain tides and seasons. The beach at the water-line was covered with a fine white sand, and inside the bar there seemed no signs of rocks. Continuing our course, now without any sail, and carefully held in check by our oars, we let our first or smaller boat go in front, and the coxswain of it, carefully watching his opportunity, ran his craft up, so that the crew, when near enough and seeing that all was safe, sprang up to their knees in the surf, and seizing her hauled her high and dry as the wave receded. The second boat following this example was also securely beached, and we felt that our morning’s task was well commenced. It was a splendid April morning, the sun was now well up, and streamed along the waves, lighting up the white sails of our little floating home in offing until they seemed as bright as silver. The Forrester had anchored, and was evidently patiently waiting our report by signal as to the capabilities of a nearer approach. Our men were variously employed. Half-a-dozen were sent at once to scan the horizon from a neighboring height and to keep a good look out in case of any attempt at surprise. Others were cutting wood for the fire, and preparing for the cooking, without which, I suppose, there could be no campaigning. On a branch near our boats hung a couple of fine fish, which had just been caught in the fully, and, as each of our boats invariably carries simple and handy cooking utensils, it was evident that we should (not) have to fast till we returned on board. Leaning against one of the boats, and busily engaged in sponging out his rifle, was our second in command, and the whole scene reminded one of a wild fowl shooting party on some bleak part of an Scotch or Irish coast. There was not much water in the Amatikula, but what there was we found to be sweet and good, and perfectly free from brack. The banks were low and covered with cane weeds and sedge, while away inland, and a few miles off, the country seemed more fertile than about Inyoni, and to possess that park-like appearance so often seen in Zululand. A tolerantly rich plain stretched away to these mountains, evidently the extremity of the Umsundusi Range, and this course of the river as it wound here and there could easily be marked until it was lost in the thick wood which led up to the foot of the hills. Unlike most of the coast land we had passed, the country inland appeared undulating, dotted with clumps of trees and covered with grass, which here and there near the river grew to a great height. In the trees near the stream parrots of the most beautiful plumage were screaming and chattering, and some handsome little squirrels were playing there. A deep silence reigned around, broken only by the murmur of the water, the occasional cry of the parrots, and the hum of that terrible self invited guest the African mosquito, which are here, we are told, so numerous on the banks of the Amatikula, as to be almost unendurable, even to a Zulu. A more peaceful scene could not be imagined when suddenly the silence was broken, and in a manner we least expected. A long peculiar wail was heard re-echoing from one of the nearer kloofs about a mile away. Starting up, each man with his rifle in his hand, we stood together in front of the boats, ready to fire a volley upon the enemy should he attempt to dash out of any ambush we had omitted to search. We had with us a sort of out-caste Hottentot who usually accompanied us on any of our inland expeditions, as his fidelity to the ship, his hatred of the Zulus, and his knowledge of their customs and ways made him an invaluable ally. This little fellow, whose height was certainly not more than four feet six, but whose chest measurement and muscle would have done credit to Tom Sayers, at the moment of the alarm was peeking onions and preparing some compressed vegetables for a savoury mess made from some tinned preserved meat served out as rations to the men. A large saucepan, or rather cauldron, half full of mealies, was also under his charge, and these delicacies he at once abandoned on hearing the cry.”Zulu shout, master,” said Piet as he was called on board. “Know dat nigger voice too well. Him cry of mourning for comrade killed in battle – coming here presently over de hill!” He had no sooner spoken than our trusty scouts, who had been posted up aloft on the eminence of which I had spoken, came rushing down to report that about a hundred or a hundred and fifty Zulus were coming over the brow of the farthest hill, abut a mile off, with a quantity of cattle. Our object in surveying this place had, however, only partly been accomplished, and it was with great reluctance that our commander gave the order to retire slowly to the boats. He had previously received orders not to provoke an engagement under such difficult circumstances, as if outnumbered and compelled to make a hurried embarkation we might have suffered a severe loss in getting through the passage of channel of the reef. We were not fated, however, to depart unobserved, for just as we reached the boats we discovered that one of them had her keel slightly jammed in between two pieces of rock, and this contre-temps so far retarded our getting afloat that the skirmishers of the Zulus – for they never march without advanced patrols – had observed us and were making signals to those in the rear, who now came on at a steady double. Piet, who although very idle, utterly devoid of truth, and sadly addicted to habits of conviviality, had all the good points of his nation. He was very faithful to his salt, passionately attached to the little gunboat, and although not prone to rashness, was undoubtedly steady and cool in the midst of danger. His appearance at the moment of which I speak was a sight to remember. Woolly hair crowning a black face, the tint of which would perhaps be artistically obtained by a blending of lamp-black, vandyke brown, and yellow ochre; a mouth cavernous and with massive jaws guarded by teeth as white as snow, high cheek bones, and eyes elongated in a manned peculiar to his race, together with a broad, powerful chest, and short, sinewy limbs, make up his portrait. He was, I have said, very faithful, and, although idle and careless at his rifle drill, was when in action a capital shot. He was merry as a child when pleased, but when wronged or even annoyed, passionate and revengeful to a fault. He had been born in the service of the historic Dutch family of Uys, and had, indeed, been named after the illustrious Boer who fought so often side by side with Wood. These facts will no doubt explain his intense antipathy to the Zulu race and the feeling of revenge he entertained towards each one of that nation, in remembrance of the injury they had done to his patrons. In addition to this and other accomplishments, Piet spoke the Zulu language remarkably well, and he had picked up a fair amount of English, when employed as chef by the ship’s galley fire. Meanwhile Piet, who had been deep in culinary mysteries, had hastily collected his pots and pans, in which I was amused to see he did not forget to stuff the fish, and having run with these treasures to the boat stood to his post with carbine and cutlass as steady as any of his white messmates. “Him skin dark only, Mass Tom,” said he, when I once complimented him upon his fellowship with the crew, with whom I need scarcely say he was a favorite, “Him skin dark, but heart white like massa!” At this time we were further delayed by having to return for some mathematical instruments which would have been an irreplaceable loss, and for which we had to return some hundred yards, and by the time we had the boat afloat the score of leading Zulus were within 200 yards. At this distance we did not wish t fire, as our object was to get well afloat and over the bar, so we did not return a few shots with which they favoured us, but contented ourselves with pushing off into deep water, and making for the channel. No so, however, did Piet, for he pointed to a ridge of pebble and sand which ran out some distance into the sea, and which formed a sort of natural jetty, and as the boats had to pass close alongside of this species of breakwater, he insisted on staying behind, and said he would overtake us from that point. There was no time to argue the matter nor indeed to enforce discipline as the enemy were almost upon us, and we were ordered at once to push off, leaving poor Piet to carry out his mad freak. Just as we got clear of the shallows and reached the entrance of the passage, we saw the denouement of this little drama. Piet, with admirable presence of mind affected to be wounded in the leg, and crawled along the beach as if in the greatest pain. The Zulus meanwhile were so taken up by firing at or boats that they did not at first see him; but the moment they did, a terrific yell of triumph was raised. Half a dozen young braves raced out of the crown to contest the honour of assegaing him, and we paused in terrible anxiety to see the results. The Zulus, fortunately for themselves, were now exactly in a line with our boats, as we could not fire on them without endangering him. He, however, was quite equal to the occasion, for resting his rifle upon a small piece of rock almost at the end of the causeway he covered the leading warrior, who had thrown up his shield in triumph, and, pulling the trigger, sent his bullet through his arm, and rebounding at the same time in the chest of the Zulu coming next. In a couple of bounds he was in the water, and , half wading, half swimming, a few seconds more saw him landed in our boat. Meanwhile our gunboat had weighed anchor, and stood in a couple of fathom lengths, and bringing one of her guns to bear upon the beach and jungle, sent half-a-dozen rounds of shrapnel into the Zulus, who bolted with loud yells of despair. Two of their spent bullets struck our boats as we pulled out, but without doing any more damage than a paint brush could efface. Our return to Port Durban was entirely without incident, but we had seen enough of the mouth of the Amatikula to report that without great expense of time and money no safe landing place for supplies could be made there.
About 27 years ago a Mr. Rathbone landed a few miles north of Amatikula, and found at that time what he considered might be made a practicable landing-place at or near the mouth of the Umlalzi, or, as it is sometimes pronounced, Umlalagi. A Mr. Taylor also explored this part of the coast, and although he could not quite agree with Mr. Rathbone, with whom he compared notes as to the precise locality, he agreed in stating that there did exist a rude and primitive sort of shelter, where boats drawing little water could use as a landing point. To solve this problem, and, if possible, discover some place nearer that St. Lucia, we were again ordered to cruise up to the north. On the 3rd instant we accordingly left Durban, and as the winds were light and baffling, we steered steadily in a line almost parallel to the coast as far as the mouth of the Umlalazi, which we reached, and off which we anchored on the same evening. We sis not touch at any of our previous pints, but made straight for our destination. Lieutenant Smith, who again commanded had received definite instruction to confine himself as much as possible to the survey, and not to engage in any encounter with the Zulus unless positively attacked. On the morning following our arrival of this point of the coat, we beat to quarters at or a little before daybreak, and two picked crews were told off for the boats. Provisions and twenty rounds of ammunition per man were served out, and we pushed off this time not under sail, but rowing. The weather was calm, and the sea outside was tolerably smooth, so we had every opportunity of making careful observations. As we pulled in towards the beach we saw it was sloping, and that it was ebb tide and nearly low water. We could distinctly see that the river was emptying itself into the sea over a bar or reef, making a fall of about two feet on to the shore, while the surf beat on to the sand and pebbles in regular time, and the sea rolled on to the sand inside the bar in wavelets. The entrance we were not long in finding, and we found on sounding, that it was both wide and deep. As I said, the beach sloped gradually from high to low water mark, and we could see by the lines of weeds the variations made by the tides. The wash upon the beach consisted of pebbles, small shells, and a sort of mixture of mud and sand, all, however, according to a sailor’s notion, of a safe anchorage. There seemed to be two entrances, and the one between the beach and the southern reef would be suitable for boats or small craft, drawing light water. As it was really low water the easterly reef was nearly bare. On sounding we found that the greatest depth of water we could obtain was 4 3/4 fathoms, but this, remember, was when it was ebb tide. We now obtained our latitude and longitude by meridian altitude and chronometer, and our position was found to be latitude 28 degrees, 58 min. 30 sec. S.; longitude, 31 degrees, 51 min. 52 sec. E. This, if you compare any of the maps or charts upon which Port Durnford is marked, you will find is a little further east that is usually set down. We spent more that a couple of hours sounding and taking various observations, and then landed for a short time, keeping the boats, however, afloat, but to notice what we must have of his former feats should Zulus appear. We were observed while on shore, but not fird upon, and as it is out purpose to come again, we did not lose time by going any distance inland. The same afternoon, when we had regained the ship and were cruising a little further south, we were considerably astonished to notice what we must have passed unobserved on the previous day, or rather morning. Off the river marked in the map Inymgazani, the wind was easterly and dead in-shore, and as we were about five miles from its mouth we noticed a line of broken water running parallel, distant about three miles from the beach, and about four miles long. Here the sea was breaking most heavily, and quite becalming the water inshore of it, indeed, acting as such a natural breakwater that there was no surf abreast of it. He we thought a boat well-handled might land with perfect safety, but as our orders were to seam higher to the north, we had to defer further observations till another time. On the following morning, 5th, we again weighed anchor, and steamed further along the coast; our boats, as usual, under easy sail, taking sounding, between the ship and the coast. Towards the afternoon our gunboat stood in towards the mouth of a large river situated to the southward of Tenedos Reef, which turned out to be the Inyezani. On coming to within a couple of cables length of the mouth our captain noticed a long reef tending southward, and over which the white surf was dashing furiously. This we set down at, at least, six miles from the most western part of the Tenedos Shoal, and quite four miles from the mouth of the Inyezani. No time was lost in at once dispatching the boats to take soundings inshore. This was not effected without difficulty, a the approach to the reef, on account of the breakers, was full of danger. The reef runs out fully a mile from the beach, and from sketches I made at the time, I should decidedly say that the configuration of the land between Point Durnford differs very much from its position on most of our charts. During the whole of our voyage we were watched from the coat and large beacon fires were lighted in our honour whenever we approached the land. We went close to the mouth of the Umlalazi, and were shouted at by a crow of Zulus, but a couple of shell again sent them away into the bush. On this occasion, Sunday last, a number of men and cattle must have been killed, as we distinctly saw the bodies on the beach. We start again on this exciting work in a couple of three days, when I will let you know the result.”
Petty Officer Tom