Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man


When I was a child my Grandmother Charlotte Emily Chapman nee’ Dendy would relate to me how that her Grandmother and her parents were wrecked on the Annabella. This captured my imagination, for at the time, like many young boys, I was enamoured with all things to do with shipping and the sea. The novels ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘Treasure Island’ were my literary escape from my landlocked upbringing in Natal. An older cousin of mine had given me a book on treasure hunters and the colourful illustrations of treasure chests, doubloons and Spanish galleons filled my mind with dreams of gold, silver and gemstones.

Growing-up, I fortunately realised that the true treasure of life lay more in knowledge and less in all that shines and sparkles. This probably is the reason why I have spent more time in libraries than just about anywhere else. This need-to-know encouraged me several years ago to begin a quest to discover more on my Great Great Great Grandparents and the ship Annabella. At first I did not even know if the anecdote about the wrecking was true; for as anyone who has ever wandered down the path of genealogy discovers – many family stories do not always prove to be factual.

During a visit to the Don Africana Library in Durban I discovered that there was indeed a ship named the Annabella and that she had been wrecked off the entrance to the Bay of Natal. I was thrilled to discover this and jotted down as much as the library had on the event. Later, armed with the year and month that the ship ran aground – I was able to look up more information on the wrecking in the newspaper of the day, the Natal Mercury. Since then, I have been able to add to this data from archival sources, and have discovered that my maternal ancestors stayed on in South Africa after the maritime disaster. And so I am attached to the Annabella, and ironically, grateful to its wrecking, otherwise I would not be here to write this posting.

The Brig Annabella attempting to cross the Bar into Bay of Natal, 1856, Durban

The ship Annabella, a British two masted Brig, of 200 tons and built in 1834 in Glasgow, Scotland. This made her 21 years old, which would have made her relatively old, as most brigs were built to last 20 years. Owner and Master – Captain Louis (Lewis) James Wilson. Agents J. Millar & Co.

Departing the Port of London for a final destination in India, she sailed under the stewardship of Captain Louis James Wilson, carrying a cargo of Spirits, Fabric and essential Machinery for the Tongaat Sugar Refinery at Natal. The barque put-in at Table Bay (Cape Town) where she took on passengers, among them my Great Great Grandparents Benjamin Chaney and Susannah Chaney nee’ Shepherd and their four children, James Chaney,William Chaney, Emily Louisa Hogard Chaney and Mary Chaney. Benjamin, a soldier in the British Army, had sojourned the previous two years in Cape Town on a leave of absence. Previously he and his wife had been stationed in India for 8 years at the British Military base at Kirkee, Maharashtra. Their children James, William, John and Emily Jane were born in India, where John and Emily died as children. While in Cape Town two additional children had been born, namely my Great Great Grandmother Emily Louisa Hogard Chaney who was born in 1854 and christened in St. George’s Cathedral and Mary Chaney born in 1856. The Chaney family were heading back to India.

The vessel anchored at Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth) early in the month of January and then set sail for the Bay of Natal (Durban) arriving in the outer anchorage on Monday the 21st of January 1856. The ship did not immediately enter the bay as the ‘crossing’ was deemed dangerous. The obstruction that had to be crossed was the Lee Bank, a natural tidal sand bar that is constantly formed by sand swept-along by the littoral current that hugs the Natal coast. This current flows in a northerly direction, in the apposite direction to the Mozambique Current that flows further out to sea in a southerly direction. Where the littoral drift and its sand-load reaches the vicinity of Port of Natal, it is partially obstructed by the ‘Bluff’, a large and ancient sand dune that projects into the Indian Ocean. At this point the current is temporarily diverted and slowed, causing its sand-load to be deposited at the mouth to the bay in greater amounts, forming a sand bank. Silt that is removed by tidal flow and scour, out of the Bay of Natal (especially at low tides) adds additional sand to the bank.

This sand bank had hampered the development of the Port of Durban, for besides preventing large ships from entering the port, it also endangered smaller vessels risking the crossing. From the very earliest, several ideas had been mooted to deal with this problem, one of them being the constructing of breakwaters to encourage tidal scour in the hope this would clear a path into the harbour. It was only in the 1860’s that any concerted attempt was made to address the bar with the construction of Vetch’s Pier and later Milne’s Breakwater. At neap tides and higher tides, smaller ships with lighter cargoes allowing the vessel to draw less water, could make the crossing with the help of a favourable wind and an experienced Master or assisting Pilot from the Port. However, during low tides the crossing was impossible even for small ships. Unfavourable winds and rough surf breaking on the bar, as well as the variable movement and water coverage of the bar, complicated a crossing even further. To lessen risk to life – passengers were routinely brought ashore in surf boats, and later, slung overboard in wicker baskets into smaller boats which could make the crossing.

When the Annabella arrived on the 21st, an immediate crossing was delayed even though the wind was favourable and the tides were spring and high. Recent gales had raised large swells and the surf was heavy over the sand bar. Shortly after, the winds changed and blew unfavourably and it was deemed imprudent to make the crossing. The Annabella then lay-off awaiting instruction to enter. Soundings taken on the bar on the morning of the 26th (Saturday) set the depth at 16 feet, and with the Annabella drawing only 13 feet 6 inches and with a fine leading breeze blowing in from the north-east, it was thought safe to enter the harbour. Earlier that afternoon the ship ‘Isabella’ drawing 10 feet 6 inches had safely crossed the bar. At 5 pm, although there was considerable swell on the bank, it was thought safe to cross and an admission signal was hoisted on the mast atop the Bluff, an hour and a half before high tide. Piloting and assisting Captain Wilson was Captain Archer the Coxswain of the port boat. Raising anchor and putting on a large quantity of sail, the Annabella sailed smartly in a westerly direction across the bar. The troughs between the swells were deep and while negotiating a trough, the ship touched the sand bank once or twice resulting in loss of steering and an altering of her necessary course. Before her steerage could be recovered, she payed-off and struck the inner sand bar, causing the vessel to slew around and with her sails now aback, was driven by the wind and tide further and further upon the bank, becoming irrevocably embedded despite several attempts to free her by making a stern-first recovery. The heavy surf beat upon her prow with waves washing over her decks and rocking the vessel to and fro.

So vicious was the surf that no communication could be made with the vessel until midnight when the wind changed and the sea dropped. However, the Annabella already had 10 feet water in her hold and Captain Wislon took the decision to abandon ship with crew and remaining passengers, including two women. My Grandmother related to me how that her Great Grandmother was taken ashore, desperately thirsty and brought to the town of Durban with only the clothes she was wearing. So traumatic was the wrecking and the loss of all her family’s possessions that she refused to continue their journey at a later date, persuading her husband to remain in South Africa, settling later in Cape Town, where the Chaney family has subsequently remained associated to this day.

The Wrecking of the Brig Annabella, 1856

By the Sunday morning the Annabella’s seams had opened up and the sea had free passage through her holds. On Monday, the vessel having been condemned, arrangements commenced regarding the salvaging of her cargo. Remuneration  considerations proceeding slowly, although the situation been imminent, proving prejudicial to t the Annabella’s  recoverable cargo. On the Tuesday the weather being more favourable, several boats were able to approach the wreck. The Captain and Ship Agents made attempts to save the vessel’s spars and rigging, and some of the water-logged cargo was discharged, most of which was hardly worth recovering. Packages higher in the hold were saved and much of the spirits (which no doubt gladdened the hearts of many Durbanites, known at the time for their heavy consumption of alchohol). The weather all week was most capricious, only allowing for a few hours salvaging a day, and on some days not at all. Her awkward position and the heavy surf  buffeted the vessel, threatening to break her up at any moment, thus rendered much of the recovery impossible, especially the heavy machinery lying deeper in the hold and now buried in sand. The salvage of general cargo was passed under the hammer of Auctioneer Acutt on the 4th of February.

Thus is was that the barque Annabella bestowed her name on the sand bank, fixing her sad demise in the minds of Durbanites for perpetuity. The site of her misfortune and grave lies where the former North Pier was constructed, but now that the harbour mouth has been widened, approximately midway between the new North Pier and the old South Pier.

Such was the furore occasioned by the wreck of the Annabella that an official enquiry was instated by the Colonial Government resulting in Governor Scott unfairly dismissing Harbour Engineer, John Milne, who had rendered good service at Port Natal. The sand bank had claimed another victim.

As for the ‘Annabella Bank’ – it still lies off the mouth of Durban Harbour, ever silting-up the entrance, forever perplexing maritime engineers and as long as there is a harbour on this coast, requiring constant and laborious dredging.

The Annabella Bank


Good Hope 1685 / Mary 1825 /Ann 1826 / Eleanor 1839 / Hero 1843/ Suffren 1845 / Courier 1846 /Pacquet Bordelais 1847 / Douglas 1849 / Urania 1851 / Princeza 1854 / Annabella 1856 /Woodlark 1859 / Pharamound 1863 / Actaea 1865 / Hydra 1867 / Sarah Smith 1874 / Kaffir Chief 1876 / Tancred 1879 / Pensamento 1879 / Shepherdess 1879 / Ziba 1879 / Frey 1879/ Graf Wedell 1880/ Zennia 1880 Dunkeld 1880 /Phoebe 1880 /Richard Pearce 1880 Jessie 1880 / Natal 1880 / Elvira 1882 /Erwood 1882/ Forerunner 1883 /Medway 1883 / City of Lima 1883 / Vigor 1884 / Little Bess 1884 /Roe 1883 / Sea Nymph 1885 / Inyoni 1895 / Denton Grange 1898 / Viking 1898 / Wladmir Sawin 1901 / Nautilus 1903 / Grampus 1903 /Lion 1904 / Inyati 1911 / Kabinga 1913 / F. Todenskjold 1915 / Tasmanian 1915.

The 'Sir Robert Peel' the first steamship to enter Bay of Natal, Durban, 1852

An illustration of the screw steamer ‘Sir Robert Peel’ crossing the bar- she was the first steamer to cross the bar and enter Port Natal on the 16th of August 1852. Durbanites can be seen lining the Point dunes and Ocean Beach to witness the occasion. Launched in 1846, this schooner-rigged ship plied the waters between Cape Town and Durban.


And what of the Wilson Family – Captain Louis (Lewis) James Wilson decided to settle in Durban and Natal after the wrecking of his ship, becoming a pioneering businessman and later Burgess. He was joined by his wife  Emily Virginia Wilson nee’ Whitlock and children Lewis James Wilson, Alice Maud Wilson, Ellen Virginia Wilson and Ida Wilson, where he set up a Chandler’s Business at the Point in 1857, commencing trade in the supply of Rope, Ballast and General Provisioning. Wilson extended his business to General Imports, including Wine and Spirits. His family operated the ‘Criterion Hotel’ at the Point and his wife the ‘Marine Hotel’ on the same peninsula. In 1874 Captain Wilson is installed as the Surveyor to the Bureau Veritas Marine Insurance Office and to the Vice-Admirality, Court of Natal in the same year. In 1876 an increasingly successful family constructed the ‘Wilson Buildings’ at the Point. Furthermore, Louis James Wilson was elected to be the first Commodore of the Durban Regatta Club in 1858, later the Royal Natal Yacht Cllub.

captain lewis wilson 016

Captain Wilson died on the 21st of April 1878, aged 62 years and was buried in the West End Cemetery, Anglican Section, CE, Block 22, Grave 67. His wife died in 1920 aged 84. Several years ago I went scouting around the graveyard looking for his head stone. I found it, and that of his wife and other family members. Sadly his memorial has been toppled. Perhaps the Royal Natal Yacht Club can devote some of their budget to have the head stone of their first Commodore restored to its correct position. A portrait of the man takes premier position in the Board Room at the Club. Today’s Wilson’s Wharf is named after this pioneer.

captain lewis wilson 001

captain lewis wilson 007

Of interest, Captain Wilson’s son Lewis James Wilson, who was also a successful businessman, died in unusual circumstances. In 1879 while aboard the SS Inchanga, a large wave swept the vessel from prow to stern, dashing Lewis to the deck, resulting in a broken rib puncturing his lungs.

Should anyone desire further information on this family, you are welcome to contact me.


  1. Rory
    November 12, 2014

    Hi Graham – your pieces are fascinating, informative and superbly documented. One very small correction to this article is that it has been established that it is in fact the south north littoral drift (longshore) that accounts for the sand deposition that gave rise to the Annabella Bank. In other words the prevailing SSW swells create strong currents stripping and mobilising sand northward. The intervention of the north and south piers interferes and effectively halts this distribution pattern, leading to erosion of Durban beachfront that in turn requires continual augmentation via the sand pumping scheme that utilises sand trapped behind the south pier. The Vetch’s pier failed in part for not understanding these climatological and hydraulic factors. I also believe that in the widening of the harbour mouth a wreck was noted during surveying and simply referred to as the ‘odd wreck’ (leading some in the construction team to think that this was the wreck’s actual name!). It was ultimately hovered up and removed. I don’t know if any artefacts where discovered. It might well have been the Annabella.

  2. Lesley Little
    April 6, 2017

    Hello, and Thank You so much for this very informative piece. I have been researching my family ancestry and this by far has been the most valuable! Cpt. Wilson Sr. was my GGG grandfather. His son, James Lewis, married Georgina Winter. They had my GG grandmother, Natalia Georgina Gordon Wilson Johnson. She married Frederick William Johnson and had 4 children, David, Barney, Wendy and Patricia. Patricia is my grandmother. If you have any further info. on this family, I would greatly appreciate it.
    Thank You SO much
    ( of interest….Cpt. Lewis died April 21 at the age of 62. I was born April 21 1962)

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