The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
The Old Fort in Durban makes for a fascinating visit (not only for historic reasons) but also for the lovely walkways, gardens and stately trees. Only a stone throw from the busy city centre, tranquility is to be enjoyed under the large sweet-gum trees that were flowering when I visited. Their beautiful scent permeating the warm Durban air.
The peaceful nature of the spot is ironic, for 174 years ago these few acres knew the shattering blast of cannon and the snap of rifle fire. At this spot British soldiers and settlers battled against the newly arrived Cape Dutch settlers. This irony is always evident on battlefields, where time has brought silence and peace – leaving the visitor with a sense of reflective melancholy.
While meandering around the lush gardens I happened upon a simple and rustic pink granite obelisk mounted upon a three tiered base of similarly quarried stone. Inscribed on its southern face below a small incised cross, is the following… “IN MEMORY OF 400 OFFICERS AND MEN WHO PERISHED IN THE LOSS OF H.M.S. NATAL 1915″. I noted that this event occurred a full 100 years from the present.
My curiosity piqued, I lifted my camera to my eye and took several photographs of the memorial. Other than this ship’s name ‘Natal’ – why would Durbanites have erected a monument to the 400 sailors who perished in this Royal Navy ship? Were there South Africans aboard? Did the tragedy happen in South African waters?
(above) Fascinating and detailed photograph of HMS Natal under full steam.
HMS Natal and the tragedy around her demise is well documented on the internet. I was however surprised to read of the Natalian connection – for it was the inhabitants of the small Colony of Natal on the shores of the Indian Ocean through public subscription, raised the funds for the ship’s construction. A princely sum of 1,218,244 pounds.
(above) The shield to the cruiser HMS Natal, showing the insignia to the Colony of Natal – two black wildebeest in flight.
This gift was in gratitude for the protection provided by the Royal Navy to the people of Natal during the recent Anglo-Boer War. During this imperial and partly civil conflict (1899 – 1902) the Boers of the South African Republic and Orange Free State invaded Natal, sweeping-down the Drakensberg escarpment from the north west, occupying the town of Newcastle and overwhelming the unprepared and limited British contingents stationed at forward posts.
(below) A party of Boers photographed in front of the Newcastle Railway Station.
The British military authorities, tasked with protecting the ‘Garden Colony’ – were hard-pressed to boost their numbers to defend the capital Pietermaritzburg and the port of Durban. Realizing how dire the situation was – it was critical that the British military and Colonial forces hold the line, allowing the reinforcements that were on their way from India and Britain to land at Durban.
(below) Image of Pietermaritzburg, Capital of the Colony of Natal, 1903.
The Royal Navy, stationed at Simonstown in the Cape, immediately assembled and dispatched a Naval Brigade to Natal. Landing at Durban, the Brigade was moved inland by train and stationed at all the strategic points threatened by the Boers.
(above) Photograph of Simonstown, Cape of Good Hope.
(above) Durbanites cheering on the ‘Blue Shirts’ (Naval Brigade) in front of the Town Hall, Durban, Natal, 1899.
(below) A Naval Battery of 4.7’s and 12 Pounders at Durban, Anglo-Boer War.
It was during this time-span that the Battle of Talana near Dundee and Elandslaagte occurred. However these early British successes could not be capitalised upon because the British artillery was outgunned by the modern artillery of the Boers, forcing them to retreat to a defensive positions at Ladysmith where they were besieged for 4 months.
(above) Photograph of the town of Ladysmith during the Anglo-Boer War.
The Boers had large field guns that could throw 94 pound shells with effective ranges of 12 000 yards, while the British forces only had light 15 pound field artillery pieces with a range of not much more than 6000 yards.
(above) A team of draught-oxen pulling the Boer gun nicknamed ‘Long Tom’ across a drift in Natal.
A decision was made to send several large naval guns inland from Durban. However, before this could be done they were first mounted on hastily constructed carriages. They reached the town of Ladysmith where most of the British troops were stationed, shortly before the town was besieged. Here the guns played a pivotal role in keeping the Boer artillery at bay, thus preventing the taking of the town.
(above) Durbanites watching the test-firing of a large naval gun on the back beach, Durban. Anglo-Boer War.
The strategic result was that the Boer advance stalled, allowing for the landing of thousands of reinforcing troops. With overwhelming numbers, the British and Colonial forces slowly, methodically and painfully, forced the Burghers in stages out of the colony, saving Natal for the British Empire.
The Natalians were not to forget the pivotal role that the Royal Navy played in securing their freedom and victory.
(below) A photograph of the ‘Liverpools’ – a regiment of British soldiers entraining for the war front, Durban Harbour, 1899, Anglo-Boer War.
The keel to the ill-fated HMS Natal was laid down on the 6th of January 1904 at Barrow-in-Furness and launched on the 30th of September 1905, 3 years after the ending of the Anglo-Boer War. She was built by Vickers, Sons and Maxim.
(below) The launching of the HMS Natal.
After the construction of HMS Natal, the inhabitants of Natal maintained a lively interest in the movement of the cruiser as well as in the sailors who manned the warship.
In 1906 A.W. Kershaw, the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, raised funds and presented the new cruiser with a plaque and bell. In 1907 the citizens of Natal made a present of a silver service of plate to the vessel, no doubt for the use of the officers.
When the 1st World War broke out in 1914, the inhabitants of Natal had silver medals struck. These were awarded to the crew.
It would have come as a shock to Natalians to hear of the disaster that befell their cruiser and the 421 souls who perished in her on the 30th of December 1915. While lying at anchor in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland, a violent series of explosions near the stern rent the vessel and she sank in a matter of minutes, coming to rest, keel-up, on the muddy bottom of the firth. When divers examined the wreck, it was determined that the explosion had begun internally and not as a result of a torpedo fired from a German submarine. Unstable ammunition (probably cordite) in the small arms magazine or 9.2 inch gun shell room was deemed to have ignited.
(below) A photograph of the wreck of HMS Natal, with a warning beacon attached to her upturned hull.
In 1927, 12 years after the tragedy, the residents of Durban thoughtfully erected a stone monument as a memorial to the many sailors and civilians who perished so needlessly aboard the HMS Natal that fateful December afternoon in 1915.
Graham Leslie McCallum
(above) Survivors of the HMS Natal.