History of South Africa podcast update: Port Natal and its deadly sandbar

A chart of Port Natal – © Holden – 1852.

Episode 91 already! The last year and a bit has flashed passed indeed. Well, here we are. It’s 1824 and English traders have decided to begin ivory hunting and trading at Port Natal. This idyllic patch of the south East African coast contained one of the very few natural harbours and became an obvious point to stop off on the long stretch from Cape Town to Delagoa Bay.

Shaka was busy in 1824 with both conquest and raiding. His impi’s however, did not do well in what you could call their away games. The further they were from their base which the more defective their logistics. And now Shaka had setup his main base on the Mahlabatini plain north of the uMhlathuze River – along the Mfolozi. Later the’d move south as we’ll hear, but in 1824 it was near modern day Ulundi. 

Supply lines for military endeavours are fundamental – Frederick the Great summed  it up when he said an army marches on its stomach – or more accurately, he said it marches on its belly. And no it wasn’t Napoleon who said that. 

Once a chief was defeated, the amabutho had to remain in the field to quash any further resistance and that meant feeding the men. If Shaka wanted to conquer territories, then he needed a quick decisive battle, and that was his strategic intention. As his warriors ranged further, word got out that if you led them on a bit of a song and dance, they’d give up and go home quite quickly. 

Shaka would predate on nearby chiefdoms, when the enemy avoided battle, he’d raid their cattle and women and children, and force the survivors into the forests and mountains of Natal and Zululand. When they’d stripped the country, the amabutho would head home, hungry and often suffering from exposure if they aimed at the mountains. 

This is where some of their victims rounded on them in counterattacks. 

Raiding versus conquering

IN April 1824 Shaka’s top commander Mdlaka kaNcidi led an army south, skirting the foothills of the Drakensburg, then they turned east into the valley of the Mzimvubu River. That was central Mpondo territory and the Zulu’s weren’t invited. Waiting for them and well prepared was a man known for his military experience and deft battlefield tactic touch by the name of Faku kaNgqungqushe. His name sounds like a double-tapped execution,  it’s so dangerous.

And his name alone should have been a warning to Mdlaka kaNcidi. 

Just a quick note about demography. There were fewer than a quarter of a million people living between the Mzimvubu and the Pongola Rivers at this time. So a large army was a few thousand strong at most. And Mdlaka had three regiments but Faku of the Mpondo had his entire people. 

The Zulu impi rolled over Faku’s outermost cattle loaded homesteads – they were in raid not conquest mode. Things did not end well for the Zulus and it was to become known as the amabece impi, the melon campaign. 

But more about what happened in a few minutes when we return to the saga of the sad Mpondo Raid by Shaka. 

He was also eyeing the trade with the outside world as a part of the growth of his power. He knew that Delagoa Bay was somewhat overtraded and too far away to service successfully, furthermore the Portuguese and their allies had tied up their routes inlands already. He could not expand Westwards because the Sotho people were too strong, and to the south, the Mpondo had cut off his access to the Cape. 

The Zulu King was acutely aware of the advantage of doing business with the English at the Cape, but accessing them was another matter. He had no ships. 

And so this is where we return to last episode, because the ships came to him. The Julia in which Henry Francis Fynn would arrive, the Salisbury of Commander King, and the Antelope under Lieutenant Francis George Farewell. 

As the amaBece aka melon impi staggered home, in May 1824 a 21 year-old adventurer called Henry Francis Fynn and five companions had arrived at Port Natal. I explained what happened last episode – fighting off hyenas and then looking around for a way to reach Shaka. These two men, Shaka and Fynn, were feited to find each other eventually and what a story it is. 

But first, a large group of 20 prospective settlers sailed up to Port Natal in June 1824 on the brig called Antelope with Lieutenant Farewell formally of the Royal Navy in charge. This veteran of the war against Napoleon had managed to setup a venture with JR Thompson and company based in Cape Town. They wanted to launch a permanent trading post in the bay of Port Natal. 

Fynn and Farewell were going to work together as the local agents for this company in securing ivory, hides and grains from the Zulu. Yes, grains, the AmaZulu like many others on this coast produced more food than they could eat at this point, and often traded the grains which would include maize which had only just arrived in Southern Africa. 

I’ll deal with mielies, maize, in one of the upcoming podcasts because there’s a great deal of research into how this food came to be grown in the region. It’s a fascinating story as you can imagine. 

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