Monday, July 23, 2012

How I came to Natal in 1861

My First Voyage by J.A.B.

My first voyage at sea was as a passenger in the S.S. Norman, owned by the Union Steamship Company, which had the contract for carrying her Majesty's mails from Plymouth to Capetown direct, and vice versa. The Norman was not a large vessel, but I forget her tonnage. (Footnote 1) Compared with her namesake of the present day, it will be well to call her 'the little Norman.' She was commanded by Captain Boxer, whose wife accompanied him on the voyage. (Footnote 2)

The Norman left Plymouth on April 6th 1861, after embarking mails and passengers, those who had come from Southampton in the ship being allowed a run on shore. The contract time for the voyage out was 42 days, and it was understood by the passengers that the company received a bonus of 50 pounds per day for every day less than the 42 days. After a week of fine weather, even through the Bay of Biscay, the Norman was abreast of Madeira on April 13th. The island was some 20 miles to the eastward and presented a grand appearance. The sun shone brightly, and as it penetrated the mist and clouds the ..... became apparent. The next day we were abreast of Palma, one of the Canary Isalands, and being but 15 miles distant we had a splendid view. With a glass one could see houses on the hills and snow on the tops of the mountains. We caught a glimpse of .... Towards the evening of April 14th. We crossed the equator on the evening of April 25th (with the temperature at 122 degrees in the .... Room and between 90 and 100 degrees in the cabins). On May 2nd the weather was squally, and in the evening the mainsail was split by the wind for the Norman always carried sail when it was an advantage to do so. The next morning the flying jib was split, and there was more sea than we had had all the voyage, and ... strong trade winds. On May 3rd we sent a bottle afloat with a piece of paper in it bearing the following:
Lat. 19 O S
Long 10 S W   Not very legible may be incorrect. 
May 3rd 1861
Norman, mail packet to the Cape of Good Hope. All Well.

This document was signed by several, but whether it was ever picked up or washed ashore I know not.

We did not sight any land after .... The last five days at sea were as pleasant as the preceding ones had been. We had a squall or two, but these helped us along considerably. On the evening of May 13th one of the officers told some of the passengers that if they were up at daybreak in the morning they would see Table Mountain and if they did not see it then they would not see it till the middle of the day. A few were up before day break and sure enough had a glimpse of the mountain ... 60 or 70 miles distant. The night had been calm but .... A favourable breeze sprung up and the little Norman had all the sail crowded on she could carry. How vigorously we all set to work hoisting the sails cheered by the mountain ahead. At 3 o'clock on the afternoon of May 14th the Norman anchored in Table Bay after a voyage of 38 days from Plymouth and four days under contract time. When the anchor was let go many on board were almost overcome with feelings of joy and thankfulness at the successful termination of what would now be called a protracted voyage to the Cape.

What was the speed of the little Norman? Well, her highest run in 24 hours was 210 miles, and her lowest run in 24 hours was 95 miles. With steam and sail she did the former, and steaming head to the wind and sea she made the 95. She could come down to four knots an hour, or she might come up to eight or nine. Her usual daily runs were 149, 140, 152, 184, 180, 174, 177, 157, 160, 157, and at noon on May 13th she had 164 miles to go to Capetown. And she did it. Capetown was glad to get another month's news, for by the time the passengers were landed the town was placarded by the newspaper gentlemen 'Arrival of the English mail Latest news'. The latest news was nearly six weeks old, and some of it was nearly ten weeks old, but it was 'latest' all the same.

It must not be thought that the Norman used steam as an auxiliary to her sails. This was not the case. The screw was spinning round the whole voyage, with the exception of about five hours when the engines were stopped in mid-ocean for the purpose of packing pistons. The engines went 54 revolutions a minute, so that they made nearly three million revolutions between Northampton and Capetown.

In the year 1861 the mails for Natal were brought from England with the mails for the Cape Colony, as they have been since. In those days a coasting steamer ran between Capetown and Natal named the Waldensian and she did the work as quickly as time and weather permitted. But in May the weather was rough around the Cape, and the Waldensian became overdue at Capetown. It was feared she had broken down, or run out of coal, or been lost, so two or three men-of-war were sent from Simon's Bay to look for her. Meantime the mails for Natal and East London were delayed, at Capetown pending arrangements to be made for their despatch. There was no telegraph to Natal then so nothing could be known there of the cause of delay. People were patient in those days and if they did not get their letters when they were due, they waited till they did. How the Natal colonists got their mails brought out by the Norman will be seen by the following. The Waldensian was fortunately found by one of the men of war round the coast and eventually arrived safely at Capetown. (Footnote 3)

My second voyage at sea was as a passenger in HMS Gorgon in which I sailed from Simon's Bay on June 14th 1861, bound for the East Coast of Africa. The Gorgon was a paddle wheel steamer with a tonnage of something more than 1,000 tons and engines of 320 horse power. She was brig-rigged, and carried 6 large guns, besides 2 guns for boats. The crew numbered about 170, including 20 marines. She also carried eight boats, two of which were called 'paddlers' as when at sea these two boats formed the top of the paddle boxes by being turned keels upward. The Gorgon was in charge of Commander J C Wilson, a fine specimen of the English sailor.

In those days communication with ports to the eastward was limited, so the mails for East London, Natal etc were placed on board the Gorgon,as were also stores for other men-of-war on the station. The weather was rough for the first days, and on June 17th we lost a cutter, which was stove in by the violence of the sea. At 4 o'clock on the morning of June 18th we were off East London, but in consequence of the boisterous weather had to be stand out to sea, thus overcarrying the mails for East London to Natal, to be sent back again, somehow or other. On the evening of June 21st it was a dead calm till 10 o'clock, when one of those severe gales peculiar to the coast commenced to blow. For hours previously the lightning had attracted the attention of all on board, it being grand beyond description; but as there was little wind no fears were entertained, and a good deal of canvas was kept on the ship. However, at 10 o'clock, and quite suddenly, it commenced to blow fearfully, and rain in torrents. The succeeding moments can hardly be described. 'Hands! shorten sail!' was shouted fore and aft the ship; nearly all the sails were in ribbands (sic) and those which were not were soon taken off, the captain and officers were on deck giving orders, making themselves heard as best they could; the clouds were, one would think, concentrating their contents on the Gorgon, drenching every man on deck; and the lightning illumined with the brightness of day the weird spectacle. A remarkable fact was that the sea, which had been calm, continued so, the combined force of the wind and rain forbidding the waves to rise. Fortunately the ship rode out the gale, which was from the westward, scudding before it under bare poles at about 10 knots an hour. After the storm, which lasted about an hour, the captain complimented the crew on the admirable manner in which they had done their work, and ordered cocoa to be made for all hands.

It should be remembered that although the Gorgon was a steamer, steam was only used as an auxiliary, and that on the voyage round the Cape she was not under steam, but had her paddle wheels disconnected from the engines.

The next day, June 22nd, was beautifully fine, and in the afternoon we arrived at Port Natal. The Government tug Pioneer came out to meet us and told us where to anchor in the roadstead. (Footnote 4) The mails were put on board the tug, and together with some of our officers, conveyed ashore. We lay at anchor until the following afternoon, when those who had been on shore returned, bringing with them a boat to replace the one we had lost, some provisions, and several curiosities. At four o'clock in the afternoon of June 23rd we got under way for the East Coast.

Maritzburg July 1900 J.A.B.

From The Natal Witness Monday 20 August 1900
The identity of J.A.B. remains undiscovered.


(1) 530 tons. The Norman was built in 1853; she was the 3rd Union liner to come to the Cape, in 1857.
(2) Capt. Boxer had been in command of the coaster Sir Robert Peel and was well-known between Table Bay and Durban. 
(3) The Waldensian was wrecked in October 1862.
(4) The Pioneer made her journey in 1859 to Natal from England under sail, with her paddles stowed below. She arrived at Durban after a voyage of 111 days, the first steam tug in South Africa. 

A steamer under sail and steam.

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