Tourism, Accommodation and Historical Attractions in Durban, South Africa


Durban's History

Durban has a turbulent history dating from ivory hunters in the 1820s and their conflict with the local Zulu monarchs.
Durban Accommodation Guide

Durban's History

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Early History

The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama passed the mouth of Durban Bay on Christmas Day 1497 and named Rio de Natal (Christmas River) da Gama's fleet off Durban Bayfor he thought that several rivers flowed into the bay.

In those far off times, the bay was isolated from the sea by a sandbar and crocs, hippos and flamingoes were to be found in its waters.

The margins of the bay were fringed with dense mangroves beyond which lay a ridge of hills on which elephant, hyaena and lion were to be found.

Over the succeeding years and because the bay offered one of the few protected anchorages on the coast, Rio de Natal was visited by a variety of mariners and slave traders.

The First European Settlement

However, in 1823, Lt. James King commanded the vessel Salisbury which was chartered by a Lt. George Farewell to trade up and down the South African coast. Bad weather forced the Salisbury to shelter in the roadstead off Durban but the accompanying ship, the Julia sailed over the sandbar and surveyed the bay.

King immediately recognized the importance of the bay and went to England to try and garner support for the settlement. He was unsuccessful and returned to Port Natal as it was called.

Relations with Local Tribes

King was befriended by King Shaka who granted him land round the bay and dispatched him with two of his chiefs to England but the party got no further than Port Elizabeth.

Alan Gardiner King returned to Port Natal once more and fell out with Farewell and moved off to the Bluff, across the bay. He died there of dysentery in 1828. The rough, uncertain life diminished the small number of settlers at the bay to only six at one point.

In 1827, a 15 year old boy called John Ross walked 900 kms to Delagoa Bay (Maputo) through wild country to fetch medicines. He paid his respects to Shaka and became close to the Zulu monarch who provided him with an escort to complete his trip.

One of the earliest settlers was Captain Allen Francis Gardiner who attempted to convert the Zulus to Christianity but was spurned by King Dingane.

Feeling like St. Paul, who had been similarly spurned by the Thessalonians and had retreated to Berea, he founded a small church on the hills above Durban and called it Berea.

He died of starvation in Tierra del Fuego in 1851.

Big Plans

Sir Benjamin D'urban At a meeting in 1835 attended by the full complement of settlers - 15 in all - a town was proclaimed and named in honour of the Governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D'Urban.

However, despite grandiose plans, little development took place and the dwellings remained of a wattle and mud rudimentary construction, nestled in the coastal bush.

Some 12 years after the proclamation, there were still no streets in the settlement.

Settler Numbers Increase Rapidly

A significant boost occurred between 1850 and 1854 when several thousand "Byrne" settlers arrived. Byrne was an Irishman who had once visited Durban and hoped to make money by shipping in settlers.

In 1860, the first of several thousand indentured Indians arrived to take up work in the sugar cane fields. Along with them came 'passenger' Indians who were not indentured and were free to engage in business.

The Natal Republiek

The Voortrekkers arrived from the Eastern Cape in 1838, several columns of wagons having been massacred by the Zulus along the way. Later that year at the battle Ndondakusuka, a number of Dick King traders lost their lives along with hundreds of Zulus and were forced to flee.

The British sent a force in 1842 to maintain order in the area and were promptly besieged by the Voortrekkers. It fell to Dick King and his Zulu servant to ride to the British Garrison in Grahamstown to get help.

King accomplished a memorable feat by riding the 960 kilometres in 10 days, firstly past the Voortrekkers and then through wild, uncharted territory across more than 120 rivers.

A month later the besieged British were relieved. King also walked from Durban to north Natal to warn the Voortrekkers there of the massacre of Piet Retief by the Zulu king Dingane.

In 1844, the British annexed the Southern portion of Natal to the Cape Colony. The old wagon tracks made by the Voortrekkers on their journeys between Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still visible South of the Umlazi River.

Durban from the crest of the Berea - circa 1847

The Laying Out of the Town

It took a young immigrant named George Cato to lay out the town properly with three main streets, each 100ft wide - enough to turn a wagon and 16 oxen (the reason why city centre roads in South Africa are so wide). In 1860, a railway linked the harbour with the small town and within 30 years, had reached all the way to Johannesburg.

The First Train

Indian Labourers

 In the 1860s large numbers of Indians were recruited to work on the sugar cane farms.

Although most came on a fixed term indenture basis, others called 'passenger Indians' came to trade and now form a major part of Durban's community. The town started to expand from the swamp to the cooler hills of the Berea.

The 19th Century

 A view of the town and the Bluff from the Berea - circa 1850.The discovery of gold was a major boost to the small port and the discovery of coal in Dundee resulted in many ships using the port for bunkering.

The progress of the port lead finally to the troublesome sandbar at the harbour entrance being removed. As a result of the increased use of the harbour, many marine-related industries such as shipbuilding, stevedoring, chandling and a dry dock were established in Durban.

By 1900, the town had sewerage, hardened roads and water reticulation.

The expansion of the railways also had the effect of attracting people from the Transvaal (Gauteng) who wished to vacation in the town. This established Durban as a major tourist destination, a position it retains.

Paul Kruger visits Durban

During the frequent troubles in the colony, Durban was the major disembarkation point for most of the troops.

In 1932, a number of satellite suburbs were incorporated into the town and in 1935, Durban was granted city status.


 The effects of apartheid resulted in the construction of extensive shack settlements. The City Council decided to build more formal communities and large townships were constructed to house African workers both north and south of Durban.

In 1996, Durban was further enlarged to become the Durban Metropolitan Region, or Durban Metro, by including large areas both north, South and west of the town. Four years later, a further expansion resulted in the Durban Unicity.

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