A sense of déjà vu

Jun 30, 2007
Author: Terry Hutson


Cathcart Methven (1949-1925) was not only a capable harbour engineer at the port of Durban, who played a leading role in the development of the port, but also an artist of some considerable merit, whose many paintings and sketches form a valuable historic record of Victorian Natal and the harbour at Durban in particular. This scene, painted in 1906 depicts the arrival of the Armadale Castle on that eventful day in June two years earlier. The original is on a private collection.

There’s a certain sense of déjà vu down at the harbour right now, brought on by all this activity to do with widening the port entrance.

Yes, the widening is now underway, and all those sceptics who said it would never happen should start eating their words… or their hats! That’s after taking a stroll along the beachfront near the uShaka Waterworld to check out the bright green dredger Marieke already hard at work.

Now you can’t disregard that sort of evidence before your eyes – not at the daily rates dredger companies charge for their vessels.

Marieke is what they call a trailing suction hopper dredger and she arrived in mid June. She’ll be in Durban for the next two years or so, removing sand initially from the outer side of the old North Pier and later inside the channel, as well as within the harbour itself.


The Belgian dredger Marieke is already hard at work outside the harbour preparing thins for the widening of the entrance channel. Picture Terry Hutson

All this follows the awarding of a contract to widen the channel, which has proceeded more or less to schedule. It went to a combined international and local joint venture known as the Dredging International – Group Five Consortium and visitors to the Point Waterfront area will have already noticed how the construction site has been fenced to prevent people from entering.

Unfortunately that restriction has caused some concern among the fishing folk who make their living fishing from the city’s piers, particularly now that the South Pier has been included. The latter is because South Pier needs to be raised and re-armoured against the battering it receives from the sea, taking the brunt of the waves that would otherwise crash across the port’s entrance channel.

In addition a new ‘satellite pier’ is to be built off the South Pier facing directly into the waves for the express purpose of carrying equipment for the sand pumping scheme, which replaces the old dredger system.

The National Ports Authority hasn’t indicated whether the South Pier will reopen to the public at a later date but has confirmed that the new North Pier will reopen once completed in late 2009 or early 2010. So hopefully one of Durban’s best vantage points for visitors will again be available for the good people of Durban to enjoy.

(Another marvelous vantage point is of course the old view site at the end of the Bluff, overlooking the entrance but out of bounds these last 20 or so years – but that’s another story for another time.)

But we started this by chatting about déjà vu – that sense of ‘it’s all happened before’. Which of course it has over many generations, for the port entrance has challenged many clever people in their day and has long been a problem for Durban, dating back to the very beginning.

Durban Bay is a wonderfully shaped natural estuary and lagoon (which the Zulu people call eThekwini, meaning the shape of a bull’s testicle), protected from the sea and wind on one side by the Bluff looming several hundred feet high, and sheltered on the other by the long spit of land known aptly as the Point. In turn the rivers feeding the bay have remained mostly gentle, leaving a narrow and restricted entrance to this natural bay, which has subsequently proved troublesome for shipping on account of its shallowness.

But what really matters is the notorious sandbar across the entrance, created largely by sand washed northwards along the littoral drift that occurs along our long eastern coast. Some of the early pioneers of the port feared that this sandbar hid a more sinister underlay of impervious rock but fortunately this was proved not to be the case.

The full story of how Durban’s sandbar was overcome and defeated has been told in detail in an excellent book by the late Colin Bender called Who Saved Natal which I recommend to anyone wanting a better understanding of the complexities of the harbour entrance.

The first person to tackle the bar in any seriousness was John Milne, Durban’s first harbour engineer, who came to Natal as one of the Byrne settlers in 1849. This redoubtable Scot arrived with qualifications as a railway and marine engineer and had little hesitation when, within a month of his arrival, he was asked by the infant Natal Government to protect the Customs house from being eroded by the sea.

After succeeding in this task Milne was soon busy with other projects that led to his being given a provisional appointment in 1852 as resident engineer at the harbour.

At that time the water level over the bar was rapidly diminishing and many ships were unable to enter Durban Bay. On some days people could walk across the entrance to the Bluff with the water little more than waist deep. And when the crisis began to affect prices of much needed commodities that could not be landed – such as flour to make bread – the message sunk home that something had to be done.

First person to the rescue was that leading citizen of Durban, George Cato, assisted by the local magistrate Mr WS Field, who took a gang of workers down to the entrance and physically dug a nearly 400m long channel through the sandbar – the rush of escaping water succeeded in scouring out a suitable path for small ships to once again enter Durban Bay on the high tide.

Incidentally, a passenger from one of the first ships to enter, the Sovereign, was John Robinson, later Prime Minister of Natal and owner of The Natal Mercury, one of the country’s longest established newspapers.

While everyone was excited with the success, Milne realised that greater and more sustained efforts were required, and thus began a labour of years, later taken up by his successors even though not all subscribed to Milne’s theories and methods.

Milne theorised that tidal scour could clean a channel through the entrance and he therefore began work on building a breakwater on the northern side of the entrance channel, forcing the tidal outflow to continue across the bar instead of turning north along the beaches.

His work appeared to be an immediate success and by the end of 1850 the depth over the bar had reached 5.1m, but this success was short-lived. The combined actions of sea, wind and sand saw the outflow finding other ways of escaping from the harbour without the scouring affect on the sandbar.

This led Milne to his more ambitious plan of a north and a south pier facing out into the ocean, constructed of stone blocks and narrowing at the far end to 150m, which he believed would concentrate the flow of the ebb tide and effectively scour the bottom free of sand build up. In this his reasoning was flawed because at that time the northward littoral drift was not understood. The bar was being formed not only by sand and silt coming from inside Durban Bay but from sand washing along from the Bluff beaches in the south.

Nevertheless, to Milne should go the credit for starting the work on the north and south breakwaters, later continued by other port engineers. Milne should also get credit for having called for a steam-powered tugboat to haul ships in and out of the harbour but as the infant colony had no money this appeal fell on deaf ears. Bear in mind his request was made in 1852 and it would be another seven years before South Africa’s first steam tug, Pioneer, arrived at Durban.

In 1858 Milne, who operated with miniscule budgets and took the brunt of strong criticism from impatient traders and politicians, was suddenly dismissed – an injustice when one looks back through the years of hindsight. What he started was later honed and improved by others and today the breakwaters we are so familiar with bear his mark - wouldn’t it be a fitting memorial if the new North Pier was to be named for him.

To other engineers go the credit for ‘conquering the bar’ – people like Edward Innes who died so young before he could see the fruits of his labour, and his immediate successors Cathcart Methven and Charlie Crofts. Innes in particular took up Milne’s pioneering work on the pier by extending it from 1882.

Meanwhile ships at anchor off Durban were being wrecked as a result of the bar remaining too shallow for them to enter port. Several different schemes had been considered and acted on, including the infamous plan of Capt James Vetch, snug in his London office and hopelessly ignorant of local conditions. Vetch’s idea was to build an outer basin that would largely eliminate any need to enter Durban Bay.

Initially Vetch received support locally and the first stage of a pier was built – the remnants remain today still bearing his name but when the work was abandoned in 1864 little more had been achieved other than a sizeable hole in the colony’s budget.

Sir John Coode was another eminent harbour engineer invited to find a way of overcoming the problem of the entrance channel but again little was achieved and it wasn’t until Harry Escombe recommended the appointment of Edward Innes that meaningful progress took place.

After a year of study Innes set about extending Milne’s North Pier but at the same time he had access to something his predecessors were denied – a dredger. Until then previous engineers relied on tidal scour to clean the entrance of any build up of sand and silt – Innes now had the bucket dredger Platypus which had been assembled in Durban in 1882.

The timing was important. Ten years earlier Union Lines and Castle Lines had each begun a mail service between England and South Africa and business in Durban was growing and with it the demands for a more efficient port service (sound familiar?). Innes meanwhile extended the south breakwater to 440m, making it longer than its northern neighbour but sadly he was to die at a young age in December 1887 following a short illness.

On his death Cathcart Methven, perhaps better known today for his paintings, was appointed harbour engineer with Innes’ friend and colleague Charlie Crofts as his understudy. The average depth across the bar remained stubbornly at five or so metres but Methven by now had the use of a fleet of dredgers that began making inroads into the depth of the channel.

When Methven became the next victim of political intrigue and was dismissed in 1895, his place was taken by Charlie Crofts who some think should have succeeded Innes directly. By this time the fleet of dredgers was making a difference and gradually the depth of water in the entrance channel and across the bar began to deepen, reaching 7.6m in 1904 and permitting the entrance of the Armadale Castle of 12,976 tons, then the largest ship to enter the port of Durban.


a slightly fanciful painting of the arrival of the Union-Castle liner ARMADALE CASTLE, then the largest passenger ship coming to South Africa. It was her arrival across the dreaded bar on 26 June, 1904 that marked the emergence of Durban as a port of international importance. This painting, of which the original now hangs in Paris, is by Benjamin Barrett

People in those days recognised an important occasion when they saw it, or perhaps there was a simple enjoyment in festivity. Anyway, all businesses and schools closed for the day and even parliament in Pietermaritzburg adjourned for the occasion with a special train laid on to bring all the bigwigs down to Durban, while yet another special train brought guests of the now combined Union-Castle Line down from Johannesburg.

Over the next few days more than 20,000 people flocked to E Shed at the Point to see the magnificent mailship tied up alongside.

It was this singular moment built on the achievement of many others, and made possible by the foresight and efforts of harbour engineers, that saw Durban develop into the busiest and most important hub in the whole of southern Africa. Further development of the harbour now became possible. The draining and development of the Congella area to create Maydon Wharf to cater largely for the commercial needs of the Transvaal. The remainder of the Point was improved and the T-Jetty built, while across the bay the Island View oil tank projects began in the 1920s with further development through the 1930s and 1940s. Pier 1 was commenced in the 1960s adding additional deepwater berths and Pier 2 and its container terminal came about ten years later.

And so we come full circle, because now in the 21st Century the port is undergoing further extension, with proposals for a giant new basin in the Bayhead. But old problems don’t go away – ships continue to get bigger and the port, if it is to survive, must cater for them. Therefore the widening and deepening of the port entrance which will see the old North Pier, built by John Milne and Edward Innes and others, being broken down and relocated 100 metres northward. Interestingly some of the material used in the old North Pier will be reused in the new construction. Perhaps a few of the stones quarried on the Bluff by John Milne will be among them.

Meanwhile, the dredger Marieke has commenced operations dredging the area on the north side of the existing breakwater and can occasionally be seen working inside the harbour. Other channels inside Durban Bay will also be deepened and widened where necessary and once again Durban will be open to the bigger ships, just like in 1904.

I wonder if they’ll bring a special train from Johannesburg?


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