Colony of Natal

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Colony of Natal
British colony
Flag Coat of arms
God Save the Queen
Capital Pietermaritzburg
Languages Afrikaans, English, Zulu
Religion Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Hindu, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Islam
Government Constitutional monarchy
Queen Victoria
Special Commissioner
  1843 Henry Cloete
Historical era Imperialism
   Established 4 May 1843
  Annexed Zululand 1897
   Disestablished 1910
  Natal Province est. 31 May 1910
   1904[1] 91,610 km² (35,371 sq mi)
   1904[1] est. 1,108,754 
     Density 12.1 /km²  (31.3 /sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Natalia Republic
Zulu Kingdom
Union of South Africa
Today part of  South Africa

The Colony of Natal was a British colony in south-eastern Africa. It was proclaimed a British colony on 4 May 1843 after the British government had annexed the Boer Republic of Natalia, and on 31 May 1910 combined with three other colonies to form the Union of South Africa, as one of its provinces. It is now the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. The Indians who were brought to this country from India called it 'Netaal Tapu' (island of Netal).

It was originally only about half the size of the present province, with the north-eastern boundaries being formed by the Tugela and Buffalo rivers beyond which lay the independent Kingdom of Zululand (KwaZulu in Zulu). The present province was also enlarged by the addition of Griqualand East to the south.

Fierce conflict with the Zulu population led to the evacuation of Durban, and eventually the Boers accepted British annexation in 1844 under military pressure. A British governor was appointed to the region and many settlers emigrated from Europe and the Cape Colony. The British established a sugar cane industry in the 1860s. Farm owners had a difficult time attracting Zulu labourers to work on their plantations, so the British brought thousands of indentured labourers from India. As a result of the importation of Indian labourers, Durban became the home to the largest concentration of Indians outside of India.

British annexation

Natal was proclaimed a British Colony in 1843, and administered from the Cape Colony in 1844. However, it was not until the end of 1845 that an effective administration was installed with Mr Martin West as lieutenant-governor that the power of the Boer Volksraad finally came to an end. In the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 the British defeated the Zulu army, and Zululand was annexed to Natal in 1897.

In April 1842 Lord Stanley (afterwards 14th earl of Derby), then secretary for the colonies in the second Peel Administration, wrote to Sir George Napier that the establishment of a colony in Natal would be attended with little prospect of advantage, but at the same time stated that the pretensions of the emigrants to be regarded as an independent community could not be admitted. Various measures were proposed which would but have aggravated the situation. Finally, in deference to the strongly urged views of Sir George Napier, Lord Stanley, in a despatch of 13 December, received in Cape Town on 23 April 1843, consented to Natal becoming a British colony. The institutions adopted were to be as far as possible in accordance with the wishes of the people, but it was a fundamental condition "that there should not be in the eye of the law any distinction or disqualification whatever, founded on mere difference of colour, origin, language or creed." Sir George then appointed Mr Henry Cloete (a brother of Colonel Cloete) a special commissioner to explain to the Natal volksraad the decision of the government.

There was a considerable party of Natal Boers still strongly opposed to the British, and they were reinforced by numerous bands of Boers who came over the Drakensberg from Winburg and Potchefstroom. Commandant Jan Mocke of Winburg (who had helped to besiege Captain Smith at Durban) and others of the "war party" attempted to induce the volksraad not to submit, and a plan was formed to murder Pretorius, Boshof and other leaders, who were now convinced that the only chance of ending the state of complete anarchy into which the country had fallen was by accepting British sovereignty. In these circumstances the task of Mr Henry Cloete was one of great difficulty and delicacy. He behaved with the utmost tact and got rid of the Winburg and Potchefstroom burghers by declaring that he should recommend the Drakensberg as the northern limit of Natal. On 8 August 1843 the Natal volksraad unanimously agreed to the terms proposed by Lord Stanley. Many of the Boers who would not acknowledge British rule trekked once more over the mountains into what are now the Orange Free State and Transvaal provinces. At the end of 1843 there were not more than 500 Dutch families left in Natal.

Cloete, before returning to the Cape, visited Mpande and obtained from him a valuable concession. Hitherto the Tugela from source to mouth had been the recognized frontier between Natal and Zululand. Mpande gave up to Natal all the territory between the Buffalo and Tugela rivers, now forming Klip River county.

British Settlement and Security[2]

A small group of British settlers were attracted to the seemingly benign climate and soil. A small force of 25 men under British Lieutenant F. G. Farewell arrived from the Cape Colony and established a settlement on the northern shore of the Bay of Natal, near today's Farewell Square. The budding settlement was able to stay on the good side of the powerful Zulu chief Shaka when they were able to administer medical aid to the chief after he'd been injured in a battle. As a token of gratitude, he granted the tiny settlement a "25-mile strip of coast a hundred miles in depth."

The tiny British settlement was almost strangled at birth when the Boer Great Trekkers arrived from the Cape Colony. These Boers were trying to escape the British administration in the Cape Colony. The three thousand Boers found it easy to intimidate the tiny British settlement into withdrawing and set up the Boer Natalia Republic in its place. Two problems would afflict this Boer Republic. First of all, the British used the prior existence of the Port Natal colony as justification to extend British jurisdiction to the area. Secondly, the Zulus were not so impressed at the quantity and actions of these Boers. They clashed frequently with one another.

These two problems combined to make many of the Trekkers reload their wagons and cross back over the Drakensberg Mountains and disappear North looking to avoid the British and Zulus if at all possible. Those Boers who did remain were unable to block the British Army when they entered the colony of Natal in 1843. British settlers were now welcomed back to the colony by the new administration.

From 1844 to 1856, the colony was administered from the Cape Colony. This was partly due to the lack of settlers in the colony and the population needed to be built up. But it was also due to the generally dangerous and fragile frontiers around Natal. The tiny colony needed all the support it could get being surrounded by powerful African tribes and the ongoing difficulties of dealing with the Boers.

The colony would slowly expand its British contingent. It would never attract the quantity of settlers that Australia and New Zealand were able to attract. This was largely because of the perceived threat to the colony. It was just too dangerous and the land, although relatively good at Africa standards, was not that good compared to other destinations available throughout the Empire. The English would gain a majority of the white population, but there would always a remain a significant Boer minority.

According to genealogist Shelagh Spencer "The biggest addition to the population of the new colony was the settlers who arrived from the United Kingdom between 1849 to 1851. Great Britain was in the midst of a depression in the 1840s, causing many millions of her inhabitants to emigrate, mainly to the United States, Canada and Australia. Natal received a small percentage of these emigrating masses. There were various schemes under which people came to the Colony".[3]

The British would now be drawn into a needless and difficult campaign against the Zulus against their better judgement. Although they had a fearsome reputation previously, the Zulus had rarely come into conflict with the British. In the 1870s the Zulus were rightfully complaining about Boer encroachments into their lands from the Transvaal. A British boundary commission actually found in favour of the Zulu. However the Cape High Commissioner Sir Henry Bartle Frere decided to use this excuse to reduce the Zulu military threat. He said that the disputed land would only be returned if the Zulu army was disbanded. This was too harsh a term for the proudly militaristic Zulu and they ignored the provocative ultimatum.

Meanwhile, on 14 September 1876, the Colonial office in the UK received a telegram from Sir Henry Barley in Cape Town of the imminent collapse of the Transvaal because the Transvaal's President Burger and his men had been routed after their attack on Sekhukhune and his people the Pedi. This galvanized Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon who obtained permission from Disraeli to appoint Sir Theophilus Shepstone (known by the Zulu honorific as Somtseu meaning '’father of the nation'’) who had served for 30 years as a Natal administrator, first as Diplomatic Agent to Native Tribes, then as secretary for native affairs, to act as special commissioner to the Transvaal. On 15 December 1876, Sir Shepstone with 25 troopers from the Natal Mounted Police and others set out from Pietermaritzburg to Pretoria to annex the Transvaal; arriving on 27 January 1877 to a cordial reception. That controversial British annexation of the Transvaal, was disrupted when Sekhukhune allegedly signed a peace treaty with the Boers removing the main justification for British intervention in the Transvaal- at that time.[4]

Detail of a painting depicting the Battle of Rorke's Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War 11 January – 4 July 1879

The British invasion in 1879 from Natal was poorly conceived. The British force was split and the Zulus fell on the main column at Isandlwana with devastating results. The poor deployment and over confidence of the British meant that Natal Colony was virtually undefended. A Zulu Impi did cross the Thukela River and attacked a British outpost at Rorke's Drift. However, despite the brave defence, this Impi had actually overstepped its orders. Chief Cetshwayo had wisely advised his warriors to fight a defensive war within the borders of Zululand only. They never had any intention of invading Natal, but that did not stop the Natal colonists from being deeply concerned at their security. The British had to respond by sending out an even larger regular army expedition at great expense that defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Ulundi. The irony of this pointless war was that it helped the Boers more than the British colonists. With the threat of the Zulus removed the Transvaal no longer needed British protection and promptly declared its independence but only after fighting the first Boer War of 1880/1881. The antagonism between the British and Boers was not over yet.

In 1893, the colony was granted responsible government.[5]

The discovery of gold in the Transvaal led to its invasion by the British. The North of the colony was captured by the Boers during the opening of the conflict and Ladysmith found itself besieged. The Boers initial successes would bring the full force of the British Empire onto the Boer Republics. However the military defeat of the Republics would only mean that the war would move into a longer drawn out guerilla phase of warfare for the next two years. The human and physical costs would be enormous for all involved mainly due to the British use of concentration camps and 'scorched earth' tactics . A small localised problem became a huge international embarrassment for the British. The determination and skill of the Boers took all by surprise and forced the British Army to seriously question its tactics and approach to modern warfare.

The ultimate consequence of the war would be the Union of South Africa. Paradoxically, for such a long and difficult war, the British awarded surprisingly liberal terms for their foe with the Treaty of Vereeniging. The British would gain formal control of the two Republics but would give considerable rights to the defeated Boers and committed themselves to rebuilding the Boer Republics. 1910, would see this formalised yet further with the Union of South Africa between the Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Sugar and Indian Labourers

Main article: Indian South Africans
First public auction of Natal sugar
First public auction of Natal sugar, Durban, 1855

For decades prior to white settlement in Natal, there was an indigenous variety of sugar cane which grew wild and was known to the Zulus as 'imphe'. It was chewable and sweet, but its sugar content wasn't found by settlers to be high enough to make its cultivation commercially viable. There was also 'umoba', an imported strain of true sugarcane: in 1837 the traveller Nathaniel Isaacs mentions both these plants. In 1858, Michael Jeffels, a planter and miller at Isipingo, stated that to his certain knowledge sugarcane was growing in the area of the Isipingo River at the time of Shaka's war with Faku in 1828.[6]

The British set about establishing large sugar plantations in Natal, but found few inhabitants of the neighbouring Zulu areas willing to provide labour. The British turned to India to resolve their labour shortage, as Zulu men refused to adopt the servile position of labourers and in 1860 the SS Truro arrived in Durban harbour with over 300 people on board. Over the next 50 years, 150,000 more indentured Indians arrived, as well as numerous free "passenger Indians", building the base for what would become the largest Indian community outside of India. Most of these Indians embarked to Natal from Calcutta port. As early as 1893, when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Durban, Indians outnumbered whites in Natal.

Today Natal produces over 2 million tons of sugar per annum, supplying the whole of South Africa, and exporting the surplus. In Natal, the coins used that time for payment to sugar workers were made up of gold. However, they were not allowed to bring gold coins back to India. The clever Indians resorted to a unique way for bringing their earned coins to India. They made bread (Indian roti or paratha) and kept the gold coins between these rotis and baked. To those checking the luggage in ships, they told these are being taken for eating during the journey. Thus they were able to bring those gold coins to India.

Port of Durban

One of the reasons why early white settlers chose to come to Port Natal is because of its sheltered harbour. Durban would never have reached its full potential if the authorities had not managed to dredge the sandbar which choked the mouth of the bay.

The problem was caused by currents in opposition to the south-flowing Mozambique Current, setting up a littoral drift. This moves sand northward along the East African coast resulting in a sandbar across the mouth of the bay, where the littoral drift curls around the end of the Bluff.

The bar made entering the bay highly hazardous for all but the smallest vessels, and a substantial number of ships were wrecked in the attempt to cross it. Larger vessels were forced to anchor outside the entrance to the harbour.

In his book 'Who Saved Natal', Colin Bender gives Charles Crofts the major credit for clearing the bar through persistent dredging, having done much of the work during his own tenure as harbour engineer. Crofts was put on early retirement by a grateful Natal Government in 1907.[7]

In 1860, the railroad arrived in the Port of Durban, linking the harbor and the town. By 1890, the rail reached Johannesburg almost 500 kilometers inland, and the Port of Durban stretched inland to the cool hills of Berea.

When gold was discovered in the area of the Port of Durban and coal was discovered in Dundee, the Port of Durban grew quickly. Many ships used the port for bunkering. As the traffic in the Port of Durban grew, marine-related industries moved in. Shipbuilders, stevedores, and chandlers established shops in the port, and a dry dock was constructed.

Near the end of the 1800s, the sugarcane industry exploded, making the Port of Durban one of the British Empire's most important seaports. It soon was the busiest sugar terminal in the world. By the turn of the century, the Port of Durban had roads and water and sewage systems. With the railways also expanding, the Port of Durban began to attract people who wanted to vacation there. The port grew as a tourist centre, and is also an important cruise ship destination today.[8]

Governors of the Colony of Natal (1843–1910)

Special Commissioner

Direct rule by Cape Colony (31 May 1844 – 4 December 1845)



The post of Governor of the Colony of Natal became extinct on 31 May 1910, when it joined the Union of South Africa.

Prime Ministers of the Colony of Natal (1893–1910)

No. Name Party Assumed office Left office
1 Sir John RobinsonIndependent10 October 189314 February 1897
2 Harry EscombeIndependent15 February 18974 October 1897
3 Sir Henry BinnsIndependent5 October 18978 June 1899
4 Sir Albert Henry HimeIndependent9 June 189917 August 1903
5 George Morris SuttonIndependent18 August 190316 May 1905
6 Charles John SmytheIndependent16 May 190528 November 1906
7 Frederick Robert MoorIndependent28 November 190628 April 1910

The post of Prime Minister of the Colony of Natal also became extinct on 31 May 1910, when it joined the Union of South Africa.


1904 Census

Population Figures for the 1904 Census. Source:[9]

Population group Number Percent
Black 904,041 81.53
Asian 100,918 9.10
White 97,109 8.75
Coloured 6,686 0.60
Total 1,108,754 100.00

Natal Province

Natal became Natal Province, one of the four founding provinces of the Union of South Africa in 1910, and in 1994 was combined with the KwaZulu bantustan to become KwaZulu-Natal.


KwaZulu-Natal is home to the Zulu nation. There is also a large East Indian population, a white Boer-descended population to the north, and descendants of British settlers mainly in the cities.


  1. 1 2 "Census of the British empire. 1901". 1906. p. 161. Retrieved 26 December 2013.
  3. The European Settler Population of Natal up to 1960, and their Influence Beyond the Borders of the Colony –
  4. Meredith, Martin. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, Simon & Schuster, UK; 2007; and published for the Kindle 1 October 2007
  5. Some of Natal Sugar Pioneers & Their Families Dixon-Smith 2007
  6. The Battle of the Bar Allan Jackson
  7. World Port Source
  8. Smuts I: The Sanguine Years 1870–1919, W.K. Hancock, Cambridge University Press, 1962, pg 219

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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