The Byrne Settlers and Natal – Part 1


Some got lucky, others were hard-done-by, many held on and prospered despite early setbacks.

In the middle of the 1800s, they came to what was then Natal to throw in their lot with the Nguni, the Bushmen, Dutch, trekkers, British settlers at Port Natal, administrative staff and military, Germans, Norwegian missionaries and an assortment of other folk living in the colony.

Hundreds of settlers from Britain arrived in a controversial emigration scheme orchestrated by Joseph Byrne, with assistance from his agent John Moreland and their shipping connections and financial backers. They became known for settling in what became known as Byrne valley, near Richmond, one of the more successful aspects of the ultimately failed scheme.

Source: Borders Ancestry blog

Promised a land of great opportunity, some of the Byrne settlers were indeed allocated quality land and, by all accounts, prospered as they had imagined they would. Many, however, faced a passage of hardship and suffering and, if they and their offspring survived the ships, went to collect their promised land, only to be disappointed at its lack of quality for suitable farming, construction and water supply.

Bit the bullet

After his surveys, Moreland purchased for the settlers land in Richmond/ Byrne area, Verulam, Mount Moreland, New Glasgow, and farms around Pietermaritzburg, Thornville, and York (near New Hanover).

Those who were unhappy with their land and had the means, leased or purchased more suitable land at additional cost, while others bit the bullet and held on until they could move to other locations where they could find better land to buy, in some cases from Afrikaners who wanted to leave Natal. However, much of the good land had already been bought up and Moreland struggled to find suitable land for all – ie well-watered, with good soil, access to timber for firewood and building purposes, and within easy distance of either Pietermaritzburg or Durban.

The book The British Settlement of Natal – A Study in Imperial Migration (Alan F Hattersley, Cambridge at the University Press, published in 1950), shines an interesting light on the JC Byrne and Co settlement saga, which had lasting implications for many who families settled in and still live on in KwaZulu-Natal today.

Hattersley writes: “In middle age, Joseph Charles Byrne was a tall, sturdily built man with a fresh complexion and impressive manner. Essentially an adventurer, bringing misery to many who committed their fortunes to his care, he was a plausible speaker, quick-witted and able to discern more clearly than most the economic and social possibilities of emigration.

“Visiting Australia in 1839, he had with two companions made large speculative purchases of cattle and had followed the Murrumbidgee River as far as its junction with the Murray, surviving more than one violent encounter with the aborigines. From Australia he had gone to New Zealand. There, as well as in Adelaide and Sydney, he had seen much distress among unemployed immigrants. In 1843 he was at the Cape, having exhausted his capital.”

Byrne’s publication, ‘Byrne’s Emigrant’s and Natal News Journal’. Source: The Witness

Agent and surveyor

Hattersley goes on to note that according to his own account, Byrne visited Natal from Colesberg, travelling overland with a hunting party. But it becomes clear when reading the Byrne story that he was little, if at all, acquainted with the land he was selling, and certainly not qualified to vouch for its suitability for settlement.

“Before approaching the Secretary of State, it was necessary to make sure of professional and financial assistance. Byrne had no intention of himself accompanying his emigrants, and the services of an agent and surveyor was the first consideration. Here Byrne was distinctly fortunately. John Moreland, a surveyor and engineer of considerable ability, was on the point of concluding an agreement to go to Australia when crossing Pall Mall he saw a placard advertising Byrne’s scheme.”

An economic depression had hit Britain and Moreland was looking for employment and security. He needed to find a home for his wife and family, the author noted.

“When he (Moreland) had read Byrne’s prospectus, Natal appealed to him more than either Ceylon or New South Wales. Finally he decided to engage himself to Byrne. Under the contract Byrne guaranteed that Moreland should receive not less than 100 pounds annually in respect of fees for survey and conveyance of emigrants’ allotments. Moreover, he was to be assigned a quantity of land varying with the number of immigrants introduced in any year. He was also to receive 50 pounds a year in travelling allowances.”

Financial support

Financial support for the scheme was initially received from interested ship owners. Further funds were acquired from a John Lavicount Anderson, a prosperous merchant with interests in West India, according to Hattersley. William Schaw Lindsay is another listed as a significant investor.

Commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Byrne settlers. A special stamp was issued by the Post Office. Picture credit: facts about Durban website

“By 20 February, 1849, it had been finally agreed that Byrne was to make deposits in sums not less than 1000 pounds, select, subject to the approval of his lists by the emigration commissioners, his own emigrants, and make what terms he could make with them for a passage, provided that the charge for accommodation in the steerage (lower decks, where cargo was held above the closed hold) did not exceed 10 pounds (an intermediate berth was 19 pounds).

“Byrne, on his part, undertook to give each approved settler on landing 20 acres, with a right of choice from at least double that quantity. A certificate would be issued by the colonial authorities stating that the emigrant had been well treated during the voyage, landed in Natal and put in possession of his acres; and, on receipt of this certificate in London, 10 pounds of his original deposit would be repaid to Byrne.

Stop overcrowding

“The scheme had been carefully scrutinised by the emigration board.”

Hattersley writes that the emigrants to Natal profited from the fact that in 1849 parliament had amended the Passengers’ Acts, applying to all routes provisions, which had hitherto governed only North American traffic. The act was designed to stop overcrowding.

“A ship could not carry passengers in excess of one for every two tons of its capacity, and each emigrant was to be allowed at least 12 square feet of space.”

In addition to bread and water, flour, rice, tea, sugar and molasses in prescribed quantities were to be supplied, the cost to be included in the passage money.

Painting of the wreck of the Minerva by J Forsyth Ingram.

“Copies were distributed to masters of ships by the customs officials. The teak-built Minerva of 987 tons was the largest ship to convey immigrants to Natal during these years. She was advertised by Byrne as 1300 tons, the average size of ships chartered by the East India Company from private owners. This was presumably gross tonnage. Lloyds Register for 1841 shows only 18 ships of above 1000 tons. The largest sailing ship in the world in 1850 was the clipper Donald Mackay, with a gross tonnage of 2486 tons.

Account of the wreck of the Minerva

“Byrne’s ships were not all of the slow and shabby type. Most were chartered to proceed, after calling at Port Natal, to Calcutta or other Indian ports and had been designed along the roomier lines which the East India Company considered important, since carrying capacity was more valuable than speed.”

Old and slow

While some of the barques were old and slow, their reputation was, generally speaking, better than that of the “cheap system vessels” employed on the emigration service to Australia.

Hattersley writes. “Arrived at the port of departure, the emigrants’ chief concern would be to discover for themselves the ship’s berth. In his printed prospectus, Byrne notified intermediate and steerage passengers that they must provide themselves with ‘knife and fork, a table and teaspoon, a metal plate, a hook pot and a drinking mug’.” All were to find their own bedding.

But it was only when the ship had left port behind and was out of sight of land that emigrants would realise the reality of what lay ahead. All the polish and finery displayed in port, the brass knobs and ornaments, even perhaps cabin doors, would be taken down and stowed away.

Bribe the cook

“Food was provided, but steerage passengers would be required to cook it themselves. Without bribery it might be difficult to obtain access to the galley, and some of the manuals written for the use of emigrants advised them to take brandy to be able to bribe the cook. Towards the end of the voyage, mouldy biscuits and rotten potatoes were almost a matter of course. Water, which the law required to be stored in sweet casks or tanks, was often carried in casks previously used for hides or molasses, and undrinkable until vinegar was added.”

When the exhausted passengers eventually arrived at Port Natal, a lot of hardship awaited, but the land was the key aspect, and not nearly all of it was good.

As an example Hattersley writes, “Surveyor Bell described some 160 acres near Verulam, which had been allotted to John Steele, an emigrant on Sovereign, as not worth 6d. an acre. There was not a drop of good water in the vicinity, and it would cost seven pounds an acre to clear the land. It ‘would then be found so precipitous as to render it totally unfit for any purpose whatsoever’, said Steele in an affidavit.

Now read: Impressions of a colony, circa 1900

“Byrne had told the emigration commission that, should land offered them not be approved by emigrants his surveyor was under instructions to purchase other land which would meet their wishes. He subsequently claimed that he had been the dupe of the colonial authorities, who had named 5s. as the prevailing average of prices and given misleading information regarding the character of the soil.

Byrne is well-known today among travellers looking for a quiet getaway in tranquil country surrounds. Pictured is a cottage on the ‘Misty Mountain Meander’. Picture: Terese Owen/Facebook

“Moreland’s most successful settlement was undoubtedly Richmond, or Beaulieu, as he had originally named the village out of compliment to the Duke of Buccleuch. His selection of a site for the village was well advised, and it was not difficult to lead water from the Illovo. Here, as in other parts of Natal, the paramount consideration was irrigation,” writes Hattersley.

“John Forbes, who, coming out at the age of 60 with children and grandchildren, was to receive in all 276 acres.” He was very satisfied with his lot. “We have nearly a mile of river frontage to our farm,” he wrote.

In other parts the land was good enough, and only wanted cultivation by skilled hands. Settlers who emigrated with the Boasts or under John Lidgett’s auspices fared better (overall than those under Byrne), partly because their land was chosen by men with some knowledge of farming in Natal, but also because a greater percentage of them were agriculturists.

Lund and Tutin had time to look around the country before the Haidee arrived, and both were competent farmers.

“Richard Comins of Helmsley found the soil at York ‘not rich’. The grass was withered in the winter season, and the surrounding country was bare veld, with low brushwood but little water. Nevertheless, a practical farmer with capital could breed cattle and grow maize and vegetables for the Pietermaritzburg market.”

The Meander Chronicle will pick up and expand on the Byrne and Co story in a further blog.

*Additional sources – Wikipedia; facts about durban


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