Durban History Facts and Timeline

(Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

No African container port is busier than Durban, situated on the eastern side of South Africa. With a population of roughly three and a half million, this is not only KwaZulu-Natal's largest city and the third-most populated city in all of South Africa, but it is also the largest city along Africa's entire eastern coast.

The descendants of the workers brought in from India to labour in Natal's sugar cane plantations are now part of Africa's most sizeable Indian population. Durban also ranks among South Africa's major tourism hubs, thanks to its large stretches of beaches and constantly warm subtropical climate.

Earliest Residents

There is no written history of Durban prior to European settlement, although the region has been inhabited since roughly 100,000 BC. Bantu farmers migrating from the north eventually displaced the Khoi / San hunters and gatherers who were the region's original residents.

Portuguese Discovery

Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, was the first European to arrive in the region, landing here at the very end of 1497. He named present-day Durban Bay as Rio de Natal, meaning 'Christmas River', because he believed that many rivers flowed into Durban Bay. As one of southern Africa's few protected coastal anchorages, the bay became a popular stop for traders and explorers throughout the world.

Port Natal

The first permanent European settlement in the history of Durban happened in 1824, when just over 20 British men established a colony where Farewell Square now stands. The new settlement's original name was Port Natal, which would be changed to d'Urban in 1835, after the Cape Colony's governor at the time. The official spelling would eventually be changed to Durban.

One of Port Natal's original settlers, Henry Francis Fynn, was rewarded by being given considerable amounts of land after he helped King Shaka (of the Zulus) recover from a potentially fatal battle wound.

Shaka and his Zulus would become notorious in the early settler history of Durban and Natal. They were a feared warrior tribe, galvanised under the famous king, who went on rape and pillage raids causing the Mfecane - a massed displacement of natives as far south as the Cape and north beyond the Limpopo. Naturally they butted heads with the Trekboers and the English, resulting in the tragic battle known as Blood River, but not before they had beheaded a few locals sent to negotiate. Eventually, this powerful kingdom couldn't stand up to rifle technology and was defeated.

Voortrekker Conflicts

A dozen years after Durban was officially founded, the new settlement was still missing streets. The new Zulu king, Dingane (Dingaan), was openly hostile towards the British settlers. In 1838, the same year that the Voortrekkers arrived here from the Eastern Cape, several Zulus and British traders were killed in the Battle of Ndondakusuka.

The Voortrekkers, Dutch farmers who had escaped British rule by migrating north and settling in the lush hills of inland Natal, attacked British troops in 1842. This led to Richard King's legendary ten-day, 960-km / 600-mile ride to seek help from the British garrison based in Grahamstown, one of the most fascinating stories in the history of Durban. Two years later, Southern Natal became part of the British Cape Colony.

Immigration and Railroads

Durban's population increased dramatically with the addition of thousands of Irish immigrants and Indian labourers during the middle years of the 19th century. One of these immigrants, George Cato, was the first person to implement a proper, highly organised street layout.

The city's very first railway opened in 1860. Both the railway and the port became far busier after gold was discovered nearby. At the turn-of-the-century, another famous resident was a young Indian lawyer who took on the British, demanding equal rights. He went by the name of Mohandas Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) and was soon a global name.

Modern Times in KwaZulu-Natal Province

The 19th-century gold rush may have been rather short-lived, but the city never stopped growing during the history of Durban, and its port is just as busy as ever.

The city's tourism industry, which began over a century ago when visitors boarded trains across the Transvaal to travel to Durban's beaches, also continues to grow at a very healthy pace.