A night without a lighthouse

Scratching through the Dawes Collection of the Killie Campbell Archive turned up a speech given by a Mrs Brechin on the story behind the decision to build the first lighthouse on the Bluff, a perfect prelude to the Cooper Light story.

How a lighthouse came to be built

Twelve times a minute through the long night the Bluff Lighthouse sends its friendly beam in a great sweep over the sea, round over the Bluff, the Bay and the crescent of the Berea. It shines in at a thousand bedroom windows to stimulate the romantic dreams of sea-faring which are beloved of the landsman.

It is Durban’s way of “counting sheep” — to watch that beam flick across the wall, and as one drowsily turns over to sleep one can almost hear the sighing of the wind in the rigging and the sound of the wash, of tall ships bearing up-channel with the canvas billowing.

Such is the dream. The reality is very different. Far out at sea the mariner has been watching the beam for hours, through the heavy mist. His eyes ache from the strain. For a few seconds the blanket lifts and he spots the faint stab of the light. With a muttered blessing, he verifies his course in the treacherous currents that sweep the south eastern coast of Africa, and make it the nightmare of the navigator.

74 years ago the reality was even grimmer; there was no friendly lighthouse on the Bluff. Ship after ship — unable to take a night-bearing — would misjudge the currents and be wrecked along the coast. Port Natal was notorious — the beach being a graveyard of ships trapped in the dark by an on-shore wind and an inset current.

The name of the unlighted port was cursed in every tavern of the Seven Seas, but a lighthouse was soon to come, for in one black storm in the spring 1863 the climax came when two ships were driven ashore within shouting distance of one another.

A recent photo of the natural bay protected by the Bluff.

A recent photo of the natural bay protected by the Bluff.

On the sunny morning of September 21, 1863 just 74 years ago this last Tuesday, in all the pride of full sail the Earl of Hardwicke swept into Durban Bay. From the poop her master, John Maddison saw the pleasant sight of Port Natal and eight vessels riding easily to their anchors in a slight ground swell. After the long hot voyage through coppery seas from Madras, it was a sight to gladden the heart. The Earl of Hardwicke brought up in the roads and dropped anchor in eleven fathoms. The starboard cutter was ordered away and the master prepared to go ashore to arrange for the disembarking of the coolies he had brought from India for the cane plantations of Natal.

Now Captain Maddison knew well the caprices of the port and he ordered the chief officer, Mr Bullen to watch the breeze from the eastward while he was ashore saying that he was to go to sea without waiting for further orders if it freshened as the anchorage was treacherous especially at night. The Captain then swung into the waiting cutter and 20 minutes later he was plunged into business in the office of the Port Captain, Mr William Bell.

The next two days saw the harbour tug busting to and fro between the Earl of Hardwicke and the shore towing behind it a line of boats laden with chattering coolies.

Interminable business kept Captain Maddison from his ship and at noon on Saturday he prepared to return. The wind had freshened to a gale and he was worried, but again he was delayed by a message from the treasury and he didn’t reach the Point until 3 o’clock. There he sound the Port Captain and asked him to signal his ship to put to sea as she was driving and the gale was dangerous. The Port Captain replied that it was too late now for the Earl of Hardwicke would never weather the Bluff. He said that the Sebastian had just been driven ashore but fortunately no lives were lost. The ship though was a total wreck. There was nothing to be done. The Earl of Hardwicke would have to trust her anchors.

Aboard the Earl of Hardwicke, the Chief Officer felt the morning breeze stiffen and swore softly. He watched the hands at work in the rigging and set the sail maker to work on the main topgallant. A cry called his attention to the barque “Bermondsey” which had broken adrift but was brought up again. “Bad chains” he thought but the incident worried him. When noon came with the glass falling rapidly the Chief Officer called his brother officers to him. The breeze had filled to a moderate gale and a heavy swell had set in with a strong current. After a brief talk they decided to get everything clear for letting go the second anchor or putting to sea. Suddenly the gale stiffened and the seas broke green over the Earl of Hardwicke as she dipped. When the surge lifted her bows, her keel broke water and hung glistening above the trough. Then it crashed down in a smother of foam and spray which swept her from end to end. The wind was blowing from the sea dead on shore piling up a heavy surf.

But the heavier Earl of Hardwicke (898 tons) was not in the same plight as the Sebastian (364 tons). Through his telescope the Chief Officer saw the swells breaking heavily over the lighter vessel. As one mountainous sea swept down he saw her rear up, pluck fiercely at her cable and fall away in the trough. A seaman yelled that the Sebastian had parted and the Chief Officer saw her helmsman jam the wheel hard aport to clear the mail-steamer “Norman”’. Would she do it? Yes — just! Behind the “Norman” a swirl of the foam showed and he thought grimly “She’s taking no chances; she’s steaming up to her anchor”, and he devoutly wished that he had the independent power of steam and machinery on the Earl of Hardwicke.

Another sailor shouted that the Franz de Paul Amersin had gone but she did not drift far being speedily brought up by another anchor. But the barque Sebastian was in a serious plight. Aboard her the mate Henry Howson was in command. His Captain Frederick Little was ashore on the ship’s business. In the gale and the fearful sea he had veered (slackened) from 90 to 120 fathoms of chain to give the ship more play, but even then she could not take the waves which were crashing down on her. The decks were constantly awash. One mountainous sea buried her forecastle and then flung her bows up to part the port chain. A frantic effort and Howson managed to clear the “Norman” but the ship was drifting fast. He let go the starboard anchor but it was only a brief respite, for within twenty minutes that chain too parted and again he felt the sickening drift of a helpless ship.

The Sebastian was being carried fast towards the line of breakers which were much too close now to risk bringing her head round and go to sea. They dreaded that before they could get her under control she would be on the beach. There was only one thing for it — to run with the wind in a desperate attempt to cross the bar: a bar so shallow that ships were only taken over at the top of the tide, and even then there was not time to take more than the ship over before the fast-ebbing waters sank to a few feet over the treacherous sandbanks. At Howson’s command the men ran forward to set the fore-top stay s’l and foretop s’l. This checked the drift and he headed for the bar. The Sebastian rallied and plunged forward like a stampeding horse, to the line of foam-topped swells that marked the treacherous crossing. As the ship struck the maelstrom he yelled to his men to stand by. There was a smother of spray — a heave — a falling-away in the trough that seemed bottomless and a dull thud sent a shudder through the ship and started the deck planks.

From the men came the cry “She’s struck — we’re lost!” But hardly was the shock felt before it was over. Behind the Sebastian a huge comber slid down in a grey-green wall that broke aft and buried the stern, the same wave picked her up like a play-thing and hurled her into the deeper water over the bar. Howson then tried to make for the inner harbour but the ship was unmanageable as in the current and the heavy wind she was drifting fast towards the breakwater. She struck with a crash that carried away most of the hand gear. There came the shriek of rending wood as the figure head was wrenched off and each successive wave hurled her shuddering against the harbour works, tearing the copper off the starboard side and strating (sic) the deck planks. The ship was awash and smothered in spray. Above the pandemonium Howson’s voice was heard ordering his men to haul in the foretop-stay sail and brace the foretop sail.

There was a last tremulous shudder and the Sebastian drew clear and drove down on the back beach. To beach her was the only way to save the lives of the men. She grounded heavily in the sand and lurched over sending the crew sprawling but with no lives lost.

In the meantime on the Earl of Hardwicke, the Chief Officer put his telescope aside from watching the Sebastian. The sea roared and piled over the railings as the ship plunged and plucked at the anchor chain. As there was a slight drag he ordered the second anchor to be let go … In the distance he could see the Bermondsey signalling the shore. She too was dragging and the skipper was worried. Night fell swiftly. The wind shrieked in the rigging, the decks were awash and anon the ghostly blue of phosphorescence shone in the spume. Waves were breaking over for and aft and the heavy spray whipped up unseen and stung their faces. The moon rode hard in a cloud-flecked sky giving just sufficient light to exaggerate the size of the heavy seas.

Along the swaying decks came the men grabbing at ropes hand over hand as the breaking seas threatened to sweep them off their feet and overboard. They gathered aft on the poop around the Chief Officer who ordered them to stand by till further orders.

The night grew louder with sound — the scream of the wind — the angry wash of the sea — the sudden flap of canvas like the wings of a great bird; the groaning of the planks and the creaking of the ropes.

There came another cry that the Elizabeth Ann had parted. Straining his eyes, the Chief Officer saw the dim lights of the little brig — 145 tons — fall away towards the mail-steamer Norman, but bring up again. At that a heavy cloud of smoke showed above the Norman and her lights moved. A few minutes later she passed the Earl of Hardwicke steaming hard and with trysails set on her way to sea and safety.

Midnight came with the gale at its peak. An hour passed and a sudden squall set the ship shuddering. She started to drag and then gave a lurch as the port anchor parted. The Chief Officer felt the ship out of control. There was no way out but to risk weathering the Bluff now. Sail was set but the ship would not respond. More sail was set and the starboard chain was slipped. Free now, the Earl of Hardwicke swung round and canted as the sails drew. The seas crashed over the fo’csle and slapped along the port side. The Chief Officer looked at the compass — two points short to clear the Bluff, and she was drifting fast. He could sense it; the man at the wheel pulled over the spokes at his command to correct the course, but the drift seemed to increase. The Chief Officer gave his second-in-command a shout and asked him if he could make out the Bluff. For the hundredth time that night he thought they should have a lighthouse there. Without one the Bay with its treacherous currents was a deathtrap. Above the moon struck a clear patch and the outline of the Bluff showed up with the seaward end far beyond the course of the Earl of Hardwicke. With horror he realised that they were drifting on to the bar and that the ship would never live through it. If he took the risk he would sacrifice the crew, he would have to beach her. The Chief Officer gave the order and the ship swung round heading for the breakers and the kindly sand beyond. Now that they were no longer fighting but running with the wind there was a strange lull. The seas swept past softly and the shriek of the wind died to a moan. It was the funeral song of the tempest. The ship splashed through the breakers and grounded on the sand – wrecked!

It was a grave-faced Board of Inquiry that met in the office of the Resident Magistrate, Mr HJ Meller, to report on the wrecks of the Earl of Hardwicke and the Sebastian. With Mr Meller there sat Mr W Bell, the Port Captain, and Mr GC Cato, Agent to Lloyds. And subsequently – in its findings – the Board emphasised that “Something should be done to save the good name of this Port”. After recommending stronger anchor chains, it added: “The Board would suggest that the propriety of having a lighthouse erected, with as little delay as possible, on the Bluff”.