First Natal Government tug “Pioneer”

By Alex Anderson, transcription of a radio broadcast, 26th November 1929

The 26th December, 1859, saw another red letter day for Natal, and, being Boxing day, the Port of Natal celebrated the gift from Government at Pietermaritzburg of a tug for the harbour of Durban Bay.

She was the very first tug, and first iron vessel owned by anyone in all South Africa, appropriately named the “Pioneer”.

For two years the prospect of a small tug for this Port was discussed by the captains of every ship trading with this harbour. The shipping agents were backed by the pilots, who at times were forced to take great risks on the bar through the wind failing when the sun began to rise, and no tug to assist or rescue them from drifting on to the shore to be-come a total wreck. Several valuable ships and cargoes were lost this way which at last gave the port such a bad name that vessels could not be induced to come back.

Meanwhile, as the colonists began to settle down, trade increased very fast. Exports advanced so much that ships seldom sailed away to Mauritius in ballast.

The two shipping companies, Messrs. John T. Rennie & Sons, and Messrs. Bullard King & Co., kept on building new vessels for their fleets, the usual smart little barques of 300 tons. Next came larger vessels with the same draught, that they might cross the bar, but they increased the risk and the necessity of a tug all the more because the larger vessels would not steer when near the ground, like the better models did. At last they decided something must be done; fourteen sailing vessels in harbour with their half a dozen tired of waiting to start their homeward bound voyage through lack of westerly wind, when tides were good which made the pilots’ position unbearable.

A schooner of 200 tons, when laden with colonial produce, made the first attempt, but when she neared the bar that dreaded light east wing came back to send her aground. They used their own crew and boats to run warps and kedges out, then hauled her clear into harbour again.

A tug, ever so small could have released most of these ships on calm days. Someone in the city conceived the wonderful idea of employing the mail steamer to tow out the fleet of delayed vessels once a month in her spare time. This brought the question of a tug before the house again.

The Governor’s friend from the Red Sea came to the rescue once more, and showed the assembled legislative Council how it was possible to obtain a tug, even without a shilling in the bank.

This gentleman, who had crossed the Red Sea on dry land with a high wall of water on both sides of him, knew how it was done, and he at once disclosed his scheme for the tug. It was simple finance. A Government Order for the tug, first payment next year and the balance years later. Give him the order, and he would have a new tug built of iron in England for £4000, and he did.

At this time a petition with 400 signatures of all the leading colonists was presented, demanding a tug. The money solution did not in the least trouble this travelling engineer. So he at once designed a craft without reference to anyone.

The Port Office begged for the tug not to be less than 200 tons so that she could face the bar with a 400 ton ship to tow. They were privately told to shut their eyes and wait to see what God had sent them. The tug was already launched and waiting to be rigged as a schooner to come out under sail, with her paddles and machinery stowed in her hold as cargo.

After a voyage of 121 days, on the 14th November, 1859, she sailed into harbour against a head wind, proving before our very eyes what a first-class sailer and sea-boat she was. But being less that 100 tons; her coal bunkers would only hold 40 tons, that is, just one truck full of coal, like the coal trucks in use to-day.

She was more like some royalty’s visiting yacht than a tug, with an overhanging clipper bow, carved scroll figurehead, bowsprit and round eliptic stern with gold ribbon right round. The paddles were fixed as soon as possible, and they too were a mass of gold leaf scrolls. No tug on the Thames ever looked gayer, even at the old Lord Mayor’s Show, and we wondered, for she was equally elaborately fitted with state room cabin.

The Governor arranged a pleasure trip to St. John’s River in her. What she had cost those responsible did not seem to care. But her credit system and insurance policy put a stop to the pleasure trip to St. John’s River.

Council argued, and proved Pondoland to be a foreign country at this period, and by our agreement she could not visit any foreign country.

She was only 40 horse power, but this proved a blessing in disguise, for if a ship took the ground whilst being towed, she, the tug, had no power to do any damage. Her duty was to stand by ready to tow again when a ship was re-floated by the use of her own anchors.

Luckily, this tug, the “Pioneer”, only drew six feet, and replaced the Port boat for sounding the bar, which had become so bad that eight ships lay outside, becalmed among them being schooners from Cape Town with flour.

Our pretty tug was blamed for this, and the crisis came when she lost her main mast through fouling the “Selina”.

A public meeting was requisitioned. The Mayor, William Hartley, opened the proceedings with an address against the tug, the bar and everyone else, and so this meeting of purely landlubbers condemned the Port Captain, Captain Bell.

Mr. J. R. Goodricke, a former Mayor, said every man should be in his right place. But his experience was such that did not fit the Port Captain for the master of a steam tug. Captain Bell was too kind hearted, and should be retired on a pension.

Governor Scott would not believe all the weaknesses found in the tug whilst actually at work. He and his secretary, Major Erskine, uninvited, came to Durban to manage the tug himself. Many small defects came to light, and Mr. Joseph Cato set to work under the personal supervision of His Excellency.

The paddle wheels held the floats wrongly, and one engine sometimes refused to work when sounding on the bar. Everyone had their sleeves turned up. More money was spent on her, with the result of the greatest surprise the harbour so far had known. First fine day, she brought in the “Rothay”, took out the barque “Good Hope” and then brought in the brig “Silina”, all in one tide. But far more important work had been performed. She had actually cleared the bar away, so she could take the delayed vessels in and out.

Scour was the only power the Port Officials knew likely to open out a channel on the bar, so a rake was planned and tried to encourage the scour in opening out a direct channel, but the tug seemed always in trouble, and the Pilots were afraid of losing her.

Governor Scott was full of their plan, and ordered a larger scoop with big teeth to be made at once. This was towed outwards over the bar at full speed during ebb tide, then hoisted up, brought back, and the operation repeated.

The sand seemed to be floating after the Tug. Next day sounding found 17 feet of water whilst the channel was narrow. The scour had done its happy work beyond all our expectations.

His Excellency was praised, and our little handsome tug seemed to be worth her weight in gold.

She was honoured and respected by being made our guard ship, with a brass cannon, and flew a long pennant from the top of her mast, which at times reached down to the water running alongside.

All ships passing by saluted, until one day a man-of-war entered the port and sent a midshipman and boat’s crew to haul it down and confiscate this unauthorised flag.

But the Governor went one better. The Pilots and all the officials belonging to the Port Office were ordered to wear caps bound with gold lace with anchor and crown brass buttons, navy serge was bought by the roll from a gunboat in Port, and navy cut suits were made, trimmed with gold lace, and only the boatmen were allowed to wear felt hats any longer.

On the day of the first tug “Pioneer” official trial, every ship in harbour hoisted all their flags, the flagstaff on show did the same, and we all felt very proud. It was Christmas time, the 26th Dec., 1859. Mr. Robinson, M.I.C.E., her designer, invited a number of ladies and gentlemen to take a trip over the bar.

Mr. Smerdon, and old sea captain, steered her, and said she was capable of doing anything but speak. In the harbour she seemed to have a good speed, going in and out amongst the shipping several times, and was cheered from every ship in Port.

The Mayor gave a speech congratulating us on the paddle boat “Pioneer”, the fist steam tug in South Africa. Three cheers for Albert Robinson, the engineer who designed her!

Very few ships had cause to complain any more, but in bad seas the tug was useless, and the bar formed again, to remain so, until the following spring tides. She had, therefore, plenty of spare days to visit ships coming up.

With fine weather and nothing in sight, the Port Office took a fishing trip. I was there, and we caught tons of fish, enough for all Durban, and it was given away free.

In the winter months she went fishing under orders from the authorities. The Governors, Officer’s mess, and one or two others that mattered these gentlemen often had fresh fish for breakfast.

The Post Office’s English mail service saw to this. Their native boys (sometimes 30 or 40) each with a big bag of mail went single file up and down the hills by native paths all the way to Pietermaritzburg the city.

The fish, of course, were cleaned and scaled, ready for use, and done up in straw, because the natives refused to carry fish.

At Christmas time, blessings and other things were showered down on us at the Point, and we all were a very contented people.

Alex Anderson

Transcribed as closely to the original as possible, including spelling and grammar errors.