THE CONCH, 1828 - 1869


Rosemary Dixon-Smith

Historical Background by M.P.

In 1824 the British signed a treaty with the Zulu king Shaka in which he ceded Port Natal and about 50 miles of coastline to a depth of some 100 miles. This was followed in 1835 with a second treaty with his successor Dingane ceding the southern half of Natal. The empty interior was entered by Voortrekers (Boers) from the Great Trek out of Cape Colony in 1837. After victories over the Ndebele of the Transvaal they were anxious to secure an access to the sea and came down through the passes and inflicted a crushing defeat on the main Zulu army. In 1838 the Cape government had sent a small garrison to protect the British settlers at Port Natal (Durban) but withdrew it in 1839. The Boers, having set up their own Zulu king, Panda, proclaimed Natal to be the independent Republic of Natalia. Cape government sent up a detachment of the 27th regiment but they were defeated by the Boers and besieged in their camp at Port Natal. A settler, Richard King, made a ten days` ride to Grahamstown with the news and Rosemary Dixon-Smith, the great-great grandaughter of William Bell, drawing on his "Narrative", tells what happened next ............

       C ONCH, 100 tons, first appears in Cape records in 1828. Variously described as a brigantine and as a schooner, she traded in South African coastal waters during the 1830s and 1840s calling at ports such as Algoa Bay, Mossel Bay, Saldanha Bay, Simons Bay, Port Beaufort and Port Natal.

In 1842, CONCH under her captain, WILLIAM BELL, happened to be at Algoa Bay when news was received of the siege of the British garrison at Natal by rebellious Boers. BELL, well-acquainted with the notoriously-difficult harbour entrance at Port Natal, and aware that CONCH "was the only vessel in the bay fit to cross the Bar", immediately volunteered the services of himself and his ship to assist in transporting reinforcements for the relief of the garrison.

BELL's "Narrative of the Entrance of the Conch", told in his own inimitable style, makes it clear that his crew were less enthusiastic, the mate informing the captain that they "had been suddenly taken ill". Their captain reminded them that they would have "three dozen each" if they refused duty, after which "they got a little better" and were able prepare the vessel for the reception of the troops.

About a hundred men of the 27th Regiment were duly embarked. Some local "young fellows", moved to patriotic fervour by the news, felt that the Boers "ought to have a licking" and volunteered their services. "After hauling the new hands on board, one of them made a furious attack on the cook; I suppose he took him for a Boer."

"About midnight the wind came from the N.W., and before daylight we were under weigh, the soldiers cheering the ships in the harbour as we passed them. At 6 p.m. we were off the Kowie, where we fell in with the schooner MARGARET, bound to Algoa Bay, and which had been reported lost. Here one of the volunteers came upon deck for the first time; he looked very wild and enquired the name of the vessel, and where she was bound ...

We had to contend against adverse winds and currents, and only reached Natal (on Friday 24 June 1842) after a passage of thirteen days ... Nevertheless the time passed merrily ... On sighting the Bluff (at Port Natal) I told Capt. DURNFORD, Commander of the troops, that we could not enter the harbour with the wind then blowing, and that we should be obliged to anchor in the outer roads, and wait for a fair wind.

The men were ordered below ... leaving the hatches off to give them as much air as possible ... On coming round the Bluff we were soon convinced that the rebels were in full possession of the harbour and entrance, and could distinctly hear firing between the Boers and the troops at the camp. We came to anchor in the usual way, making it appear that we were unconscious of what was going on."

Meanwhile, SOUTHAMPTON, 50 guns, Captain OGLE, had been dispatched from Simon's Bay with a portion of the 25th Regiment under Colonel CLOETE. Arriving at Natal, the frigate found CONCH waiting. Consultations between the captains of the two vessels followed. BELL "took a buoy and anchored it as near the bar as was considered safe for the SOUTHAMPTON to lie. After this ... both vessels commenced to warp up to the bar. I succeeded in getting the CONCH so near that I could only give her about 30 fathoms of chain. The SOUTHAMPTON did not reach up to the buoy, which we had laid down, but the gale she encountered shortly afterwards showed that she was quite near enough ...We now decided on landing the troops ... in the frigate's boats, and that I should pilot them in over the bar.

Lieutenant TURNER, R.A., considered our position good, and wished to try range. I put a spring on the cable and laid her broadside to the intrenchment, and the second shell apparently caused some confusion amongst them (the enemy). The SOUTHAMPTON followed our example by throwing a few shells upon the Bluff. We then ceased firing, and waited for the tide to rise... At noon, the tide made, and with it a light air from the eastward. This change of wind altered all our plans, and it was at once decided that the CONCH should go in, taking the boats in tow. Col. CLOETE asked me if I could take more men on board. I told him that I could take fifty...those I intended to put into the hold, as taking more than one hundred on deck would be an obstruction to Lieut. TURNER and his men working the guns."

As CONCH's bulwarks were very low, and the men would be exposed to enemy fire, yellow wood planks were placed on their edge along the rail to form a temporary topgallant bulwark, leaving the lower edge of the plank loose. When they were found to be short of planks, a line was run along and soldiers' blankets thrown over it: "although it did not resist the bullets, it prevented the Boers from singling out individuals; still we were indebted to the lightness of the wind for the small loss we sustained. ... All this time the SOUTHAMPTON's boats were hanging astern of the CONCH, full of men, with a carronade in the bow of each, and the British ensign aft. Impatient for the onset, I had to pacify them by pointing out the necessity of half an hour's more rise of tide to admit us over the bar. ...

The CONCH was now got under weigh. I was at the helm with one of my best men, also a boy. The latter disappeared at the first volley. When questioned about leaving the helm, he said he felt very thirsty and went down into the hold to get a drink of water. Here the surgeon endeavoured to get him on deck, but he begged to be excused, as he was very frightened and did not ship on board the CONCH to be shot at. He was but a boy, and therefore was pardoned.

The firing was now at its height, and bullets whistling in all directions. One struck the main boom about six inches above my head. This caused me to make a low bow.

When off the marks (i.e. the leading marks for ships entering the Bay) two of the boats were cast loose for the purpose of attacking the Boers on the Bluff side. ... We were now completely enveloped in smoke, so much so that I found it difficult to see the channel ... We were now rounding the Point, and fast approaching the anchorage, our shells ploughing up the sand hills... During all this time the SOUTHAMPTON was not idle, the shot and shell dropping too close to us and the boats to be pleasant; the troops were now landed but by this time the Boers were trying their rate of speed through the bush. Orders had been given for the sailors not to leave the boats but ... No sooner had the boats touched the ground than Jack was out and over the sandhills, cutlass in hand, towards the flagstaff, at the risk of being knocked over by the shot from their own ship. ... The boats were soon alongside the CONCH, which had now anchored, and the troops speedily disembarked. We hauled our boat alongside to assist, but found her so riddled by the shot that the water was up to the thwarts; however by plugging the holes up with pieces of blanket we made her serviceable. The Enniskillings were no sooner landed than they rushed into the bush like so many bloodhounds, Captain DURNFORD at their head, and the 25th nothing behind ...

The flagstaff of the Boers, being unsupported by rigging, gave way at the foot when one of the men of the SOUTHAMPTON was upon it taking down the rebel flag, and both came to the ground. A boat's ensign was substituted for that of the Boers, but in the hurry it was made fast, union down. This caused the firing on board the SOUTHAMPTON to cease. ... they feared we had received some damage, as one of their shells had fallen close to the CONCH. The error ... was discovered and soon rectified ... we landed the dead and wounded and I was introduced to the brave Major SMITH (in command of the besieged garrison) ... He was very much reduced by the hardships he had endured; his rigging much chafed and out of order; but his interior remained sterling steel."

Even the hard-bitten Captain BELL was appalled by the deplorable conditions prevailing in the camp ... "men with their legs and arms off, and some suffering from dysentery. The only shelter they had from the hot sun by day, and the cold by night, was the hides of the horses they had just killed for food ... I observed the long strips of horseflesh which the camp had to subsist upon hanging up to the broken wagons. They were by no means tempting; the weather had made them quite black ..."

The siege having been successfully raised, and with the Boers in full retreat, BELL "returned to the peaceable old CONCH."

Captain WILLIAM BELL was later appointed Port Captain at Natal, and remained in this post until his death in 1869. CONCH, under Captain W. MOSES, was wrecked at Port St Johns in November 1847 when the wind failed.

The artist THOMAS BAINES immortalised CONCH's "moment of glory" in a painting done from a sketch by an eye-witness of the event. It shows the schooner crossing the bar, with boatloads of troops behind, against the background of the Bluff; smoke can be seen issuing from Boer guns, and a hail of bullets striking the water around CONCH.

"Narrative of the Entrance of the 'Conch' at Port Natal with Troops, To Relieve Captain Smith, When Blockaded by the Boers, in June, 1842. By William Bell, Who commanded the 'Conch' And Late Port Captain at Port Natal." Printed by the 'Natal Mercury' Durban 1869.

© Rosemary Dixon-Smith. 2000.
Peril at Sea Read about the rescue of detachments of the 27th regiment from the Abercrombie troop-ship in Table Bay in August 1842.
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