We had a farm in Africa

By Mark Levin Time of article published Oct 2, 2019

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Durban - The Feildens owned a farm in what is today Umbilo. They were among the earliest pioneers to settle in the infant colony of Natal.

John Leyland Feilden, known to all as Leyland, arrived in Durban in 1850. Impressed with its potential, he briefly returned home to Lancashire, to marry Eliza Whigham Kennedy, in October 1851. She sailed from England, in February 1852, to join her energetic husband.

On the long three-month voyage, Eliza began a journal which, together with some of her letters, would form the basis of her memoir, My African Home, published in 1887.

During the first weeks on board ship, Eliza feasted on bread, biscuits and marmalade from Feniscowles (in Lancashire) but when sailors found her hampers, they helped themselves to her wine and port.

Landing in Durban in May, Eliza relished Natal’s “delicious climate” which reminded her of Naples in winter. Leyland had already bought a farm, which they named Feniscowles

Only four miles (6.4km) outside Durban, Eliza embraced the beauty of its setting, with views of the wooded Berea and the bay. “This lovely spot was destined to become my home during the five years of my sojourn in Africa,” she wrote.

Leyland cut a rough road through the bush, which had the richest flowering shrubs and perfumed flowers. Riding through this path by moonlight was romantic for the young bride.

Life in the country suited Eliza’s simple tastes, but those early settlers faced extreme hardship. More than half were ruined, but it was they who laid the foundations, on which later arrivals would thrive.

Everything had to be made out of the ground, literally by the sweat of the brow. Lying in wait were sharp, unprincipled characters ready to inveigle unwary newcomers, into some plausible scheme to pick their pockets. The Feildens fell into many a trap. As soon as they could, they began to build a wooden house with a wide verandah and an outdoor kitchen but their sitting room did have the luxury of a fireplace.

They had little furniture, no carpets and calico windows. Glass did not arrive in Durban until April 1853. Their bedroom was compared to a ship’s cabin but more versatile, since it doubled as a storeroom. Leyland was rather proud of his wife, who was not above menial housework.

Servants were “unreliable”. One who came and went was Gudgeon, who was most useful when he was sober. When the mielies ripened, he would leave for his home, returning two or three months later. During the early years, white servants were not unknown, although many left Durban for the diggings in Australia. One white servant “who did the cooking” was Mrs Tyzack. But at their first Christmas, the Feildens included the Tyzacks, with the Brentons, Smiths and Galliers, as guests. Mrs Tyzack was destined for better things. In 1861, her husband became a town councillor and, when he was elected Mayor in 1866, she became Mayoress. Tyzack Street (off Mahatma Gandhi/Point Road) is named after him.

The Feildens worked steadily to develop their farm, planting four acres of sugar cane, nearly 70 orange and lemon trees, 100 banana, coffee, guava, fig, tobacco, arrowroot, pineapples (for export), melons, yams, potatoes, peaches, quinces and pawpaws. Eliza loved Durban’s indigenous flowers, but also yearned for English flowers, planting beds of lupins, stocks, larkspur and Sweet William.

Eliza made her own bread and churned her own butter, by shaking cream in a wide-necked bottle. She despaired of her crops, which were often destroyed by wild animals, with livestock particularly vulnerable to a predator, which she misidentified as a tiger. The Feildens were shocked when a Zulu servant was killed by a “tiger” in broad daylight.

The Feildens met some prominent figures of the period: the Fynns, John Robinson (whose recently launched “Natal Mercury” Eliza enjoyed reading on her sofa), the Natal Governor Benjamin Pine (whom she did not admire) and the Cape Governor Sir George Grey, whom she did.

On a visit to Natal, in November 1855, Grey had been astonished at the growth and quality of the sugar cane at Springfield, considering it superior to that in Jamaica. Leyland Feilden was one of the first settlers to plant sugar, having grown it at Umbilo, in 1850. It was at the Springfield Sugar Estate, where Leyland leased 130 acres, that he ran a large operation, selling his sugar at Durban’s first auction, in 1855.

Leyland had a mill where he could crush his own sugar, superior to any he had yet made. He could have become one of the colony’s foremost pioneers, but disaster struck on April 17, 1856. The Great Flood, when the Umgeni River burst its banks, left their crop under water. Only 33 of his oxen survived. Facing ruin, Eliza wrote that it was likely to bring them to near beggary. Their losses exceeded £2000, a considerable sum in 1856. Their dear old neighbour, Mrs Bowen, tried to give Eliza £20 to pay their creditors, but Eliza politely declined the offer. In October, the Feildens celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, receiving a poem from Mrs Bowen. It would be their last in Natal, but Eliza corresponded with Mrs Bowen until the old lady died, at the age of 83.

The effects of the flood finally drove the Feildens out of Natal, in August 1857, but there were other reasons. Leyland wanted to see his 80-year-old mother again, while Eliza was ill on more than one occasion.

In a letter to her mother, Eliza wrote: “I fear you will find me old and ugly. I feel 20 years older than when I left England five years ago.”

They believed they might return to Natal, but they never did. The memories of the “splendid sunsets throwing their rich warm tints over hills and valley” remained. Eliza never tired of her Feniscowles farm, where the wild flowers were beyond description, “beautiful, brilliant and luxuriant.” Thirty years later, she published her memoir, illustrated with some of her sketches, which are reproduced for this article.

A copy of My African Home can be found at the Killie Campbell Africana Library, and far from it “growing wearisome”, it is a delightful read, giving the reader a peep into the long ago world of this plucky couple.

Leyland later succeeded his father as the second baronet and, after Eliza’s death, he married Charlotte Collins in 1894. By then he was 73. He died in March 1915, aged 93.

The Independent on Saturday

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