The ghosts of Currie Road
The Berea is a very old place. Since the dawn of time this ridge clothed in dense bush and forest looked down on a sleepy lagoon where time stood still. For the past 100 000 years or so, the only human movements being those of a handful of San, nomadic hunter-gatherers going about their ancient way of life, custodians of an Eden teeming with wildlife. Centuries ago they were pushed aside or absorbed by the Nguni people, cattle-owners and farmers from the Great Lakes who had slowly made their way southwards.
This sleepy lagoon has known many names – Rio de Natal, Ethekweni, Port Natal and Durban, along with the countless names that time has forgotten. Beyond the lagoon lay the Indian Ocean and the old Berea watched as the Phoenicians sailed past nearly 3 000 years ago on their circumnavigation of Africa followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, each in turn leaving their own mark.
The old Berea watched as desperate and wretched shipwrecked sailors staggered north heading for the safety of Delagoa Bay, including Dona Leonor, the beautiful wife of the captain of the São João, as she prayed fervently that God would be merciful and save her family.
The old Berea watched again as the Conch, under cover of the Southampton’s blazing guns, sailed into the bay towing loads of redcoats who landed and flushed out the Boers, thus reclaiming the bay for the young English queen.
And the old Berea watched as the Asian people arrived, some free and some bundled off into quarantine before joining the labour force of what had rapidly changed from a settlement to a town.
It had been Shaka, monarch of the Zulu Kingdom, who ceded the lagoon to the first English settlers in the 1820’s. They slowly encroached on the Berea, moving higher and higher, cutting sandy tracks and building homes. It was a settler called Henry Currie who moved from his home in central Durban to one of these tracks where he built Invicta Cottage in 1858 (invicta means unconquered).
Currie had been a Chartist in England and his left-wing political views meant it was better he left the mother country. Currie had come to Durban with his wife, Sarah, in 1850. He was given the post of master for the pound (distribution of fresh produce). He was a tinsmith, a millwright, a businessman and an inventor, for example, making ink from indigenous nuts. He became a town councillor and later mayor.
Apart from Currie Road being named after him, he is best remembered for what became known as Currie’s Fountain. Durban’s water had been in short supply and was also a health hazard. Currie sank a well at the foot of the Botanic Gardens which produced 220 000 litres of clean water a day. The ornamental drinking fountain erected for him by a grateful council can now be found in the Botanic Gardens, below Invicta Cottage, where his son-in-law, Julius Keit, worked as curator.
As busy as he was, Currie could often find time for hunting, a natural part of life at the time. There were vast unused areas on the Berea such as present day Morningside and Puntan’s Hill, covered with houses and gardens today, but perfect for hunting then. Currie led a full and active life up to the time of his death on September 28, 1880, aged 65.
In the years that followed his death, his large property was subdivided into smaller lots. Invicta Avenue gave all these smaller properties access to Musgrave and Currie roads. The Bissets – an old Durban family – lived in a large part of it (where Stellenberg flats are today) in a double-storey villa with an air-raid shelter. Smaller properties were built on the remaining land, sometimes occupied by Currie’s descendants generations later.
In 2001, a young man crossed the finishing line at the Blue Lagoon, not only winning the Dusi Canoe Marathon but being the youngest person ever to do so. His name was Len Jenkins, Henry Currie’s great-great-great-grandson.
Invicta Cottage circa 1960 – Henry Currie built this residence in 1858 and lived here until his death in 1880.
Invicta Cottage is still there but, if Currie somehow could visit, he would not recognise his own house, especially with its beautiful view now completely obliterated by an enormous block of flats.
The fate of Currie’s land and cottage was similar and possibly even slightly better than the fate of so many of Durban’s old homes.
But there was one huge difference that wrote his home into the history books. This difference was that Currie had a friend who used to visit him at Invicta Cottage. His name was Thomas Baines, an artist whose paintings were more evocative than modern day photographs.
Baines was born in England and left for the Cape around the time the redcoats were relieving the Boers of their ownership of Port Natal.
Highlights of his life included being the official artist for the British Army during the Eighth Frontier War, official artist for the Royal Geographic Society-sponsored expedition in Northern Australia as well as accompanying David Livingstone along the Zambezi where he was one of the first white men to see the Victoria Falls.
Baines had an aunt, Ann Maria Watson, who operated a boarding house in central Durban. It was here that he stayed during his many visits to Durban from 1866 onwards. He used Durban as a base for his activities, including attending the coronation of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo kaMpande. He continued painting on commission and was very involved with gold exploration in present day Zimbabwe.
In Durban he painted several scenes, but his most famous was the view from Currie’s Invicta Cottage.
Success with the brush did not mean financial success and problems here bothered him all his life. His adventurous way of life put strain on his body just as the poor ethics of the company he worked for, the South African Gold Fields Exploration Company, put this kind and public spirited man under emotional strain.
In April 1875, while preparing for a trip to Zimbabwe to reaffirm his mining concession, dysentery seized him and on the 18th his aunt called for the doctor. On the 30th he was moved from his aunt’s boarding house in town to his cousin, James Watson’s home, Lynnville at 31 Currie Road (where Walsingham stands today) and not far from Invicta Cottage. On
May 7, he received his last visit from the doctor who told him his time was near. True to his character, Baines didn’t believe him and never wrote a will. The next day this remarkable artist and meticulous observer died.
His wagon, which had been stocked for his trip, stood for some days in Currie Road before being sold to defray debts. A memorial service was held in St Paul’s church and he was buried in the West Street cemetery. His estate was insolvent but his legacy was 400 magnificent oil paintings and many water- colours and sketches that played a vital role in recording an expanding British Empire.
After his death, life continued at Lynnville. One of Watson’s descendants, Amelia Mary Watson, married Otto Siedle and they had a daughter, Perla. In 1917, where Baines had died, Perla married.
Perla Siedle Gibson went on to become a great South African soprano and artist who was internationally celebrated during World War II as the Lady in White, when she sang troopships in and out of the city’s harbour.
The deaths of Currie and Baines marked the end of Durban’s adventurous days. The days of hunting, of living with the bare necessities and of being under threat from attack from Zulu impis, were over. Cetshwayo kaMpanda had surrendered to the British at the end of the Anglo-Zulu War.
The old Durban had gone and Currie and Baines watched it go.
But just before it went Baines, complete with paints, brushes, easel, palette and a piece of canvas, arrived at Invicta Cottage on a partly overcast day in 1873. He drew the rough sketch on the stretched canvas and then stood back, allowing his memories of the town to flood his mind and to influence his choice of colours. Then, slowly and meticulously, he captured the magnificence of the scene before him, fixing it for all time for the benefit of those still to come who would not have known the natural, unspoilt beauty of a little town on the south-eastern shores of Africa.
Forevermore, the steam tug Pioneer, sails out of the harbour to greet an incoming vessel, the salvage work on a wrecked ship continues, the steam train puffs along heading off to the Umgeni and troops still drill in the heat of a Durban day. Two workers still go about their business in the foreground and the telescope remains where Currie has just left it. Further down, horses graze contentedly but Smoke, Currie’s dog, sleeps dreaming his hunting dreams where Currie and Baines are on horseback and he, Smoke, is at their side. A shot rings out and he is off like a bullet, streaking over the bush-covered ground, tail up, mouth wide open, gasping, he closes in on his quarry.
● Catherine Greenham is a teacher and published author of the novel, Rebellion. Michael Greenham is a chartered accountant and lecturer. Together they have a great interest in history, particularly Durban history. They live in Currie Road in an Edwardian home and have a large collection of books on history and English Literature as well as old Durban postcards which they use to illustrate their articles