They transformed the river banks into lush vegetable gardens, built wood-and-iron dwellings, tended their farms from morning to night all year round, and hawked their baskets of mixed vegetables door-to-door throughout the Durban area.
They had weathered many a stormy temper of the Mgeni River, but the flood on that fateful day would be the worst, claiming more than 400 lives.
The unlikely heroes of the day were a rag-tag band of six fishermen who plied their trade in the Durban Harbour. They included four seine netters, a shrimper and a 16-year-old boy.
In what is described as one of the most impressive rescue feats in history, they made five trips in their oar-driven “banana boat” in a single afternoon. Mustering up all the skills and technique they acquired from harvesting the silver tides of Durban, they rescued 176 men, women and children from drowning.
But all that drama is yet to unfold. In order to understand what motivated them to risk their lives, and to get a sense of the political and social currents, which they rowed against, our story must begin much earlier - in fact, all the way back to 1860, to Salisbury Island, an uncharted swampland in the middle of Durban Harbour.
The first fishermen of Durban revelled in the bounty of Salisbury Island. They harvested crabs, shrimps and other shellfish in the island’s marshlands, and in the knee-deep waters they caught smaller varieties of fish with cast or shove nets. Fishing provided extra food for their table.
During their five-year indenture period, the Indian fishermen fished at night only and came to know and respect the virgin island. They learned to navigate its landscape of terrors in the form of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and deadly snakes lurking in the tangled mangroves.
When they clocked out at the sugar mills, they picked up their fishing gear and jumped on a train bound for the harbour. They were joined by the Indian dockworkers of the Point Barracks area.
It is no surprise, then, that when their indenture contract was up for renewal, they gave their colonial bosses the colloquial finger and chose to fish for a living.
In 1865 a small community of Indians from the Ifafa, Reunion and Isipingo sugar mills settled permanently on Salisbury Island.
Through their technique of seine netting, which was passed down through generations of fishermen living on the west coast of India, they were hauling in more seafood than the whole of Durban could consume. Thus, in 1870, the seine netters began to fish commercially and Salisbury Island became the de facto headquarters of Durban’s first commercial fishing industry.
By 1887, 204 Indians were engaged in fishing part- or full-time. Twelve Indian Master Fishermen were awarded licences for a dozen nets and boats which they built. Between them, they employed about 150 labourers, including 12 African workers.
Their strong communal bond was forged through marriages, births, sports and the vagaries of life on the unpredictable sea.
Eventually, the hammer fell for the community who had given Durban a taste for seafood and had established its first fishing industry. Their time on the island came to an end in 1900 when they were served with eviction notices.
After its colourful and vibrant inhabitants departed its shores, the island continued to serve the fledgling city of Durban.
In 1918, a quarantine hospital for communicable diseases was established on the island, when the ship SS Dongola disembarked victims of Spanish flu.
During the 1930s, a ticket office for seaplanes was established on the island. Today, the Catalina Theatre, in Wilson’s Wharf, occupies a portion of the old seaplane terminus.
A Naval base was established on Salisbury Island in World War II.
In the 1950s, a “tribal” college for Indians - a precursor to the University of Durban-Westville - was established.
The island has since been absorbed into the Durban harbour development and is now used as a container depot under the administration of Transnet.
Meanwhile the tides, not the clock, continued to dictate the life and the activities of the seine netter community, leading up to an epic encounter on a stormy October afternoon in 1917.
* In part two of our series, we will continue the odyssey of the seine netters and take a closer look at the victims of the flood, the market gardeners of Tin Town.
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