The Great Flood of 1917

In remembrance of the poor souls lost and the brave folk who tried to save them on a death-ride to the sea. Cather­ine and Michael Green­ham pay trib­ute

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IT STARTED rain­ing on Thurs­day, a con­stant heavy rain that filled the trib­u­taries that joined rivers that flowed into the mighty Um­geni. The heavy rain con­tin­ued, the soggy earth no longer ab­sorb­ing wa­ter and the ex­cess join­ing the rush to the ocean.

On Satur­day the rain in­ten­si­fied and a roar­ing tor­rent, hav­ing bro­ken its banks, was sweep­ing all be­fore it as it bore down on an al­ready sat­u­rated Dur­ban. Early Sun­day morn­ing it struck Spring­field Flats, a seething, swirling ser­pent, a monster let loose from hell fo­cus­ing its fury on the in­no­cent in its path, rip­ping them out of the beds in their frail wood and iron homes to join it on its death-ride to the sea.

It hap­pened 100 years ago on Oc­to­ber 28, 1917 and be­came known as the Great Flood. While World War I was rag­ing in Europe, the river was rag­ing in Dur­ban. At the end of that fate­ful day, 400 peo­ple had lost their lives. This ac­count is based on Nee­lan Goven­der and Viroshen Chetty’s book, Leg­ends of the Tide.

The Spring­field Flats were rich in al­lu­vial soil, a fer­tile soil de­posited by wa­ter flow­ing over flood plains for gen­er­a­tions. A com­mu­nity of Indian set­tlers who had com­pleted their in­den­ture turned the river­banks of the Um­geni into lush veg­etable gar­dens. Here these mar­ket gar­den­ers built wood and iron homes, raised fam­i­lies and hawked their pro­duce through the streets in bas­kets sus­pended on bam­boo poles. By 1917 there were over 2 000 peo­ple liv­ing on the flats.

On that dread­ful Sun­day morn­ing at about 2am, they awoke to hiss­ing and crash­ing as the world they knew was washed away. Most climbed onto their roofs where they prayed that God would send help. Fur­ther down­stream, de­bris had jammed up against the piers of the road and rail­way bridges which par­tially dammed the river caus­ing it to back up into the flats. It was the rail­way bridge that fi­nally gave way and a wall of wa­ter swept down on “Tin Town” (River­side Road) un­leash­ing chaos on its res­i­dents.

It has been said that in times of chaos and de­struc­tion, char­ac­ters are not shaped but rather re­vealed. And in Dur­ban’s time of need those char­ac­ters were there, ready to show their met­tle. The wa­ter po­lice at­tempted a res­cue in their mo­torised boat but it was un­suc­cess­ful. Con­sta­ble Dono­van from the mu­nic­i­pal po­lice com­man­deered a seine-net­ter’s boat and res­cued some but they were not used to the craft and strug­gled to con­trol it in the swirling wa­ters. Herby Sprad­brow, a Dur­ban boat builder, along with his as­sis­tant, res­cued 17 peo­ple in his mo­torised boat. Teach­ers and stu­dents from St Ai­dan’s Col­lege pitched in.

Some gave sup­port by help­ing vic­tims. Mr Lalla, a store­keeper, ac­com­mo­dated and fed 200 vic­tims. He never claimed a penny in com­pen­sa­tion. His store was even­tu­ally washed away. Dr Ba­boolal ran a ferry ser­vice free of charge re­unit­ing fam­i­lies.

But it was not enough. There were too many peo­ple sit­ting on roof tops or sim­ply cling­ing to any­thing they could find. Too many peo­ple were hold­ing up jew­ellery as re­wards, plead­ing to be saved. Too many peo­ple were be­com­ing ex­hausted, let­ting go, their lives slip­ping into the swollen river.

In their ex­cel­lent book, Leg­ends of the Tide, Goven­der and Chetty de­scribe how Mariemuthoo and Gan­gan Pa­da­vatan were urg­ing Con­sta­ble Dono­van to con­tinue with the res­cue. Dono­van felt it had be­come too dan­ger­ous for his ex­hausted res­cuers. Mariemuthoo could not bear to sit back and watch as “our peo­ple are dy­ing in front of us” and what be­came known as the “Pa­da­vatan Six” took up the chal­lenge.

Se­cured by a trawler rope, the “Pa­da­vatan Six” were able to ma­noeu­vre their ba­nana boat to en­sure that it didn’t go broad­side to the cur­rent or get hit by a tree float­ing down the river or col­lide with any other ob­sta­cle.

With vic­tims cling­ing to the sides of the boat, they re­turned to land, only to turn around and start again. Each trip was per­ilous. Pet­ri­fied dogs and cats would leap into the boat, some vic­tims would make a fierce grab for the boat, desta­bil­is­ing it and some well mean­ing helpers just got in the way.

After mak­ing five trips and res­cu­ing nearly 200 peo­ple, the light was fad­ing, even the “Pa­da­vatan Six” had to re­luc­tantly ac­cept that the res­cue was over.

The Spring­field area was a death trap and al­ways had been. In her book, My African Home (Fenis­cowles), El­iza Feilden wrote of how a great flood de­stroyed her hus­band’s sugar mill in Spring­field in 1856: The river was “car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing be­fore it… trees, houses, is­lands and an enor­mous hip­popota­mus”.

There were nu­mer­ous floods since then in­clud­ing the 1917 one and many after it but noth­ing ever matched the fury of the Great Flood. Even­tu­ally, in 1982, the Dur­ban City Engi­neers ac­tu­ally straight­ened the course of the river and turned it into a canal to pre­vent flood­ing. So far, so good.

In the af­ter­math of the Great Flood, many ques­tions were left unan­swered. While lo­cal ef­forts were made to raise funds, gov­ern­ment ac­tion was not forth­com­ing be­cause, es­sen­tially, no one really cared – after all, weren’t they just a bunch of poor mar­ket gar­den­ers?

But for those sur­vivors who were in­volved as vic­tims or res­cuers, they did not for­get that ter­ri­ble scene when night­fall came on Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 28, peo­ple still cling­ing to rooftops, be­ing aban­doned to their fate. “The young mother with her child clutched tight in her arms, slid­ing off the roof with a heart ren­der­ing shriek, she and the child dis­ap­pear­ing un­der the swirling wa­ters, never to be seen again.”

But we can re­mem­ber this mother and her child, re­mem­ber them be­ing swept in­ex­orably to­wards a wild sea. And let us re­mem­ber those who tried so hard to save them.

The Spring­field Flats – scene of Dur­ban’s dis­as­trous floods in 1917. This pic­ture was taken from Pun­tan’s Hill not long be­fore the Great Flood. The flat area in the loop of the Um­geni River in the mid­dle ground on the left is a part of the Spring­field Flats. In the ex­treme right of the pic­ture be­hind the hill in the fore­ground you can just see the Bish­op­stoke Sugar Mill. It was so badly dam­aged it ceased op­er­at­ing. The rail­way and road bridges are not in this pic­ture be­cause they would have been fur­ther to the right.

PIC­TURE FROM LEG­ENDS OF THE TIDE

When all hope was lost, it was Mariemuthoo who said ‘our peo­ple are dy­ing in front of us’ and what be­came known as the ‘Pa­da­vatan Six’ took up the chal­lenge and res­cued al­most 200 peo­ple in their ba­nana boat. Back row (left to right) S Goven­der, Cap­tain Mariemuthoo Pa­da­vatan and G Pa­da­vatan. Front row (left to right) T Veloo, R Naidoo and K Naidoo.

The rail­way bridge over the Um­geni (look­ing north) – this was the first rail­way bridge and was built in 1878. Dur­ing the Great Flood of 1917, de­bris jammed up against the piers caus­ing the bridge to act as a dam, mak­ing the river back up be­hind it (left in this pic­ture). The Bish­op­stoke Sugar Mill can be seen in the back­ground on the left. Both the bridge and the sugar mill did not sur­vive the flood.

The Con­naught Bridge (look­ing north) – this road bridge was just down­stream from the rail­way bridge (which would have been to the right in this pic­ture) and was built circa 1905. It sur­vived the Great Flood of 1917 and sub­se­quently han­dled both road and rail traf­fic un­til a tem­po­rary rail­way bridge was built.

The Queen’s Bridge Ho­tel was si­t­u­ated on the north bank of the Um­geni River be­tween the road and rail­way bridges. While its gar­dens were de­stroyed, the ho­tel it­self was just out of reach of the ris­ing wa­ters.

The view in this old post­card is from the Con­naught Bridge look­ing down­stream to­wards ‘Tin Town’ on the left where River­side Road is to­day. A ‘wall of wa­ter’ came through here when the rail­way bridge col­lapsed.

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