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
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.
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.