The forgotten fisherfolk of Salisbury Island
N 1860, the first Indian fishermen revelled in the bounty of Salisbury Island, nestled inside Durban Harbour. They harvested ground-feeders such as crabs and shrimps in the Island’s marshlands, and in the knee-deep waters they caught the smaller variety of fish with cast nets or shove nets.
During their five-year indenture period the Indians fished at night only. They clocked out at the sugar mills, picked up their fishing gear and jumped on a train bound for the harbour. They rowed across the Bay and fished on the shores of Salisbury Island.
They were joined by the Indian dock workers who lived in the Point Barracks area. Fishing provided extra food for their table.
These fishermen 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 mangroves.
It was no surprise then that when their Indentured contract was up for renewal they gave their colonial bosses the colloquial finger and chose the freedom to fish full-time for a living.
And so it came to be that 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 the Indian fishermen were hauling more seafood than they or the whole of Durban could possibly consume. And so, by 1870 the seine netters began to fish commercially. Salisbury Island became the de facto headquarters of Durban’s first commercial fishing industry.
By 1887, there were 204 Indians engaged in part-time or full-time fishing on the Island. Twelve Indian fisherfolk known as Master Fishermen were awarded licences for a dozen nets and boats. Between them they employed about 150 labourers including 12 African workers.
The success of the seine netter’s enterprise and the rapid expansion of Durban’s harbour resulted in an ugly battle to remove them from Salisbury Island. A white community of anglers, surfers, and boating enthusiasts living in the City and on the Bluff began using the harbour waters for sport, and objected to the presence of the fishermen in the harbour. As the early seine netters prospered, tensions developed between the two race groups.
While the battle to live and work on Salisbury Island raged, life for the community went on as normal. They erected places of worship and schools for their children. The first school was built in 1886 and was fully funded by the fisherfolk.
Eventually the hammer fell. In 1900 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, and to pulse like a magic beacon in the imagination of the people.
A quarantine hospital for communicable diseases such as the plague and smallpox was established on the Island when the ship SS Dongola disembarked victims of Spanish flu in 1918. In the 1930s, a ticket office for seaplanes was established on the Island. Until recently, the Catalina Theatre at Wilson’s Wharf occupied a portion of the old sea-plane terminus (the theatre is now closed).
A naval base was established on the Island during World War II. Indian youth, including children of the fisherfolk, were recruited by the South African Navy. Some joined the popular Naval Band, comprised almost entirely of Indian recruits.
In the 1950s, education returned to the Island when a “tribal” college for Indians was established, precursor to University of Durban-Westville. The Indian college used the buildings vacated by the navy authorities when they moved their base to Simonstown.
At the time of writing, the Island has virtually disappeared, reclaimed or absorbed into Durban’s harbour development. It is now used as a container depot under the administration of Transnet.
Yet, like moths to a flame, the seine netters continued to be drawn irresistibly to the fringes of the Island.
The seine-netters had given Durban a taste for seafood, and had established Durban’s first fishing industry – an industry that remained out of reach of the pioneer fishermen.
By 1900, all the fisherfolk of Salisbury Island were resettled on the swamp lands southeast of the Bay, below Fynnlands Station in an area they called the Village. The Village extended almost to the edge of the railroad track which hugged the foot of the Bluff.
A strong communal bond was forged through inter-marriages, sports, and the vagaries of life on the unpredictable sea.
A good harvest, the birth of a child, a wedding or a religious festivity were occasions for communal rejoicing – times of sheer joy and splendour. Women and children dressed for celebration and houses, however flimsy or makeshift, sprouted in a burst of colourful adornment.
Boats, big and small, were festooned with religious symbols pasted in manja (turmeric) and kumkum (red powder). On these occasions, garlands, loud bunting and flags replaced nets and oars. People took pride in speaking fluent and beautiful Tamil.
The Natal Regional Survey noted “Fishing nets drying in the sun or hung up for repairs; derelict boats rotting on the foreshore; shove nets for shrimping and fishing tackle (lying around). Salvage wood is stacked up against the walls of the dwellings.”
When the tide was in, the children would fish from the verandah.
The incoming tide attracted a feast of fish such as mullet, grunter and a variety of bream, while the outgoing tide revealed a rich world of bottom-feeders and shellfish.
The tides, not the clock, dictated the life and the activities of the villagers.
*** Song of the Fisherfolk (a poem by Viroshen Chetty)
Call us coolies, cane-cutters, call us eaters of fish
Bleach our rainbows, blot our story, keep the sea out of reach
Call us idol worshippers, call us faithless and cursed
Tax the ocean’s spirit harnessed in our seine-purse
Load the deck of fate – deal us a hand that’s worse…
Yet we shall ride the tide to the other side, chanting in verse:
We shall feed, we shall hunt, we shall school together
In a chorus, in a choir, in an African adventure
We shall rope, we shall boat, we shall net together
In high tide, in low tide, in Durban indenture
Call us netters, we are netted too
Call us fisherfolk, we are fish-hood too.’ Legends of the Tide is available for delivery straight to the door anywhere in the country. To place orders, contact Nireshnee Chetty (Rebel Rabble Books) at 031 825 7427 or 078 593 0585 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org