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Colony of Natal

wildebeest / Great Trek / Shepstone


Colony of Natal (1907)

Arms granted by Royal Warrant on 16 May 1907, following a redesign by York Herald (at the College of Arms) of the colonial flag badge, first adopted in 1870. The warrant blazons the arms as:

Azure in front of mountains and on a plain two Black Wildebeesten in full course at random, all proper.

The wording reflects the influence of Dutch on South African English in that period, referring to “Black Wildebeesten”, rather than the more usual gnu or (as it would be said today) wildebeest.

(The South African English pronunciation retains the V-sound of Dutch and Afrikaans for the letter W in this word, while the current spelling retains the final T of the Dutch form, rather than the Afrikaans wildebees. The Afrikaans plural, wildebeeste, retains the T, but drops the final N. In Dutch the N is written but not usually pronounced, which accounts for its absence in Afrikaans.)

The animal’s scientific name is Connochćtes gnou.

About the arms:
The arms as granted comprise a shield only – unlike the arms granted to the Cape Colony in 1876, which incorporated shield, crest and supporters – but (in being limited to a shield) follow the pattern of the arms granted to the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, as well as to the Orange River Colony, all of which date from the same period. However, of the Canadian provinces mentioned, only Prince Edward Island’s arms remain crestless in 2002.
King Edward VII seal of Natal Colony

State Herald F G Brownell, writing in 1993, remarks: “It is hardly surprising that the more impressive combination of the shield of arms, Imperial State Crown, and a riband bearing the name NATAL, which appeared on the Colony’s Edward VII seal should have proved more popular than Natal’s plain shield, and have been used from 1910 to 1955. It is this Edwardian seal device, but with a different crown, which thus inspired the present version of Natal’s provincial arms.

“Heraldic developments in the British Empire and later in the Commonwealth seldom occurred in isolation and developments in South Africa often echoed, or at times were echoed by, similar developments elsewhere. As far as the addition of a crown as an embellishment to the basic shield of arms is concerned, it is interesting to note that the Canadian province of Quebec followed Natal’s example. Since 1939 it has also ensigned its shield of arms with a crown. This has also been done on the Privy Seal of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

“In the South African context the arms of the Province of Natal are unique in that they are the sole remaining example of the retention, in official arms, of a crown as a reminder of South Africa’s imperial past.”

The gnu’s use as a symbol of the colony goes back at least to 1861, when it featured in an exhibition in the colony’s capital, Pietermaritzburg.

The exhibition was a preview for the International Exhibition held in Britain the following year. It attracted a great deal of interest because the colony was experiencing a trade boom and there was an eagerness to expand the economy.

The Pietermaritzburg preview was held in December ’61. Brownell quotes from a report in the Natal Mercury of 12 December describing the centre archway: “The frame (of the centre arch) bore a carved shield with the ‘Gnu’ of Natal at its apex . . .”

“These ‘arms’ were unofficial, but in one form or another, the Wildebeest had come to stay.” He does not indicate why the gnu should have been chosen, but hides of this antelope were among the biggest exports from the colony in this period.

The next development, Brownell reports, was in Britain’s Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act of 1864 and the Colonial Defence Act of ’65, which “paved the way for colonial vessels to fly distinctive versions of the Red or Blue Ensigns, ‘with the seal or badge of the colony in the fly thereof’ ”. And: “For Colonial governors the same device was placed within a wreath in the centre of the Union Jack.”

However, no action was taken in Natal until an Order-in-Council passed in August 1869, following which the Secretary of State for the Colonies asked the Natal Legislative Council to provide a suitable flag badge.
1870 seal of Natal Colony

Brownell continues: “As yet, Natal did not have a colonial Great Seal and it appears that both matters were dealt with concurrently. In a newspaper item reporting the Legislative Council’s debate on the design for a Natal device, the Natal Colonial Secretary was reported as having said: ‘. . . I think that when you look at it, you will consider it very neat and pretty. It comes from the office of the Colonial Engineer [Peter Paterson], the badges contain the arms of Natal with the usual wildebeest (laughter) and the arms of England over all . . .’ ”

Brownell remarks: “One is tempted to enquire why there should have been laughter in the House at the very mention of the wildebeest. Perhaps it was a case of a standing joke becoming part of an honoured tradition. Despite the obvious amusement of the members, the device was approved by the Legislative Council and despatched to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on 4 August 1870.”

What Paterson had produced was an illustration of a colonial seal on a standard pattern first used in the 1839 Great Seal of Newfoundland, a design which, Brownell points out, was “ideally suited for engraving, but certainly not for the use to which it was also put, namely as the distinguishing device on flags”.
flag badge of Natal Colony

While the seal design might originally have been placed on the Blue Ensign in its entirety, in later versions at least it was somewhat reduced: wording around the outer edge of the seal was dropped, being replaced by the word “NATAL” below the gnus’ feet, the royal arms were replaced by a crown, and the device (retaining a Chippendale-style frame) was placed directly on the flag, without a white roundel.

Brownell mentions that the Newfoundland seal pattern was used widely, especially in North American dependencies, but also in the Edward VII seal of the Orange River Colony.

However, only Natal, out of all these, adapted its seal design as a flag badge. So, Brownell continues:

“It is hardly surprising then that the College of Arms was not prepared to recognise this seal design as the arms of the Colony of Natal and that York Herald went so far as to say that it was an example of ‘very bad heraldry’. York Herald did, however, use the two Wildebeest from the panel with their orientation corrected from sinister to dexter (the viewer’s right to left) as the basis of the shield of arms which was granted . . .”

The white-tailed or black wildebeest (Connochaćtes gnou) is smaller than its near relative the blue wildebeest or brindled gnu (Connochaćtes taurinus), standing 115 cm at the shoulder, whereas the blue variety reaches 125 cm in height. The two wildebeest species are also quite closely related to the hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus). Like the hartebeest, the wildebeest stands higher at the withers than at the haunches, but this is more pronounced in the hartebeest.

Both wildebeest species are indigenous in South Africa, but C taurinus is found in several other African countries as well, while C gnou is largely limited to this country.

The black wildebeest has a brush of long hair on the throat and chest and between the forelegs, an upright mane and a crest of upright hair on the middle of the short muzzle. Its general body colour is a uniform deep brownish black. Before the arrival of hunters with firearms, it was to be found in vast herds across the high upland plateaus of what is now Northern Cape/North West Province to Mpumalanga and south into the Natal region, often in the company of quaggas. (The Western Cape Province has a quagga as a supporter in its arms.) Like most game species it is greatly reduced in numbers and is largely to be found on game reserves and game farms. It was the provincial animal of the Natal Province.

Name of the colony:
Unlike the Cape Colony, where Dutch was given a limited recognition, the language had (from 1843 onwards) no status whatever in Natal, where English was the only official language. (Dutch had, of course, been the written language of the Republiek Natalia, and an early form of Afrikaans its spoken language.) Consequently, the colony’s name is given only in English.

About the colony:
The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama gave the name Terra do Natal to a region he passed on Christmas Day 1497. It is uncertain exactly where he actually was on that day, but it seems that it was probably near Port St Johns. Three days later, on 28 December (Holy Innocents Day), Da Gama’s squadron anchored in a small bay and caught fish, naming the headland Ponta de Pescaria (“Fishermen’s Point”, probably the Bluff at Durban).

From the 1680s onwards, Port Natal became familiar to both Dutch and British, thanks to the temporary settlement there of shipwrecked sailors.

The region now known as Natal was for many thousands of years home to Bushmen. In the past millennium abeNguni entered the region, where they were first seen by Europeans growing crops and keeping cattle. The eventual fate of the few remaining Bushmen in the Drakensberg foothills was that they were annihilated or forced into the mountains by raids conducted by colonists, in reaction to the random killing of cattle by hunters who had no knowledge or tradition of ownership of animals.

The name Natal was first given to an area of European settlement when the Great Trek of the late 1830s resulted in the arrival of large numbers of Boer farmers in the lands below the Drakensberg, where they found large parts of the green and inviting land – in more peaceful times the home of Nguni-speaking clans – uninhabited as a result of the Mfecane.

This is the name now given to a period of warfare that began with the accession of Shaka ka Senzangakhona (born 1788, king from 1816, assassinated 1828) to power in the land north of the Thukela River which he named after his own small clan, the AmaZulu, and built up into a powerful, militarised kingdom.

As part of his strategy, Shaka devastated large areas on the borders of his realm to ensure its safety. Sometimes the inhabitants were killed outright, sometimes their male and female youth were taken to add to his regiments, and sometimes they were able to escape, travelling great distances to more friendly places. Some of those who escaped became part of the Mfengu of Ciskei and Transkei. All these tactics ensured that the land south of the Thukela was largely depopulated.

Small numbers of British settlers (seldom as many as a few dozen in the first decade) began arriving in Port Natal from 1824. In 1835 they named their village D’Urban (after Sir Benjamin d’Urban, Governor of the Cape Colony) and the settlement Victoria.

In 1834 a commission trek (exploratory party) of 40 men with 16 wagons, led by Pieter Uys, visited Natal. Their favourable report was one of the triggers for the Great Trek.

On 6 June 1837 the Voortrekkers met at the Vet River in Transorangia to adopt a fundamental law and elect a leader. Piet Retief[1] was chosen. His title is variously reported as Governor or President.

Also in that year, Captain Allen Francis Gardiner (Royal Navy, retired), who had first arrived at Port Natal in 1835, returned with authority as a magistrate under the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act. He stayed only another year or so, but this was the first assertion of British authority in Natal.

In October that year, Retief and Andries Pretorius visited D’Urban and in November he visited Shaka’s successor, Dingane. Following a visit to the Trekker parties in Transorangia and a raid on Sekonyela,[2] chief of the Batlokwa, he returned to Dingane’s capital, Mgingindlovu, in February 1838, and having delivered the cattle he had recovered from Sekonyela, succeeded in persuading the king to put his mark to a document promising the Trekkers land south of the Thukela River.

Dingane had, incidentally, put his mark to a similar document the year before, ceding the territory south of the Thukela to King William IV.

However, on 6 February Dingane, fearing witchcraft on the part of the Trekkers, ordered his troops to kill the disarmed Boer party. Armies were then sent to kill the Trekkers who had established themselves below the mountains, inflicting heavy casualties at Doornkop, Blaauwkrantz, Moordspruit, Rensburgs Spruit and other places on the Bushmans River. A colonist named Richard Philip (Dick) King rode to warn the Trekkers, but 600 were killed. The Bushmans River district was afterwards named Weenen (“weeping”). D’Urban was also raided, but the inhabitants escaped by taking refuge aboard a ship in the bay.

In April 1838 a 350-man commando under Piet Uys and Andries Potgieter was ambushed at Italeni. Uys and his son Dirkie, aged 14, were killed, but Potgieter escaped. British colonists also organised raids, the first of which fetched more than 500 Zulu women and children to D’Urban. However the second ended in almost complete annihilation, King being among only four Englishmen to survive.

The Trekkers were rallied under the leadership of Pretorius. His well armed commando took a vow on 7 December to honour God in the event of victory. On the 15th they pitched a laager alongside the Ncome River, a tributary to the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River. On the 16th (a Sunday), they were attacked by a vast Zulu army, which was defeated. So many Zulu warriors lay dead that the river ran red and the Trekkers called it Bloed Rivier (Blood River).

A third British party from D’Urban was wiped out on the 27th at the White Umfolozi.

The Blood River battle was followed up by a raid on Mgingindlovu, where the skeletons of Retief and his followers were found, as well as Retief’s satchel containing the deed of cession. However, Dingane had fled, and was defeated in battle by his half-brother Mpande. Dingane fled to the Swazi kingdom, where he was murdered in 1840.

While the Trekker commando was pursuing Dingane and his followers, a British force sent from the Cape by Sir George Napier established itself in D’Urban. But the British Government did not support the move, and the troops were withdrawn on 24 December 1839.

The Trekkers found themselves masters of a large stretch of territory, and proclaimed the Republiek Natalia, with boundaries extending (in theory) from the Mzimvubu River (Port St Johns) to the Mfolozi, and inland to the Drakensberg range.

The republic had no coat of arms or comparable symbol, but did have a unique flag, first hoisted at Port Natal in January 1840.

In 1840 it was also agreed that the Trekker communities centred on Winburg and Potchefstroom would become part of the Republiek Natalia. The state was organised into three districts, each with its own court of landdrost and heemraden, one at Port Natal (D’Urban), one at Pietermaritzburg (the capital) and one at Winburg.

Despite appeals from the settlers at D’Urban, Britain refused to annex Natalia until 1841. However, in August of that year the Governor of the Cape was ordered to resume military occupation of Port Natal because of the Boer policy towards indigenous peoples, because of the interest shown in the new state by foreign powers, and because coal had been discovered in Natalia.

Early in April 1842 Captain Thomas Smith and 200 troops arrived overland from the Cape. After several skirmishes with Boers, they were besieged at Port Natal from 25 May to 24 June. Dick King, with one outrider, Ndongeni, who accompanied him to Pondoland, and two horses, escaped by night and rode to Grahamstown within 10 days – today a distance on modern roads of more than 750 km, and at that time a route nearer 960 km, across extremely rough country where no roads existed.

Reinforcements commanded by Colonel Josias Cloete arrived aboard the Southampton and the Conch, and on 15 July 1842 the Volksraad (parliament) in Pietermaritzburg formally surrendered.

However, it was not until 9 August the following year that the Volksraad formally accepted British rule. In June 1843, Col Cloete’s brother Henry arrived as special commissioner for the Natal district, and fixed its boundary with the Zulu kingdom along the Thukela and Mzinyathi rivers (meeting the Drakensberg range at Majuba), abandoning Andries Pretorius’s annexation of land as far as the Black Mfolozi River.

In August ’43 the British garrison established itself at Pietermaritzburg, erecting what was to be called Fort Napier.

On 31 May 1844 Natal was formally annexed as a district of the Cape Colony. Although the Volksraad continued to meet, it was effectively powerless and eventually broke up. The landdrosts appointed by the Trekkers at Port Natal and Pietermaritzburg were replaced by British magistrates; the heemraden were not replaced.

Many Trekkers left Natal. Already by the end of 1843 there were no more than 500 Boer families left in Natal.

As a British possession, Natal was not only limited to the Thukela in the north, but its southern boundary was fixed on the Mzimkhulu.

In September 1845 Natal was incorporated as a separate district of the Cape Colony and ruled by a handful of officials under a lieutenant-governor who answered to the Governor of the Cape.

In 1847, with the appointment of Sir Henry Pottinger as Governor in Cape Town, Natal for the first time also fell under a High Commissioner (also Pottinger).

In July that year the lieutenant-governor moved to suppress the so-called Klip River Republic, a Boer settlement west of the Mzinyathi River claiming to have Mpande’s permission to live there. The republic’s suppression meant that many Boers trekked away, having refused to take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown.

Among the officials appointed in 1845 was Theophilus Shepstone (1817-1893), initially appointed Diplomatic Agent to the “native tribes”. Born in Britain but brought to the Cape as a small boy and raised on a mission station, he was fluent in isiXhosa (similar to isiZulu) and joined the Cape civil service as an interpreter in 1835.

Known among the clans of Natal as Somtseu (“mighty hunter”), he was persuasive and managed to convince those who entered the colony – in most instances, returning to their ancestral lands after being expelled before the arrival of the Trekkers – to settle on locations, land between the farms bought by white men, where they would be available as a pool of labour.

The report on colonial administration which Shepstone submitted to the Colonial Office in 1847 was the foundation of policy in Natal and elsewhere for the next 30 years.

As Diplomatic Agent he worked alone until 1853, and from then until 1874 he was assisted by a clerk and two Nguni messengers. He drafted the 1849 ordinance giving legal recognition to Nguni customary law, and the 1852 legislation making the Governor paramount chief. In 1871 his services were recognised with the award of Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG).

In 1875 he became Secretary of Native Affairs, losing his judicial role to the Native High Court. In 1876 he was knighted, becoming a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG). He also resigned, becoming Special Commissioner and proceeding to the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, which he annexed as the Transvaal and administered for the next few years.

During the Shepstone years, British immigration changed the character of Natal. In 1849-51 5 000 British settlers arrived under a variety of schemes, notably that of the Irish speculator J C Byrne. By 1856 there were 8 000 white people in Natal, most of them British.

On 15 July 1856, Natal was formally separated from the Cape Colony by means of the Charter of Natal, promulgated by letters patent. The Cape Governor would still (except for two brief periods, around the Zulu War and around the South African War) be High Commissioner, but the Lieutenant-Governor would not report directly to him, and the colony would now have limited self-government through a partially elected Legislative Council.

Natal grew slightly in 1866 with the annexation of a portion of the Mpondo paramount Faku’s No Man’s Land, lying between the Mzimkhulu and Mtamvuna rivers, as Alfred County (district seat Harding). (The rest of No Man’s Land was later to become part of the Cape Colony as Griqualand East.) In 1884 Natal annexed Port St Johns on the same day as the Cape took the same action (the two landing parties missed each other by a few hours), but later conceded the estuary to the Cape. As a colony, Natal made no more advances on its southern side.

On 11 December 1878 the High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, took advantage of poor communications to defy instructions to leave the Zulu in peace and issue an ultimatum against Cetshwayo. The result was the disastrous defeat at Isandlwana on 11 January 1879. However, by the end of March the Zulu kingdom was no more, defeated by British reinforcements.

In June 1879 Sir Garnet Wolseley (briefly Lieutenant-Governor in 1875) returned as Governor of both Natal and the Transvaal, with the additional appointment of High Commissioner for South East Africa.

Wolseley’s successor, Sir George Pomeroy Colley, appointed in 1880, had his mandate as High Commissioner extended to include Griqualand West. But by February ’81 Colley was dead, killed by Transvaal Boers in the defeat of Majuba. His successor, Sir Henry Bulwer (previously Lieutenant-Governor) was appointed the following year, but without a High Commissionership – this authority returned to the Cape Governor.

Interest shown by foreign powers in areas up the coast resulted in Britain’s annexation of St Lucia Bay on 18 December 1884, as part of Zululand. The colony was enlarged further in 1897 with the Ingwavuma or Tongaland territory, annexed in pieces by Britain in 1888, ’90 and ’95 – finally including Kosi Bay, the last un-annexed piece of the coast. Ingwavuma had at times been tributary to the Zulu kingdom, but was never part of it.

Britain had earlier (in 1875) attempted to annex the southern shores of Delagoa Bay, then abandoned by the Portuguese after various attempts at settlement, but arbitration under France’s President MacMahon resulted in the entire bay’s being awarded to Portugal. A harbour town began to grow there which became the city of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo).

A further result of 1879’s Zulu War was the realisation that the colony was vulnerable to invasion. But fears were allayed by the annexation of Zululand (as a separate colony) in 1887, and in 1892 Natal voted for self-government. The first responsible ministry in Natal took office in 1893, and Zululand was incorporated into Natal on 29 December 1897.

The abeNguni of the colony were initially fiercely anti-Zulu. They knew themselves by their clan names, and were called “kaffirs”[3] by white colonists. When the Natal Nguni language came to be written down, however, it was called Zulu, and colonists took to calling the black inhabitants Zulus (often written as “Zooloos”). After about a generation the colonial abeNguni began referring to themselves as Zulu, and following the events resulting from the Zulu War began acknowledging the Zulu king as their paramount chief.

Although the division between the colonies of Natal and Zululand may have given the appearance of a “white” colony south of the Thukela and a “black” one to the north, Shepstone’s policies had ensured that extensive parts of the “white” colony were occupied by abeNguni, and extension of these policies to Zululand as it gradually fell under British influence saw it, too, being divided into areas of white and black settlement, creating a patchwork stretching from the Transkeian border to the north. These areas of black settlement would in time become the non-independent homeland state of KwaZulu.

Natal was invaded by forces of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek and Oranje Vrij Staat at the outbreak of war in 1899 and endured the siege of Ladysmith and several bloody battles before the town’s recapture. Although most of the British forces taking part in the war were from overseas, many Natalians volunteered for service. Natal regiments played a prominent role in the fighting.

Following the conclusion of the war in 1902, Natal claimed reparations and was rewarded in 1903 with three districts from the ZAR (or Transvaal Colony, as it had become): Utrecht (which had briefly been a mini-Boer republic in the 1840s) and the two districts formed out of the short-lived Nieuwe Republiek of 1886-88: Vryheid (the republic’s capital), and Paulpietersburg. The Nieuwe Republiek especially included large areas taken from the Zulu Kingdom, which after 1903 remained in white hands.

During 1909 Natal participated in what was called the National Convention – talks with the Orange River Colony, Transvaal and Cape colonies (with observers from Rhodesia in attendance) with a view to forming a federation or union. These resulted in the passage of the South Africa Act (1909) by the Westminster Parliament, which paved the way for the Union of South Africa’s coming into being on 31 May 1910. The Colony of Natal now became the Province of Natal.



[1] To see a coat of arms associated with Piet Retief (although irregularly) see here.

[2] Sekonyela had been part of the Mfecane in that his people, the Batlokwa, was one of two Sotho-speaking polities in the Free State region which, having been raided by a Nguni-speaking clan displaced by Shaka, fled its original home range and in turn raided other clans, stealing their livestock and food, absorbing some of their people and moving on. During this period the Tlokwa were known among white people as Mantatees, a misreading of his mother’s name, Mantatisi. Mantatisi was regent for Sekonyela, who was a boy at the time. The Tlokwa were fortunate to have survived the Mfecane (or Difaqane, as the Sotho called it), although their social structure had been considerably altered in this period and their population diminished by starvation.

[3] This word is now rightly regarded as deeply insulting. It is derived from the Arabic kafir, meaning an unbeliever. When first used in the Cape Colony, it referred to any indigenous non-Christian, and was initially applied chiefly to Khoikhoi and Bushmen. British settlers in the Eastern Province were given to believe that it was the correct name for the amaXhosa (or southern Nguni). Many early Natal settlers came from the Eastern Province, and used the word of the Nguni they encountered there.


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  • Sources: National and Provincial Symbols of South Africa, by F G Brownell, and various historical sources.


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