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Saturday, March 15, 2014


Magnificent record of a quieter and more genteel period in the history of Durban. (Review by Keith Millar)

Durban, city of sun, surf, golden beaches and entertainment. A balmy holiday city beloved by many, residents and visitors alike. In many ways it retains an air of its colonial past. The last outpost of the British empire.

I fondly remember Cyril Sugden, the host of the Little Top on Durban’s South Beach, singing.

Let’s go to Durban by the sea
And see how happy we can be
We’ll sing and dance there
And find romance there
In Durban by the sea

And there in Durban we’ll find fun
For Mom and Dad and everyone
And when you go you will find you know you
Have left your heart in Durban by the sea

It is about the origins, growth and development of this unique and charming city that Franco Frescura writes in his splendid book, Durban Once Upon A time.

Part One of the book offers a brief early history of Durban, or Port Natal as it was originally called. It tells the story of Francis George Farewell and James Saunders King who 1823 sailed from Cape Town for St Lucia Bay where they hoped to trade with the Zulu people.

En route, they ran into a serve storm and sought shelter in the Bay of Natal (Durban Harbour). They liked what they found and returned later with a party of 30 settlers to establish a trading post which would eventually grow into the city of Durban.

It makes for fascinating reading and is a bit like an adventure story as the pioneers battled against the odds to create a viable settlement.

Part One also deals with the establishment of an infrastructure for the town, as well as significant events in its history such the growth of the railway and the development of Market Square. Several very interesting illustrations are used to show the topography of the area when the first settlers arrived as well as early town planning documents.

Part Two of the book is entitled Memories. It documents the growth and development of the city of Durban on many fronts during the first half of the last century. All aspects of life in the thriving city are dealt. There are chapters on Durban’s shopping emporiums, public transport, entertainment, religious worship, public services, Social events, the beach, the harbour and many more.

Franco Frescura’s main source of information in Part Two is a book published in 1985 by Barbara Maud-Stone and Yvonne Miller entitled Dear Old Durban. He draws heavily on the amazing memories and anecdotes related by the late Yvonne Miller. He also credits Barbra Maud-Stone as a collaborator in the writing of this book.

There are an abundance of colourful and graphic old postcards, photographs and illustrations in the book. Many of these have never been published before and form a wonderful collection in their own right.

Durban: Once Upon A Time falls short in documenting the contribution made in the growth of the city by its Black, Indian and Coloured communities. This is a pity because Durban has a culturally rich history and all the population groups made a huge contribution in moulding the city into what it is today. There is no doubt, for example, that Durban’s huge Indian population gives the city its spicy edge.

However, Frescura does offer an extensive explanation for this in his Preface in the book. To the extent that at times he gets quite waspish about the colonial and blinkered nature of the memories of his main source, Yvonne Miller.

I had a problem with the layout of the book. At no time are the illustrations on the same page as the description their content. So, one has to constantly read a bit and then go paging forward or backwards to refer to the illustration. A small thing, I know, but very frustrating.

That been said, Durban: Once Upon a Time is a magnificent record of a quieter and more genteel period in the history of this great city. All Durban residents and the many holiday makers who visit us would find this a fascinating read.

Durban: Once Upon A Time is published under the patronage of the South African National Society. Design and production was undertaken in conjunction with The Centre for Fine Art, Animation and Design. ISBN Number is 978 0 620 56706 0. Price R295. – Keith Millar