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Port Natal Maritime Museum displays Durban’s rich history of shipping

The Port Natal Maritime Museum was established in the early 1980s and provides visitors with a glimpse into Durban's rich and colourful maritime heritage.

IF you are curious about the history of shipping at Durban’s Port or if you’re looking for an interesting and unique excursion in Durban, take a drive down to the Port Natal Maritime Museum. This hidden gem is located on the Durban Harbour, and not only can you find out about Durban’s shipping history but you can also see and climb aboard ships that were sailed decades ago at sea. Berea Mail visited the Port Natal Maritime Museum to find out more about the historic establishment.

According to the Port Natal Maritime Museum supervisor, Zama Mkhize, the Maritime Museum was established in the early 1980s and provides visitors with a glimpse into our rich and colourful maritime heritage.

“Durban is a port city, and the maritime industry is a large contributor, not only to the welfare of the city and its people, but to the rest of South Africa and its neighbouring countries. Some of the exhibits have numbers to assist you in finding your way around the museum. There are several interesting exhibits and paintings to admire in this building, as well as a small souvenir display and shop,” said Mkhize.

Zama Mkhize, supervisor at the Port Natal Maritime Museum, stands inside the Ulundi tugboat, which is on display at the museum. Photo: Nia Louw

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As you enter the main gate, you will pass a harpoon gun, which was used in Durban during the early 20th century. The gun was produced by the Norwegian weapons company, Konsberg Vapebfabrik.

The harpoon barb is designed to hook into the whale. An explosive charge in the head of the harpoon then killed the animal. Photo: Submitted

“The harpoon gun was invented in 1864 by whaling captain Sven Foyn. When fired, the harpoon barb is designed to hook into the whale. An explosive charge in the head of the harpoon then killed the animal, after which the dead whale was retrieved by a winch, pumped with air to provide buoyancy and later towed to either a factory ship, or in the case of Durban, the land-based whaling station on the seaward side of the Durban Bluff,” said Mkhize.

Mkhize went on to say that with the introduction of steam-powered boats and harpoon guns, whalers killed more whales in 40 years than had been killed in the previous 400 years.

“The modern age of commercial whaling opened up the hunt for larger and more frequent catches and forever changed the industry. The first evidence of whaling can be traced to around 8 000 years ago in Korea, but the whaling industry only reached a huge scale in the 17th century. By the 1800s, whaling was a well-organised global industry, producing oil and many useful and fashionable items, including the rare and expensive ambergis used for the stabilisation of perfume fragrances,” said Mkhize.

A rope-making machine on display at the museum. Leonardo da Vinci sketched a concept for a rope-making machine, and by the late 1700s, several working machines had been built and patented. Photo: Submitted

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The museum also has a number of historic boats on display.

The Durban tug, JR More, was the pinnacle of steam-powered harbour tugs in South Africa. Fuelled by diesel instead of coal, she was built in Scotland by Ferguson Brothers in 1961. With several sister tugs, JR More was designed as a salvage tug as well as for harbour duties. Photo: Nia Louw

“Tugboats owe their existence to the invention of steam power, a key moment in the industrial revolution that redefined our world. They were among the first seagoing ships to be powered by steam engines, which replaced their dependency on wind and provided greater manoeuvrability. Tugs come in various shapes and sizes. The tug, JR More, in this museum, is one of the biggest harbour tugs ever built. The Ulundi, on the other hand, is a much older and smaller example. For over a hundred years, tugs were steam-powered, and it was only in the 1950s that steam power began to give way to the modern diesel engine,” said Mkhize.

The Port Natal Maritime Museum is open from 08:30 to 16:00 from Monday to Saturday and from 10:30 to 16:00 on Sundays. New exhibits are frequently added, so don’t miss the chance to see history right before your eyes. The ticket office is situated in the Ripple Cottage, which is based on the design of an early-Durban wood-and-iron house.

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