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Midlands Stories From the Past

Midlands Stories From the Past

For anyone interested in the recent and more distant past, the KZN Midlands has plenty to offer. To start at the “beginning” of what we are certain of – but not of course at the real beginning when early man first entered the area – we know from archaeological evidence that there were humans living in some of the Drakensberg rock shelters more than 25 000 years ago. During the last 25 000 years ( the period known as the Later Stone Age in South Africa), hunter-gatherers lived throughout the Midlands, but only occupied the mountain rock shelters later: about 3000 years ago in the northern Drakensberg and about 8000 years, or more, ago in the South.

Their descendants were the Bushmen or San who created the beautiful rock paintings for which the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site is famous. A series of droughts in Southern Africa probably led to the first wave of agriculturists (Iron Age people) moving south from the Limpopo Valley around 400 AD and meeting up with the San. Contact between the San and the Nguni-speaking people led to many changes: the newcomers smelted iron for tools and weapons, made pottery, grew crops and kept livestock. Where the San were somewhat nomadic, following herds of game and travelling across the breadth of Natal to the coast where they gathered shellfish and possibly fished the lagoons, the Iron Age people settled in villages.

There was trade and intermarriage between the groups and many people in South Africa today have traces of San ancestry. Life was not straightforward for the communities of black farmers however. Over time they were settled into clans and chiefdoms and conflicts and violent rivalries arose between the chiefs. Refugees fled inland closer to the mountains where many San had returned to live.

When the white colonists arrived and settled on farms, conflict quickly arose between the new farmers and the San. One issue was the destruction of the herds of game on which the San depended; the other was new ownership of land with herds of sheep, cattle and horses. Almost inevitably, the San began stealing horses and other domestic stock, taking them back into the mountains which had become their refuge in the face of all the intruders into their territory and the loss of their traditional way of life.

The white farmers frequently grouped together to hunt the thieves and to recover their lost stock, sometimes successfully. They called upon the government for protection. One response was to send a small force of Cape Mounted Rifles to what is now Fort Nottingham and by 1856 a regiment from Nottinghamshire was established there. The Fort Nottingham Museum is housed in one of the stone building erected by the regiment at that time. Nottingham Road came into being later; the name derives from a junction on the road to Fort Nottingham.

This and more recent history is well documented: the story of Langalibalele and the hunt for him in the precipitous mountain passes at Giant’s Castle, the life of Lt-Colonel Anthony Durnford who died at Isandlwana and whose name was given to Fort Durnford at Estcourt, the saga of Bishop John Colenso, the Anglo-Boer Wars with memorials and graves dotted over the landscape, including a memorial to the war horses at Weston Agricultural College. There are historic homesteads, churches, missions and museums filled with stories large and small, many within easy reach of the Midlands Meander.