THE BUSHMAN ERA
Africa is as old as the Dinosaurs but one certain historical fact about Northern KwaZulu-Natal’s ancient past is that during the 18th century, the only inhabitants were the bushmen, the amaZizi and the amaHlubi. The bushmen were skilled hunters who also lived off roots and plants. The amaZizi and amaHlubi were pastoralists: they knew how to cultivate millet and melons and also understood the art of iron smelting. The little yellow men in their rocky caves and black men neighbours in their beehive huts on the plains below, led a tranquil existence for some hundred years.
THE SHAKA ERA
During the 16th and 17th Centuries the warlike Nguni people migrated south. From one of these groups came the amaZulu, descendants of a young man ironically called Zulu (heaven) by his mother. By 1818, several clans had established themselves in the area and led by Dingiswayo and Shaka a series of savage civil wars broke ending only when Shaka had established himself as leader of all the Zulu. But this still did not bring peace as the Zulu nation extending their power and raiding all the neighbouring tribes bringing about a period known as the Mafakeng or turmoil, creating chaos and devestation across the Midlands and Northern KwaZulu-Natal into Lesotho and the land now known as the Free State.
ARRIVAL OF THE EUROPEANS
During the 1500 and 1600 the Dutch settlers arrived in the Cape while the Portuguese pushed into Africa from their settlements on the East and West coasts. By the early 1800s large numbers of European settlers, tired of the Napoleonic wars and the religious upheavals in Europe, were arriving in Southern Africa. Britain took control of the Dutch holdings in the Cape creating much dissatisfaction amongst the primarily Dutch settlers who started to migrate Northwards to get beyond British control and establish Republics of their own.
One such group led by Piet Retief had heard of the beautiful lands of Natal from hunters and traders operating out of the small trading post of Port Natal. These Voortrekkers crossed over the Drakensberg mountains and sought to settle in Natal with tragic consequences. Retief and some 80 of his men who went to the Zulu King Dingaan to seek permission to settle were brutally murdered and their families set upon by the Zulu. Matters finally came to a head on the 16th December 1838 when the Zulu army attacked a Voortrekker Commando on the banks of the Ncome River with disastrous results. The Zulu Army was decimated and the water in the river ran red with their blood Dingaan was forced to flee and his half brother Mpande was enthroned by the Trekkers. Peace for a short time came to Natal but only until the British decided to extend their sovereignty over the new territory bringing about clashes between themselves and the Trekkers many of whom moved back over the Drakensberg.
ESTABLISHMENT OF NEWCASTLE
During the years 1849-1851 some 5000 odd British settlers arrived in the colony settling the Buffalo Border region and up into Northern Natal. The Colony was suddenly transformed. Permanent structures were built, land was fenced off and wagon roads were carved out. With roads came the Post Chaise and regular stops sprang up to service the travellers. One such stop was Post Halt II on the banks of the Ncandu River. In 1854 a Dr Sutherland, who was to become the Surveyor General of the Colony, found himself and his new wife, trapped by the swollen river. So for the next two weeks he spent his time setting out the township that he was later to register as Newcastle after the then Secretary for the Colonies. Strategically situated where the main road split to lead up into the Orange Free State and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal), the town was to grow rapidly.
In 1876 with the threat of trouble from the new Zulu Kingdom of Cetshwayo and the pending annexation of the Transvaal by the British the colonial authorities decided to establish a fort at Newcastle. Major Amiel and some 200 men of the 80th Staffordshire Regiment arrived in Newcastle and built the Fort now known as Fort Amiel on the high ground overlooking the drift. The fort has been rebuilt and serves as a museum. It was from Fort Amiel that Shepstone accompanied by 14 men of the Natal Mounted police set out for Pretoria and the annexation of the Transvaal in early 1877 and the fort became an important commissariat for the troops operating in the Transvaal.
By 1878 Cetshwayo had recreated the amaButho system of Shaka and could raise an army of 50 000 men. Many of whom who had never had an opportunity to “wash their spears in the blood of their enemies” and claim wives. The potential threat to the colony was great and the colonial authorities felt the only answer was to get Cetshwayo to disband his army or be disarmed.
On the 12th January three British columns crossed into Zululand. The Central Column led by General Lord Chelmsford crossed at Rorke’s Drift. With him were the men of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles. Then came Isandlwana. Wednesday 22nd January the Zulu Army defending their country, wiped out the British camp at Isandlwana slaughtering some 1400 Imperial troops and native levies. In that fatal hour and half “half the women of Newcastle became widows”. Chelmsford was forced to retreat to Natal. Panic spread through the colony and towns were rapidly fortified. In Newcastle the present armoury became the central laager of the townsfolk. The British were able to regroup and with reinforcements from the UK soon overcame the Zulu Army.
Then in 1880 the Burghers of the Transvaal, dissatisfied with British occupation of their country and the lack of response by the British to their appeals for the return of their country, finally took matters into their own hands. A British column moving from Lydenburg to Pretoria was stopped in its tracks at Bronkhorst Spruit and the British garrisons in the Transvaal were invested. General Sir George Pomeroy Colley Governor of Natal and commander of British Forces in South Africa scrambled a scratch force of some 2500 men and marched to Newcastle then on to the Transvaal but on 28th January 188,at Laing’s Nek, he was confronted by a force of Burghers under Commandant General Piet Joubert. Colley’s force was repulsed with heavy losses. He was to suffer another rebuff at Schuinshoogte on the 8th of February and finally on Sunday 27th February 1881at Majuba, his force was to be driven off their “impregnable” position on top of the mountain suffering some 256 casualties to the Burghers
Newcastle was the military and hospital base for the British; and after hostilities had ceased, the Peace Convention was signed at O’Neill’s Cottage at the foot of Amajuba on 23rd March 1881 by Boer and British leaders including Paul Kruger, Piet Joubert, and Sir Evelyn Wood. Later the Retrocession of the Transvaal was negotiated and signed in June 1881 at Hilldrop Farm on the outskirts of Newcastle, home of the famous author Rider Haagard.
IMPACT OF THE DISCOVERY OF GOLD AND COAL
The discovery of gold at Barbeton in the eastern Transvaal and later on the Reef along with coal in Northern Natal brought large amounts of goods and travellers through the town and it soon became an important rest and repair centre.
Wagon builders, wheelwrights and other artificers prospered and were soon followed by millers and weavers. A tailor, haberdasher and a jeweller opened shop. The hotels flourished and the first churches were built, the Dutch Reformed in 1869 and the Anglican in 1881.
The increase in traffic and demand for improved transport soon brought the railway, and on 15th May 1890 the first passenger train arrived in Newcastle to be followed some 2 months latter by goods trains. By 7th April 1891 the railway had been extended through Laing’s Nek to Charlestown. The construction of the 640m long tunnel being considered a something of an engineering feat in its time.
PROCLAMATION OF A BOROUGH
In 1891 the Town was declared a Borough. The discovery of coal had brought a new era of prosperity and several ambitious building projects were planned including the construction of the Town Hall, which was completed in July 1899 just in time to be occupied by the Boer Forces at the start of the Anglo Boer War in October 1899.
THE ANGLO BOER WAR
The advent of the War brought all development to a halt. On 14th October 1899 the first Boer Forces led by General Ben Viljoen entered the town. Renaming the town Viljoensdorp. It was to remain in Boer hands for the next 8 months before the British under General Buller were able to re-occupy it.
During their occupation the Russian-Boer Ambulance Unit set up a military hospital in the Convent Buildings. The Boers ransacked the town and piled up their takings in the Town Hall but when their retreat came it was too quick for them to collect their loot and the towns residents returned to a shambles.
Because of its strategic position and the possibility of its attack by roving Boer Commandos the British were forced to place the town under martial law for the duration of the war. However the presence of military forces also helped to increase the social life of the town with musical concerts, balls and performances by military bands. When peace was declared, the soldiers gradually departed and the Club Institution Buildings were purchased were purchased by Council for civic use.
the first record of any educational work in Newcastle dates back to 1874 when a small school committee was formed ans a school opened in the Dutch Reformed Church building in Lennoxton but the school only lasted until 1878. In 1881 renewed efforts were made to establish a permanent Government School. The site chosen was that where the Junior Primary School stands today. the scholl opened in October 1882 with 47 boys and 30 girls.
In 1904 it was decided to build a new Boys’ School and a new site was chosen “far out of town” and the new buildings were opened on 4th February 1907. The building that now houses the main offices of the Newcastle High School was erected in 1907 and served as an all boys school until 1911 when the Headmaster, TD Wilson made a determined effort to introduce education levels higher than standard six.
Although this was met with some opposition from parents, the boys’ and girls’ Schools were integrated and divided into junior and high schools, both being co-educational. During this same period a Convent was opened in Sutherland Street and in 1909 The Order of St Dominic bought the beautiful property of Sir Charles Gubbins and opened the St Dominics Academy.
THE MODERN ERA
By 1910, many problems with regard to public amenities had been sorted out. A dam had been constructed on the Ncandu River, a waterworks established and electricity was being made available. Bridges were built across the Jordan Spruit and the tree planting programme begun in 1898 completed. Newcastle’s potential as an industrial centre was seriously considered but the onset of the Second World War put a damper on things and it was not until 1918 that Mr JK Eaton decided to build a Steel Works.
Within a few years Newcastle Iron and Steel works Ltd was established. Between 1920 and 1926 the first blast furnace to be erected in South Africa had been completed, the project was acquired by Union Steel Corporation (SA). By 1937 African Metals had purchased the Newcastle Works and by 1945, a second blast furnace was operating. Some 150 000 tons per annum of various grades of pig iron were being produced.
With the depression came hardship and one of the government projects to eleviate the lack of of work was the re-routing of the railway line from Newcastle to Charlestown in order to do away with the “reverses” at Ingogo that caused such much delay and limited the traffic load. This new line involved the construction of a number of long tunnels, work that was largely carried out by manual labour and a little town of corrugated iron buildings sprung up near the present Ingogo village. Fondly known to its residents as “Blikkies Dorp” its school is alleged to have had as many as 450 children.
As a result of the increased steel production a period of expansion came to the town. This expansion was of great financial benefit. Durban Falkirk Iron Co. Ltd. was in production by 1948 and was employing some 200 people.
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s the growth was steady but slow. In May 1969 the government announced that the third Iscor Works would be established in Newcastle and as a direct result of Iscor, Newcastle developed rapidly as an industrial town and prominent growth point in Northern Natal. Later Karbochem established a plant in Newcastle and a vigorous marketing campaign by the municipality attracted a wealth of investment from the far East. Today, in addition to the Zulu, Afrikaner, and English speaking communities, Newcastle has a large Chinese population that includes people from Taiwan (Republic of China), and Hong Kong.