Gun Accidents

in Early Kwa- Zulu Natal By R A D Ingle

The earliest settlers at the Bay of Natal led a precarious existence, living in straw huts that were barely an improvement on the original Zulu model. Most hunting was on horseback which helped them to survive when their quarry charged and their flintlocks misfired.

During the first three decades of the 19th Century, a small group of white adventurers resided at the then remote Bay of Natal, long before it ever became Durban, to trade and to pursue a somewhat precarious intercommunication with the Zulu nation. The hopeful prospect for this risky enterprise was the lucrative harvesting of ivory and buffalo hides. Guns were essential to this task. However, it seems the hunters were often in more danger from their fiery tools than from the elephant and buffalo.

Their guns would have been typical of the African muzzle-loading hunting pieces that played such an iconic role in our national heritage. In particular, they were the huge guns widely used by the early hunters and frontiersmen at the Cape and later by the Voortrekkers in their move northward into the interior.

This gun was the bobbejaanboud, a spectacular class of gun uniquely South African. In vernacular Cape Dutch, it describes the unusual shape of the wooden stock viz. a baboon thigh. Many were monsters, some with a muzzle reaching to the chin and with bores often one inch in diameter and firing a lead ball wrapped in linen weighing over a hundred grams. It required a sturdy soul to shoot them. Most were smooth bore and some with straight grooves cut in the inner surface of the barrel, this sometimes mistaken by collectors to be rifling. The long barrel had little to do with ballistics. It was to enable the muzzle-loading gun to be loaded while on horseback with the butt resting on the ground.

In the early 19th century, these were all muzzle-loading flintlocks. On pulling the trigger, a flint, held in a spring-loaded cock, would fall and strike a hardened iron frizzen thus creating a spark. This would light some exposed priming powder in a small pan on the side of the barrel. The resulting flash would communicate through a small touch hole to the charge in the barrel.

An old-time Boer hunter at the Cape with a long Bobbejaanboude and an attendant with a spare gun. Note bullet pouches on belt and the powder horn carried by the Boer to the right.

When at the Bay in 1839, the well travelled hunter and explorer, Adulphe Delegorgue describes such a uniquely African gun and the preparation of the ball it fired.

Adulphe Delgorgue, an early French visi-tor to the Bay of Natal with his bobbejaan boude muzzle loader.

But whether you accompany me on a crocodile hunt, or whether you follow me in pursuit of buffalo, hippopotamus, rhinoceros or elephant, remember that the gun must be single-barrelled, of enormous calibre and that two tenths of the bullet must be tin. This is a ‘sine qua non’ (second to none recommendation) observed by all South African hunters.

Delgorgue attempted to hunt hippo in the Umgeni River but was “defeated by the mighty mosquito”. There was a good market for hippo ivory. It was harder than elephant ivory and thus used in the manufacture of dentures. An illustra-tion in his book Voyage dans L’Afrique shows a classic bobbejaanboud with a barrel about one metre long extend-ing back to what appears to be a cap-lock ignition system. It is more likely his gun at that time was a flint-lock – the percussion cap-lock system not being in general use till much later. Most likely the illustration was produced some time after his African experiences. The travelling hunter at the time would have had several guns, some being of smaller calibre and perhaps a fowling piece for game for the pot. When in pursuit of dangerous game, a trusty gun-bearer would be close at hand with a second elephant gun in the event of a shot being botched. Added to this danger, the use of exposed black powder and the muzzle-loading system was intrinsically dangerous.

There were numerous accidents at the time and indeed, right through the muzzle loading era. The accounts that follow have been taken from a number of published sources. Modern place names have been used to identify localities while the language and spelling of those who witnessed the events has been left un-changed.

The big guns were not very fuel efficient. Large stores of gun-powder were required to sustain operations during the long periods between visits by schooners to the bay or overland trips from the Cape Colony. The unregulated mass-storage of gun-powder led to an inevitable consequence. In 1835, Mr Collis was the principal trader in Durban. He represented the Grahamstown firm of Maynard & Norden. Beads, guns, gunpowder, lead and other basic essentials were exchanged for ivory. Everyone lived in grass huts in the Zulu style or in more primitive bush shelters. Mr Collis on the other hand had a more substantial dwelling. His store was made of reeds and plastered with daub and stood amidst a lush vegetable garden surrounded by virgin bush. The site later became part of the central business district of Durban.

Nathanial Isaacs, who was an early resident of Port Natal. His diaries provide us with a valuable source for the history of those days .

Suddenly this peaceful bayside setting was devastated by a huge explosion. The event was recorded by Allen Gardiner, the ex-Royal Navy officer who, after the untimely death of his young wife and retrenchment on half pay from the Royal Navy, decided to devote the rest of his life to opening up new areas for missionary work – the Zulus in South East Africa became his first priority. He was a brave headstrong man with deep convictions and thus controversial. In 1835 he named the Bay “d’Urban” after the then Governor of the Cape. On a return to England he wrote a book based on his diary during his stay in Kwa Zulu Natal – Narrative of a Journey to the Zoolu Country, in which the accident of 1835 is recounted.

26th – Mr Collis’s magazine, containing fifteen pounds of powder, had yesterday exploded; and him-self, his infant child, the native nurse, and a Hottentot named Class, had been killed while several natives were seriously burnt. The circumstances which lead to this awful scene was related by a na-tive who was present, and so severely burnt, that it is scarcely thought he can recover. Mr Collis had gone into the store for the purpose of taking out a gun for “Class” (Klaas?) then in his service but had accompanied me from the colony as Mr Berkin’s servant. In order to try the flint, he had impru-dently snapped the lock, with the muzzle pointed towards a powder barrel, when the gun which had been carelessly put by loaded but without priming, went off; and the explosion, which was heard at the Umgeni, took place. The mangled bodies of Mr Collis and the Hottentot were blown to a consider-able distance ; the skull of the infant, which was in the arms of the servant girl, seated on the outside of an adjoining building, was fractured; and she shortly after died of the injury she had sustained.

Mr Collis’s wife was one of only two white women in Durban at the time. She must have had a sad and lonely return to England.

Another colonist named Nathaniel Isaacs had preceded Allan Gardiner. He was an early pioneer who was shipwrecked while trying to enter the bay in 1825. He hunted and traded in the area and kept a detailed diary. In August 1826 he wrote of an accident which occurred on a small hill on the side of the Bluff over-looking the present-day oil sites at Fynnlands – a small park marks the spot today.

11th – Early this morning I was awakened by the report of a musket, which was followed by a hideous howl. I leaped from my bed and ran towards the mob who had collected at the bottom of the kraal, and there beheld a most painful sight. A poor boy was lying prostrate on the ground, his arm nearly shattered off, with a deep wound in his belly that exhibited his entrails and the upper part of his thigh lacerated. He was bleeding a good deal and faint from the loss of blood, with which he was covered. In fact, the poor creature was so mangled that I had no hopes of relieving him. The natives began already to howl, conceiving him to be dying or dead.
William and Francis Fynn, like myself, were inexperienced, and knew not what to do. We sent for Shingarn, the old native doctor, and then looked into medical books for information. My own judgement was that the arm was much too shattered to be of anyway set, and that nothing could do but amputation. The doctor came, and displayed his knowledge by saying that he could do nothing for the dying youth. William Fynn resolved on cutting off the arm at the elbow; accordingly, we gave the sufferer forty drops of laudanum and drove all the natives away.

Laudanum is a solution of opium dissolved in alcohol. Forty drops is enough to transport the stoutest soul to Shangri-La.

Relic musket marked for “Culemborg” and therefore Danish. It is a good exam-ple of the many flintlock muskets dumped onto the market after the Napoleonic wars. Nevertheless it very likely has a South African provenance as it may well have come north with the Great Trek and the foundation of the Boer state of “Natalia.”
On firing, a flint in the jaws (left) scraped down the frizzen (right) and produced sparks that fell into an open pan under-neath. They also fell into any other loose powder lying around, causing unintended explosions.
A powder horn of the type used in those days. Its simple stopper was a frequent cause of accidents as it was not particu-larly secure. Later flasks had a much bet-ter system of brass shutters.

Isaacs continues:-

I went to keep his friends from approaching, who were coming to mourn, while William, with his razor, operated; and as soon as the arm was off, I sewed the parts together, dressed the wounds, then lodged the lad in a hut, regulated his diet, put three boys to superintend him, and left him as well as could be anticipated from his mangled condition. The boy had been sitting at the entrance of a hut of another who had been trained to the use of the musket, and was cleaning it. The mus-ket being loaded, accidently went off, and the poor boy, while looking at his companion cleaning the piece, received its contents in his arm and body.

The man recovered from this ordeal; albeit still missing one arm.

Isaacs wrote of another accident, this time involving a powder horn which had occurred some months before. Present day shooters of muzzle-loading black powder guns are prohibited from dispensing powder from a powder flask or powder horn on a shooting range. For safety reasons powder charges in modern times have to be separately weighed and held in individual containers. Although this is a departure from the “spirit of the original, “ it is a prudent rule. Isaac’s diary underscores this.

15th – It appears from the evidence elicited, that two of our musket party having been sent to the Cayles, they went to Umtondese’s kraal to beg some corn from their sister, who was the Chief’s wife. Entering the hut of the Chief’s brother, where some females were sitting, who asked them what they had got in their horns, Nonqua took a little powder out and set fire to it. The women’s curiosity not being satisfied, the man put some more on the ground, forgetting the same time, to put the stopper into the horn. As soon as it had ignited it communicated with that in their horns, when a violent explosion took place, which blew up the hut. Both boys were burnt, and the people became greatly alarmed. The Chief, perceiving the hut on fire, and not seeing his brother, thought from the cries from Nonqua, and observing the other running away, that he had killed his brother; he therefore, without considering ran after the boy, who was dreadfully burnt, and himself beat him.

Brunswick muzzle loading rifle of the type described in the text.
It fired a 0.704” calibre (18 mm) ball with a raised belt around it to engage the rifling. It was notorious for being difficult to load as the grooves fouled up very quickly, so it was soon de-clared obsolete.
Then it was issued in Natal.

Later, another burning powder horn nearly changed the course of history in Kwa Zulu Natal. The defeat of the Zulu king Dingaan was expedited in 1839.when Mpande, Dingaan’s brother broke away from the Zulu King with fifteen thousand followers. The Voortrekker Volksraad soon took steps to form an alliance with Mpande. A delegation led by a Landrost went to conclude the agreement. The party must have been filled with apprehension. The horror of the fate of Piet Retief’s who was murdered during a recent visit to Dingaan must have been much in their minds that day. Our old friend Adulphe Delegorgue was there to witness the event. During the negotiations, fore some unexplained reason, Mr Morewood’s powder horn ignited. There was a violent explosion. Fortunately the only casualty was Mr Morewood who caught fire and, to put it in the polite language of the day, was “severely burnt about the loins”. The deal was concluded successfully. As Delegorgue observed, had one fragment touched the King, the matter would have taken a different course.

As the Durban settlement grew, sporting guns became very popular. Charles Barter was a lawyer who had a successful career in those early days. He arrived in Durban in 1851 and had the following to say of his fellow passengers.

But whatever their age, or calling, or previous habits, or to whatever employment they might look forward to on their arrival in the land of promise, not one of them was without a gun. Such a collection of firearms never seen before – singles and doubles, smooth-bores, two-grooved, and poly-grooved, of all sizes and qualities, from pea rifle to the monster elephant gun carrying four to the pound, from the costly and highly finished Lancaster to the cheap Birmingham pistols, revolving; all these and many more were to be found. The very ladies carried light fowling pieces and the caboose was continuously beset by bullet-casters, to the great discomfort of the good-natured black who presided there. As many of them never handled a gun before, some of their manipulations were amusingly eccentric, but when they began actually to load and fire “for practice”, I trembled, and the captain, in sympathising with me on account of his spars and rigging, put a hasty stop to the exhibition. I need hardly say that not more that two or three of these men, since they landed in the Colony, have ever had occasion to take gun or pistol in hand, unless to offer them for sale.

By 1854 there was sufficient interest to form a Volunteer movement. Musketry could have helped to pro-mote gun safety but it had a slow start and the dreaded powder horn again left its mark, perhaps on the loins of a Volunteer or two. George Russell lived and worked in Durban at the time. In his book History of old Durban he described an accident.

Not content with learning how to carry, shoulder, and present arms, we must hurry on to the real thing, so soon began with what the Instructor called “blank cartridge”, but as guns were of all sizes and no cartridges were to be had, while very few knew how to make them, we overcame the difficulty by bringing our own powder horns and flasks, with paper or rag for wadding in our pockets. A slovenly Carpenter man, standing in the rank between John J Chapman (spared to be Mayor of Pietermaritzburg) and myself, after firing his fowling piece once or twice, was preparing to “load and prime”, when his powder flask was blown out of his hand and exploded. The shock and scare caused Chapman and myself to feel for our wounds, but, as nothing gory resulted, we descended upon the Carpenter in wrath by way of gratitude. This incident led to a general order , prohibiting flasks and imposing cartridges.

The cartridge referred to was a measured charge of powder and a ball wrapped in a paper sleeve. This would be torn open, the powder poured down the barrel followed by the compressed paper from the cartridge to form a wad and then the ball.

Subsequently, old Tower muskets were issued with factory-made cartridges and later, the Durban Rangers were issued with also, out of date Brunswick muzzle-loading rifles; one of the worst service rifles ever to see service in the British Army. They fired a ball with a circular belt which engaged two rifling grooves in the bore. George described how he had to dismount, pick up a stone and hammer the ramrod to get the ball down the barrel and seated on the wad. It is surprising there are no records of broken hands and airborne ramrods.

The introduction of metallic cartridges, more stable powders and breech-loading guns over the years that followed must have saved many a life along the way