The tale of a little green frog

marina bang 
A place in the sun 

A Norwegian settler family's story of life in nineteenth century Natal.  


IF it was visions of taming a piece of Africa with Christianity that brought my Norwegian ancestors to this country, then, according to family folklore, it was a little green frog that kept them here.  

    In 1870, after ten years on mission stations in Northern Natal, my great great grandparents, Daniel and Caroline Nielson, decided to return to Norway. Years of dysentry had left Caroline in ill health and, because Daniel had spent more time looking after her than the Bishop approved of, his contract with the mission had not been renewed. Daniel set off for Durban to make preparations for the journey back to Norway, taking his little daughter Keta with him.   

    After crossing the Zinkwazi River they camped for the night and Keta filled their kettle from a stream to make coffee. But when the water had boiled and she tried to pour the coffee nothing came out. A frog was stuck in the spout. Supplies were low and there was no more coffee for a second pot.  

    Approaching a nearby farmhouse to ask for more coffee, Daniel and Keta were welcomed and given a meal. When told of the reason for Daniel's journey the farmer expressed concern that Norway's climate would be difficult to bear after so long in Africa, especially for one as sick as Caroline. "Why don't you rather buy the farm next to ours," said the farmer, "it's going cheaply". And so it was that the Nielson's stayed on in South Africa.  

    Ten years before, they had sailed from Bergen, Norway reaching Durban in August 1860. The streets of Durban were then nothing more than deep, loose sand. An ox wagon took the settlers to the Lutheran Church of Norway mission that had been started by a missionary Schreuder at Entumeni near Eshowe, the first mission to be established in Zululand. This was four years after the Zulu kingdom's bloodiest battle. Cetshwayo had fought his half brother, Mbuyazi, on the banks of the lower Thukela river in a battle for succession that cost 7 000 people their lives. Sofie's account of the journey decribes the horror of the skull-strewn landscape north of the river.  

    As part of the vanguard of what later became a more organised emigration of Norwegians to Southern Africa, the Nielsons endured many hardships. Three of the five daughters born to them at Entumeni died. But accounts of their experiences also record small victories like treating snake bites and vaccinating the community who lived around the mission against smallpox, actions which apparently attracted more people to the mission congregation once the epidemic was over. Christianity and cultural imperialism went hand-in-hand. Sofie writes that "the Gospel made practically no progress in those days" - her proof being that most of the local Zulu people were not wearing "European clothes".  

    The Nielson's settled on a farm near the mouth of the Zinkwazi River, the place where the frog had spoiled their coffee. To make a living Daniel felled yellowwood trees and sawed them into beams and logs to sell. His daughter described these trees as having trunks that were so large that five men standing in a circle with arms outstretched could only just reach around them. Daniel and Caroline lived to see their seven surviving daughters - Sofie, Katrine, Dina, Lina, Bina, Inge and Kima - married, and were still alive when the 50th of their 69 grandchildren was born.  

    Other prominent Norse adventurers who arrived soon after the Nielsons included Hilmer Brudevold, who sailed to Natal in 1862 and began sugar and coffee plantations near Port Shepstone, and Jacob Egeland, a deckhand on board a ship that broke up near Durban in 1880. Egeland went on to become a tycoon with interests in shipping, fishing, timber and whaling. 

A second wave

     In 1879 a little sailing ship called the Debora set sail from Bergen bound for Madagascar, from where its 47 passengers hoped to colonise the Aldabra Islands, south west of the Seychelles. Their leaders were an A Olsen, Captain Tobiasson and Knut Bang whose son, Severin, later married Jacobina, one of Daniel and Caroline Nielson's ten daughters. Early on the voyage's 76th day, the watch spotted the mountains of the Cape of Good Hope. That day they met a German schooner and as they sailed alongside it the news was shouted over that the Zulu war had just ended.     On their arrival in Madagascar the party heard that the Aldabra Islands were uninhabitable. A few stayed on Madagascar while the majority decided to sail to Port Natal, where they formed the nucleus of the city's Norwegian community. 

A third wave

    The exodus from Norway to various colonies was triggered by a poor economic outlook as well as a population explosion that saw the population of Scandinavia more than double between 1800 and 1900. The main surge of Norwegian emigration to Natal came in 1882 with the arrival of the 229 Marburg settlers on the province's South Coast, who had been attracted by a Captain Nils Landmark's visions of a self-contained Norwegian settlement with its own administration, school and minister. Families were promised plots and "comfortable cottages", but these turned out to be no more than "a pair of grass hovels on each acreage". Despite hopes that crops of sugarcane, cotton, maize and bananas would flourish the settlers soon realised that their remote position meant that transport costs would exceed the price any produce could fetch. The road to Port Natal was primitive and a sandbar at Port Shepstone hindered shipping.  

    Slowly the settlers drifted towards towns where their skills could be better used. News of gold in the north attracted others. The descendents of Daniel and Caroline Nielson scattered, some to west and east Africa, others to America. Some returned to Norway. But many still live in Natal, some close to the spot where the frog first persuaded them to stay.