Sep 04


A fascinating glimpse of the tendrils of empire
Robin Lamplough

HillcrestSome observant property owners in Durban's western suburb of Hillcrest may have learned from their title deeds that their land is a sub-division of the farm Albinia.
It is most unlikely, however, that any of them has detected a link with the far-off American city of New York.  Yet such a link  exists.  It provides an interesting illustration of the complex concatenation of some historical investigation.

When Natal's first civilian governor, Martin West, travelled from the coast in 1845 to take up his new appointment in Pietermaritzburg, the journey required three days.  West and his wife put up for the first night, December 11th, at a small and hitherto nameless accommodation house run by a man named Elliott, about halfway along the route.  And, to mark the occasion (so Graham Mackeurtan informs us in Cradle Days of Natal, p. 300) the innkeeper named his establishment 'Albenia' (sic) in honour of the governor's lady.  But why did the publican choose this of all names for his house?  It was because Martin West had just been promoted from a position as Resident Magistrate at Grahamstown, in the Cape district of Albany. 
Now, according to Eric Rosenthal's admirable Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, the man who in 1814 gave the name Albany to a new district of the eastern frontier of the Cape, was a British army colonel named Jacob Cuyler.

 Cuyler, born in North America of Dutch parents in 1775, left the land of his birth because of his family's Loyalist sympathies during the American Revolution.  He joined the British army and was sent in due course as a major to the Cape Colony in 1806.  His Netherlander forebears had emigrated to a Dutch colony in the Hudson River valley called Fort Nassau.  In 1664, this settlement was captured by English colonists who renamed it Albany. (It is worth noting, in a brief digression, that the choice of the name 'Albany' suggests that these warlike North American colonists were Scottish rather than literally English. 
(Albany was an ancient name for Scotland, and the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, assumed in exile the title Duke of Albany.)
At the time of Jacob Cuyler's birth, his father was the mayor of Albany, and later the town became the capital of New York state.  So Col. Cuyler commemorated his American birthplace by naming after it a new frontier district at the Cape.

All this, however, does not explain  the name on the Hillcrest title deeds. 

The farm on which Hillcrest was later built was, like its immediate neighbours, a typically square Boer landholding of just under 6000 acres.  It may, one guesses from a single old document, originally have been called Buffelsfontein. But the earliest available maps give no indication of this or of its original Dutch owner.  The land is described simply as "Property of Capt. J. Murison".  The shipmaster Murison was one of the early land speculators who bought abandoned Boer farms after their owners had joined the 'Second Trek' out of Natal.  The neighbouring property, Perdeplats, later known as Everton, also belonged briefly to Murison.
By that time, the original Albinia inn on the western edge of Murison's property had changed hands and names several times, becoming known eventually as Botha's Halfway House after a new owner, Cornelis Botha, who had earlier run a pub in the capital. But in the same period, the name Albinia had  by a natural osmosis, become attached to the unnamed farm acquired by Murison and that is how it appears on later survey plans. 

By the time transport boss William Gillitt, of nearby Emberton, acquired the property, it was registered as Albinia and in 1895 Gillitt leased a portion of it to a Durban developer, Ernest Acutt, for sub-division. It was in this fashion that the village later known as Hill Crest began and explains why its properties were identified as portions of Albinia .  In a couple of centuries the name 'Albany' had travelled perhaps five thousand kilometres from the Hudson River valley to the Cape's eastern frontier and ended in slightly variant form in the colony of Natal.

One of the undoubted joys of history, don't you think, is being able to unravel little puzzles like this?

Robin Lamplough

1 comment

  1. Carl Runge

    Brilliant! Were can I get more stories of early Durban / Hillcrest?

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