Braving the elements to save people in need
Durban during October is in constant dialogue with the heavens through letters of rain. Sometimes an argument flares and the sky punctuates the city with storms that last for days.
One hundred years ago, Durban experienced its worst flooding, when the farming community of Tin Town was destroyed and over 400 market gardeners living on the banks of the Umgeni drowned.
However, on that tragic day, the City also experienced its greatest rescue. A volunteer crew of six Durban fishermen in a hand-made fishing boat, mustering all their skills and techniques of harvesting the silver tides, fished out 176 people from the furious floods.
Read also Part 1: The triumph of the tides
Defying the Water Police, who feared for their safety, the Padavatan Six quickly prepared to launch. One end of a trawling rope was secured around a tree trunk on high ground while the other end was wound around Captain Mariemuthoo Padavatans’s waist and secured to the prow of the boat. His hands were free to steer the rope.
A shore crew made up of other fishermen controlled the rope tied around the tree. The rope would be fed slowly and steadily to Mariemuthoo when they set out, and pulled strongly when they rowed back. The men would have to co-ordinate their efforts according to the current, swell and wind.
They fell into familiar roles and tackled the rescue operation as if they were seine-netting the wild river. They had to keep the boat parallel to the current because if the boat was broad side to the current it could turn turtle or get engulfed in the huge swirls.
Read also: Part 2: Our people are dying
Dodging breakaway tin roofs, and other flotsam hurtling towards them, they also had to contend with snakes wrapped around tree trunks and frightened cats and dogs trying to get aboard. Bloated animal bodies and even dead people banged against their boat.
At any one time four of the boatsmen acted as oarsmen and two plucked people out of the river. The rescued people, between 30-40 at a time, had to lie flat on the bottom of the boat, like sardines, to keep the balance.
Eye-witnesses described seeing the captain wrestle the savage tides with the rope to keep the boat on an even keel. Mariemuthoo was a powerfully built athlete. He was, what his people called, a “vella-kara” (an Indian so burly and fair in complexion that he could pass for European).
Whispers abound of white mambas in his genealogical tree. He was once a heavyweight boxer on a trajectory to stardom until one fateful bout in the ring. The night of his last professional fight he was in a trance – intoxicated by the scent of sweat and blood and the baying of the crowd. He led with a series of lightning left jabs and then unleashed a thunderous right hook.
It launched his opponent across the ring. The man landed on the mat – head first, and was pronounced dead on impact. Mareimuthoo threw away his gloves for good, and picked up the oars full-time.
Neelan Govender (son of one of the rescuers) recalls: “My father, Sabapathy, recounted the rescue mission with indescribable sadness. He remembered a family perched on a precarious rooftop. Even before they could reach this family, the young mother with her child clutched tight in her arms slid off the roof with a heart-rendering shriek. She and the child disappeared under the swirling waters and were swept away in the strong current.
“My father also recounted the story of a couple with a brood of hens, roosters and a bewildered goat on a rapidly sinking thatched roof. When they spotted the rescue operation, the man stood up, beseeching for help. The woman stretched out her hands, offering her precious mala (Hindu bridal necklace) as a reward for rescue. Before they reached them the entire roof collapsed, and the couple, poultry and goat sank beneath the surging waters. Their heads bobbed briefly and then disappeared without trace,” Neelan said.
One of the saddest stories to emerge was that of a man who lost 14 members of his immediate family. His wife, children and other members of his family were all swept away by the waters, and he himself was almost buried in mud before he was rescued. He had one of his children on his shoulders who later died through exposure.”
Raman, a bedridden man, was unable to escape his room. His wife watched helplessly through a hole in the roof as the waters rose above his bed, drowning him.
One of the happier stories was the rescue of a one-month-old baby, Rudhapersad Chotu Maharaj. He was snatched from the river by the Seine-netters before the swift current could drag him out to sea.
The men were eventually forced to stop their rescue efforts. “After making five trips we were restrained by Constable Donovan from making a sixth as the light was failing badly,” one of the rescuers, T. Velloo recalled in an interview at the time. “We were completely exhausted and were staggering like punch drunk men. All I remember was a need for a brief rest.”
In part four of our series we will look at the aftermath of the flood and the demise of Durban’s first fishing community and its pioneering market gardeners.
For more information about the book or our exclusive series, call 078 593 0585. Follow “Legends of the Tide” on Facebook and Instagram.
One lucky reader can win a copy of the Legends of the Tide – the Seine-netters and the Roots of the Durban Fishing Industry. SMS TribLegends followed by your name and surname to 33258 by 2pm on Wednesday, October 25. SMSes cost R1.50. Terms and conditions apply.