At the mouth of the Umgeni River in Durban, South Africa, sits a small patch of mangrove trees. Birds flit between branches, while black and red crabs pull fallen mangrove leaves into their holes. Boardwalks wind through the trees, allowing visitors a glimpse of Durban’s ecological past. The Beachwood Mangroves are what remains of the mangrove swamps that once lined the Durban coastline. This is the story of one patch of that coastline, the Congella mangroves, and how their destruction exposes the ways colonial governments used public health claims to make the “natural” African landscape more British, thus bolstering British imperial and economic power.
African mangroves have a long history that weaves together the coastal environment, cultural knowledge, and economic endeavor. West African agriculturalists farmed rice in between mangrove trees. Central and East Africans cut mangrove branches to fashion poles to sell along Indian Ocean trade routes. South Africans fished for mussels amongst mangrove roots. Like other parts of the colonized environment, it was only when the British arrived that mangroves became contested parts of the African landscape.
And so it happened with the Congella mangroves. One spring day in 1889, some Durban residents complained to the Town Council about a nuisance from Cato’s Creek, a nearby waterway polluted by nearby drainage. In the nineteenth century, “nuisance” was a legal term denoting something offensive to the public senses. W.C. Daugherty, Durban’s Nuisance Inspector, examined the area. Instead of blaming the creek, he attacked the mangroves along the coastline of the Congella, a nearby neighborhood in the district of Berea, for supposedly producing foul gases rising from the mud. The rotten smell came from leaves and berries decomposing in the mud, which Daugherty claimed carried diseases in the air and thus posed a public health threat.
When Daugherty reported his findings to the Town Council, he pushed for mangrove removal as a “great sanitary improvement” to the neighborhood. The Sanitary Committee’s Chairman presented Daugherty’s findings to the Town Council, who then contacted the Natal Harbour Board for their thoughts. The Board, which controlled the harbor itself with authority from the Town Council, reserved their opinion and instead sent letters they had received from two non-governmental medical experts. Unlike Daugherty, these professionals defended the mangroves against Daugherty’s claims using prevailing medical opinion on the usefulness of mangroves.
The three experts intellectually dissected the mangrove tree down to its roots. As Daugherty noted, everything about the tree was relevant: “The trunks and roots of the trees retain the leaves and berries falling from the branches, as well as refuse deposited by the tide at high water.” The trunks produced the leaves and the berries, which fell into the salt water. There, they worked with the roots to produce mud filled with poisonous gases that spread diseases like diphtheria and general fevers. The two non-governmental experts, on the other hand, saw the harmony between the trunk, leaves, berries, and roots as part of an environmental cleansing. They argued that mangroves effectively consumed the gases their estuarial environs emitted, and so maintained a healthy coastal climate in which people could live. One went so far as to call the mangrove “one of nature’s beacons to warn mankind that when/where it [sic] lives, death reigns.” Because mangroves consumed deadly gases, they lived where humans could not, and so warned humans of the dangers of the area. The mangrove tree’s body was both dangerous and necessary, something to retain if humans wanted to survive.
When Congella’s residents, who were largely white with a few Indian households, caught wind of the Council’s idea, thirty-seven of them signed and sent a petition to the Council in a bid to prevent destruction. They defended their mangroves, bolstering their argument with nine statements from six “disinterested medical men” in addition to their own lived experience next to the mangroves. The Congellans agreed with the theory that the trees eliminated malaria. They also said mangroves were a beautiful part of the neighborhood, and thus too aesthetically pleasing to lose. Alas, the petition was to no avail. Two days after the Council received the letter, the Harbour Board quietly passed a resolution to “remove [the mangroves] carefully and tentatively,” from the land on which they planned to build harbors to provide more space for commercial ships. The Council agreed with the decision but failed to inform the petitioners. When they did not receive a response, the petitioners’ leader, J.J. Grice, sent a personal letter to the Council reiterating the petition’s claims and asking for a firm stay of execution.
Medical Officer of Health Julius Schulz provided the rebuff to the residents that the Council needed. When presented with the petitioners’ medical evidence, Schulz agreed that mangroves had a place in the African environment—just not one that benefited the “furthering of human civilization.” He broke the mangrove’s body down with more detail to clarify his argument. What pro-mangrove doctors called “young trees,” Schulz named the true roots. And, if mangrove roots consumed decomposing gases, then the gases were in the open air, creating a public health hazard for nearby humans who breathed the same atmosphere. These gases came not from the mangrove’s leaves and berries alone, he continued, “but of fish and of all and everything that the tide leaves behind.” The ocean almost conspired with the mangroves against humans: the mangroves ate the ocean’s detritus to the detriment of living things on the land. As the mangroves grew, Schulz claimed, their “moorings” (the roots below ground) “created the mud and offensiveness” in which the trees thrived. In this way, the mangrove body was not a shield against disease floating in the air but a producer of it. He scoffed at the pro-mangrove doctors: “Has any one of those Medical Men…ever sent a patient of his for the restoration of his health in a Mangrove-swamp, has anyone heard of such a thing having been done?”
Instead of waiting for an answer, the Council used Schulz’s analysis to seal the trees’ fate. In summer 1890, the Harbour Board began calling for tenders for people willing to cut down the mangroves. The Council and Board had kept the petitioners in the dark for so long that the latter did not know about the approved extirpation until they saw the call for tenders in the newspapers. On seeing this, they sent an even angrier petition to the Town Council: “There can be no reasonable object for such wholesale destruction of the trees and in fact of the Medical testimony that their preservation is conducive to the health of the Borough…believing as we do that the removal of the trees will be highly prejudicial to [our] health.” The Congellans saw the Council as doing precisely the opposite of what it should be doing: ignoring instead of listening to its constituents. Using the medical evidence they had, the Congellans appealed to the Natal Colonial Supreme Court to sue the Town Council. However, the Council’s attorney blocked the motion, forcing the Congellans to withdraw their suit and leaving the mangroves free for destruction. The Harbour Board, with the Council’s approval, hired a gang of African laborers to start removing the trees. They had appealed to and overturned the Court’s decision in their favor, and successfully killed the Congella mangroves by the end of the century.
Despite local calls to keep the Congella mangroves, the trees fell victim to imperial destruction because of the potential harm to local public health, part of the British effort to bring all of Natal under its control. In the end, the mangroves’ econarrative highlights how British imperial officials leveraged public health knowledge they sponsored to ensure environmental destruction against the local wishes. By destroying a patch of trees that two medical officials claimed led to the deterioration of settler bodies, Durban’s Town Council and Harbour Board established further control over a valuable area of the coastline that eventually allowed the Board to broaden its commercial dock space. Even with the amount of evidence and petitions residents sent to the Town Council and Harbour Board, the latter two ripped out the 60-acres’ worth of mangroves, ostensibly for the public good but in reality so the port city could broaden its control over an otherwise uncontrollable African landscape.
Throughout the twentieth century, Durban systematically destroyed swathes of its mangroves until only the Beachwood patch was left, protected by local conservationists in 1977. The Beachwood Mangroves are left because they are human-managed, allowed to breathe and grow as a valuable ecosystem while restricted to a 76-hectare space. They are no longer seen as a public health threat to locals living nearby–the grove does not smell because the red crabs scuttling in and out of their holes eat the leaves and berries before they have time to decompose in the mud and release foul smells. For now, the mangroves stay, symbols of a past that imperialism razed.
- Edda L. Fields-Black, “Untangling the Many Roots of West African Mangrove Rice Farming: Rice Technology in the Rio Nunez Region, Earliest Times to c. 1800,” Journal of African History 48, 1 (2008): 1–21. ↑
- Philip D. Curtin, “African Enterprise in the Mangrove Trade: The Case of Lamu,” African Economic History 10 (1981): 23–33. ↑
- Antonieta Jerardino, “Archaeomalacological Observations on White Mussel (Donax Serra) Shell Middens in Vleesbaai,” The South African Archaeological Bulletin 71, 204 (December 2016): 166–72. ↑
- W.C. Daugherty to the Chairman of the Sanitary Committee, November 7, 89, 3/DBN 2/1/1/65. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- B. Horace Wood, “The Mangroves Round the Bay,” Natal Advertiser, clipping found in 3/DBN 2/1/1/65. ↑
- Memorial, November 27, 1889, 3/DBN 2/1/1/66. ↑
- W.H. Evans to William Cooley, January 11, 1890, 3/DBN 2/1/1/67. ↑
- Julius Schulz to Cooley, December 20, 1889, 3/DBN 2/1/1/66. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Memorial, March 19, 1890, 3/DBN 2/1/1/68. ↑
- Thomas Garlicke to Cooley, August 24, 1891, 3/DBN 2/1/1/74. What evidence the attorney provided is unclear, but it may have been Schulz’s medical report. ↑
- T.A. Lindon to the Mayor, October 12, 1891, 3/DBN 2/1/1/75. ↑