|Review of Legends of the Tide: The Seine-netters & the roots of the Durban fishing industry|
|Tuesday, 08 September 2015 22:12|
By Neelan Govender and Viroshen Chetty
Review by Rasvanth Chunylall
As an Indian growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, seafood and fishing has been an inescapable part of my life. I remember my family’s pride when my brother caught his first fish on a trip with my uncle. I remember my mum and aunt’s experimentation with tin fish samoosas. I recall excited discussions by those anticipating the sardine run. Upon reading Neelan Govender and Viroshen Chetty’s nostalgic Legends of the Tide, I was therefore surprised to learn how ignorant I am – possibly like many Durbanites - of the history of Durban’s fishing industry and the key players in its development.
It began in 1865 when indentured labourers left the colonial canefields they had arduously toiled. They started a new life on Salisbury Island where they formed the Seine-netter community and became pioneers of Durban’s fishing industry. Legends of the Tide begins by examining the lineage of some of the “Master Fishermen” who plied their trade and provides details on their fascinating background and fishing practices. The community also included market-sellers of the Springfield flats who grew and sold vegetables along the Umgeni in the similar entrepreneurial spirit of the Seine-netters. Beyond their work, the book traces the rich and varied life the community lead. They erected temples, organised sport galas, built schools to educate their children, and formed football clubs. They took pleasure in cock-fighting matches and organised angling and casting competitions. Despite their success, it was not easy for this industrious community and the book reveals many of their challenges. They were met with antagonism and experienced restrictions on their fishing. Legislature such as the infamous Group Areas Act moved them away from their homes, their livelihood, and the community they had lovingly fostered.
Naturally, there is much to enjoy in this beautifully illustrated guide. In my opinion, the highlight is a chapter entitled “The Great Flood and Rescue of 1917”. It effectively reveals the ravaging effects the disaster had on the inhabitants of the Springfield flats. Lives were lost. Families were broken. Livestock and pets went missing. Their homes were washed away and immeasurable blows dealt to their crop-based livelihood, leaving many destitute and completely helpless. Legends of the Tide overcomes its academic prose here by successfully capturing the often traumatic and heart-breaking stories of individual families.
Another positive aspect is the book’s descriptions of some of the more colourful characters who populated the community. There is a tribute to the Padavatan Six, a group of brave fishermen, who used their sea-faring expertise to combat the treacherous tides of the aforementioned flood. They were able to save 176 people and were awarded with newspaper tributes and medals for their efforts. Another favourite is the tale of Thumbi Aunty - a woman who should really be embraced by local feminists. She was a widow who took up fishing to provide for her hungry children and proved to be an adept fisherwoman in her own right. What is significant is that the book refrains from portraying the fishing community as entirely Indian with parts dedicated to the contributions of immigrants from Zanzibar, Saint Helena and Mauritius.
On a final note, the book represents only a tiny fragment of the history of the Seine-netters – much of it lost to memory. At the KZN Literary Tourism project we strongly believe in acknowledging the nuances of our province beyond the “sun, surf and sand” narrative touted by tourist advertising. For this reason, I applaud the efforts of Govender and Chetty in documenting this vibrant yet sadly forgotten community who deserve to be celebrated for their contributions to our province.