The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 18 No 5 - June 2019

A glimpse of the military history of early Cowies Hill in Kwazulu-Natal

Researched and written by Udo Richard AVERWEG


This article is a continuation of the author’s earlier article titled ‘The 175th anniversary of Durban’s Battle of Congella’ which appeared in the Military History Journal, Volume 18, No 1, December 2017, pp38-41).


In Durban’s famous Battle of Congella, which took place on 23/24 May 1842, the Afrikaner Boers of the Republiek van Natal defeated the resident British troops from the well-established Cape Colony. At that time, the Governor of the Cape Colony viewed the so-called Republiek van Natal as the District of Natal, within the Settlement of the Cape of Good Hope and subject to Cape Colony rule.

The defeated British troops, under Captain Thomas Charlton Smith (1794–1883), were forced to retreat to Fort Port Natal (nowadays known as the Old Fort, Durban) where he and his men were promptly besieged by the Boers. It was here that Durban took root.

Military prowess was of paramount importance to the Boers (Saunders, 1992, p116). The Boers, under the command of Commandant-General Andries W Pretorius (1798–1853), had its hoofkwartier (headquarters) at the nearby laager camp of ‘Kongela’ (Congella). A sketch of Cmdt-Gen Pretorius’ Voortekker camp at Congella is reflected below.

A view of Cmdt Gen Andries Pretorius’ Voortrekker camp at Congella in 1842.
(Source: M Adulphe Delagorgue, 1847, Voyage dans L’Afrique Australe,
Local History Museums’ Collection, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal).

Dick King’s heroic 970-kilometre horseback ride from Port Natal to Grahamstown saw the summoning of relief for the besieged British garrison at Fort Port Natal. On 24 June 1842, the first reinforcements arrived in the Bay of Natal (Durban) from Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth) aboard the schooner Conch. These British troop reinforcements were in time to save Capt Smith’s garrison from imminent surrender or starvation.

On the next day, 25 June, the British frigate HMS Southampton, under the command of Capt Josias Ogle, anchored outside the sandbar at the entrance to the Bay of Natal. She drew too much water to cross the sand bar, but she had 50 cannon onboard and five companies of the 25th Regiment of Foot (King’s Own Borderers) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Abraham Josias Cloete. The Boers realised they were powerless to stop the British troops landing, so they hastily retreated to Congella, where they and the other Boers gathered their belongings before abandoning their settlement. Russell (1911, p190) notes it was ‘… reported that Congella was being deserted by the Dutch farmers’.

A (present-day) restored plaque by the South African Military History Society can be seen in Congella Park, Umbilo. The English text appearing on this plaque states:


Historical Monuments Commission

Cmdt-Gen Pretorius and the 300 to 400 Boers under his command made their way some nine miles (15 kilometres) to Steilhoogte (Cowies Hill) and set up camp on the farm Salt River, where William Cowie lived. According to a biography of Cmdt-Gen Pretorius by B J Liebenberg (1977, p179), on 3 July 1842 Pretorius broke up his camp in Cowie’s Hill (as originally spelt) and headed in the direction of Pietermaritzburg, home of the Boer Volksraad.

Cowies Hill is the name of a wooded suburb familiar to many Durbanites, but what is the military history behind this early pioneer, William Cowie, and what was his role, if any, during and after the Battle of Congella and the setting up of the Boer camp at the farm Salt River? Answering this question is the objective of this article.

As a starting point to finding the answers, the author contacted the Department of Arts and Culture, the KwaZulu-Natal Archives and the Records Service, Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, enquiring about Steilhoogte or Cowies Hill. The Head of Department for Repository Management advised that an electronic search for keywords ‘… Steilhoogte, Cowies Hill, Cmdt Gen Pretorius and 400 Boers using the NAAIRS database’ was undertaken, but that neither photographs nor articles were available in the collection. The author then approached other sources for information, including Hazel L England (retired museum curatrix from the Pinetown Museum), the Killie Campbell Collections and the Old Court House Museum, Durban. The documents and images received from each of these sources helped to craft the article, though, sadly, no image of William Cowie could be found.


After the British had taken over the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806, they did everything in their power to ensure that the Boers became subjects loyal to the British Crown. The term Boer is Dutch for ‘farmer’ and the Boers are descendants of the predominantly Dutch migratory farmers or ‘trekboers’. After some 30 years of conflict, many of the Boers were dissatisfied with their life under British rule and left the Cape Colony. Since there was a general state of discontent, the Boers travelled north in order to find their own homeland. The Boers left the Cape Colony to escape what they regarded as the unacceptable controls of the Cape administration (Duminy and Guest, 1989, p126). They became known as ‘Voortrekkers’. From 1824 some Cape Colonists had also filtered into Natal for purposes of trade and/or settlement. In December 1837 a large group of Voortrekkers crossed the Drakensberg into what they called the ‘Republiek van Natal’. Pieter Mauritz Retief was their leader.

The early life of William Cowie

From British Settlers’ research undertaken by Shelagh O Spencer (1989, p6), one finds that William Cowie was born circa 1809 in Scotland. His origins are not known. While he was undoubtedly British, he was an exception among the Voortrekkers since he had married into a Boer family. His wife was Magdalena Josina Laas, the daughter of Andries Marthinus Laas and Sara Salemina Vermaak (Krüger, 1977, p178).

Plaque commemorating the site of the Voortrekker Camp.
(Source: Udo Averweg Collection).

Andries Marthinus Laas had accompanied Voortrekker Jacobus Johannes (‘JJ’) Uys and his son Pieter from the Cape Colony to Natal in 1837.

William Cowie should not be confused with another British Settler with a similar (but not identical) surname – William Cowey. William Cowey (born circa 1815, died 29 October 1886 in Durban) arrived in Natal on the Minerva. William Cowey, his wife (Mary Ann Goulden), and his wife’s relatives came to Natal under arrangement with W J Irons’ Christian Emigration and Colonization Society. The Coweys’ farming land was in the Verulam District.

During April 1838, William Cowie was one of a commission of six sent by Commandant-General Carel P Landman of the Boers’ United Laagers (who were camping below the Drakensberg), to assess the feelings of the British at the Bay of Port Natal on the Boers settling in Natal. According to Shelagh Spencer, on ‘…arrival at the Bay four days later, the commission found that the few English inhabitants lacked protection for themselves and their property, were not in a position to defend their settlement, and were favourable towards the advent of the Boers’.

Cmdt-Gen Landman then proceeded to annex the Bay of Port Natal and surrounding land in the name of the United Laagers. William Cowie was appointed field cornet (veldt kornet, one who had similar functions to a Justice of the Peace) with the authority to provide whatever protection was necessary to the inhabitants. Cowie was sympathetic towards his neighbours who were British traders and to Boer settlers around the Bay of Port Natal.

The Battle of Blood River — known in Afrikaans as the ‘Slag van Bloedrivier’ and in isiZulu as ‘iMpi yaseNcome’ — took place on 16 December 1838 between a group of 464 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius and up to 20 000 warriors of the Zulu Army on the bank of the Ncome River. The Voortrekkers won the day and, soon after, William Cowie rode northwards to the Zulu country to receive, from Zulu King Dingane, the first instalment of 1 300 cattle, 400 sheep, 43 saddles and 52 guns he had promised as reparations for a peace settlement. It was Cowie’s difficult task to explain that his visit to King Dingane was not to conclude peace with the Zulus but merely to receive reparations from the Battle of Blood River. Cmdt- Gen Pretorius divided the 1 300 cattle received among the 334 men in his laager. William Cowie received only two head of cattle. He was furious to receive such a paltry number and duly returned them.

The Boer Republiek van Natalia

Natalia (the District of Natal) was divided into twelve wards with two representatives from each ward. During this Boer government period (from 1838 until 12 May 1843, when Natal was declared to be a British Colony), Pieter Mauritz Burg (nowadays Pietermaritzburg) served as its capital. A Volksraad with 24 members was elected in March 1839.

William Cowie’s loyalty to the Boers was tested when conflict arose between the Boers and the British. Engelsman Cowie soon lost favour with the ruling coterie when, on 4 January 1840, Pretorius was ordered by the Volksraad to take, by force, 40 000 cattle from King Dingane. William Cowie aired ‘his opinions too freely’ on the eve of this ‘Cattle Commando’ and was soon suspended from his office of Field Cornet. There was strong suspicion that he was conveying adverse criticism of the Voortrekkers to the Cape Colony Press (and indirectly to the Governor of the Cape Colony).

By early 1842, the Cowies were residing on part of the farm Salt River, or Salt River Poort (5 967 acres) which belonged to his father-in-law, Andries Marthinus Laas. According to one report, the Cowies’ residence on this part of Salt River was at a nearby promontory (a prominent mass of land overlooking or projecting into a lowland) called Buffalo Kop. This hill was probably known by the Boers as Steilhoogte [the] and home of William Cowie as ‘Cowies Place’.

The Siege and Relief of Port Natal

With the arrival of Capt Thomas Smith at Port Natal in 1842 to take charge of British troops, this placed William Cowie in an invidious position – he was persona non grata with both the British and the Boers. Within a few days of Smith’s arrival, Cowie was subjected to cross-examination by the Boers with the object of pinpointing the whereabouts of the redcoats ('rooibatjes' as the Boers termed the 27th Inniskilling Regiment of Foot, soldiers under Smith’s command). However, William Cowie was uncooperative about British military plans, which he refused to divulge. A body search of Cowie would have revealed confidential letters from the British forces’ commander, but fortunately these were not discovered by his interrogators.

During the siege of Fort Port Natal, Cowie and a ‘little band’ of men continued to creep into the camp at the dead of night to see whether they could render any assistance (in the form of smuggling food supplies) to Capt Smith and his men. Cowie spent much time immersed in the unguarded swamp water and the ‘almost impenetrable furze’ near Fort Port Natal. Cowie and his band’s heroic actions (on several occasions), brought much relief to the beleaguered redcoat garrison during this siege period. The Times newspaper, Pietermaritzburg, dated 7 January 1857, reports it as ‘… the fatal period when fortune frowned upon the British Powers, this little band were (sic) the instruments through whom the salvation of the Troops and the retention of the British Authority was affected’. This newspaper article further states that William Cowie ‘… jeopardised his life to serve his Queen and did more than any other man at the time’.

William Cowie goes into hiding

Later the Boers discovered that it was William Cowie who had conveyed information of a military nature to the British garrison at Fort Port Natal. This resulted in Cowie being hunted for capture and trial by the Boers. For the next few days and nights, Cowie resorted to hiding and moving frequently on his hill. According to a Natal Star newspaper report dated 12 November 1856, the Boers ‘… hunted him like a dog. For days and nights, he hid himself in and about the hill beating (sic) his name’. The report continues that, on one occasion, the Boer hunters came across his house just as he had crept inside for food. He had only time to step into his bedroom, sit down on his bed with his gun besides him with ‘… a determination to sell his life dearly’. However, his wife, Magdalena, succeeded in distracting the Boer party with coffee and other refreshments – thereby throwing them off the scent of her ‘hunted’ husband.

From his hiding place at Cowies Hill, William Cowie is reputed to have witnessed the frigate HMS Southampton, under full sail, coming up the Natal coast and bringing relief to the siege of Fort Port Natal. William Cowie was there to take part in the welcome. He is considered an unsung hero of the Battle of Congella (and victory for the British) as it was Cowie who kept the surrounded garrison informed regarding the movement of Boer patrols. As Cowies Hill was on the direct road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and a frequent stopping place for travellers, there would have been little information which would not reach William Cowie’s ears. Nowadays the eponymous hill with its leafy Old Main Road (renamed Josiah Gumede Road) is a major feature in the Comrades Marathon held annually between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. In the ‘down run’ (Pietermaritzburg to Durban), the Cowies Hill section of the route is where the battle is often lost (or won). Many a runner has succumbed to the lure of the downhill, failing to remember that the finishing line remains another 15 km away!

The eastern part of Salt River farm at Steilhoogte faced what is today Westville and the Bay (of Natal) which was an ideal site for Boer defensive positions, including their trenches. The Boers also feared the Zulu impi turning upon them (Russell, 1899, pp51-52). So, the retreating Boers camped at Steilhoogte during the period 28 June to 3 July 1842, whereafter they made their way to Pieter Mauritz Burg.

According to Hazel England, there ‘… are no maps or drawings of the retreat of the Boer men to “Cowie’s Place”. They did not stay long as the English soldiers were not far behind’. Her notes indicate evidence that the retreating ‘… Boers’ fears were verified by a visit from Mr Dennis Charlton, son of the first Pinetown chemist, when in 1994 he visited the Pinetown Museum’. She adds that both ‘Dennis and his elder brother Hugh recalled playing in the Boer trenches in the late 1920s’.

Once in Pieter Mauritz Burg, discussions ensued with the Boer leaders and the Volksraad as to their submission to the Queen’s authority. On 11 July 1842, a delegation from the Volksraad met Lt Col Abraham Josias of the 25th Regiment of Foot on Steilhoogte near the home of William Cowie to discuss peace negotiations between the parties (Preller, 1937, p267). It is evident that the Steilhoogte farm with its Cowie’s Hill, played a significant historical role after the siege at Fort Port Natal had been raised. Following these discussions on the farm, the Boer deputation then signed a Treaty of Surrender in Pieter Mauritz Burg submitting to British Authority in Natal (Volksraadnotule Natal: Appendix 14/1842, pp418-9).

Amnesty Tree, Cowies Hill

From Hazel England’s records, behind William Cowie’s house on the farm, was a tree. This large old ‘Voortrekker’ was reputed to be the site of the Cowie house where the peace negotiations had been conducted. The tree had grown through the wall of Cowie’s house and became known as the Indaba Tree. Construction to widen Ernest Whitcutt Road during the 1960s, led to the destruction of this historic old tree reputed ‘… to have a span of 100 foot and a trunk more than 12 foot in diameter’ (Annals of Pinetown, 1968). Interestingly, the author’s sister, pharmacist Ines G C Drake, and her family, used to reside at a house known as West Winds, Old Main Road – less than a kilometre from the site where this (reputed) historic tree once stood.

During the 1920s Ernest Whitcutt had bought large tracts of land in the Cowies Hill area and built a house (known as Woodside) on Old Main Road. Upon his death, the property and house were inherited by his daughter, Thelma McDonald, who resided there until her death. If this Indaba Tree was already fully grown around 1842 (year of the Battle of Congella), nowadays the tree would have been more than 200 years old.

There is an image of the Amnesty Tree, Cowies Hill. According to Hazel England, the photograph was taken in the early 1900s. The image was donated to the Pinetown Museum by Thelma McDonald. In researching historical text for this article, the author paged through an old photograph album in the Killie Campbell Collections. There is an identical photograph of the Pinetown Museum’s image but with the following legend typed beneath it:

A delightful day. Went with Mr Smith & Mr Roper to Woodside Estate (Mr E. Whitcutt’s Place) Saw the old home where the peace treaty was signed in 1845 (sic) …. at the end of the Congella War (sic), on the oldest part of the Road between Durban & Maritsburg, (sic) on the bank of the Palmiet River. Took snap of old Native, M’liko, 98, under the old tree, which has grown up among the ruins of the old house. Wrote Mr Smith a long account in evening.’

Amnesty Tree, Cowies Hill.
(Source: Local History Museums’ Collection,
Pinetown, after the Battle of Congella
KwaZulu-Natal, Pinetown Museum No 24/11554).

On 15 July 1842 the ‘Republiek van Natal’ formally submitted to British rule. Although the Boer Volksraad remained in existence until 1845, from 1843 the territory was under the effective control of the British Representative, Henry Cloete. Many Boers refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown and retreated instead towards the Drakensberg to pastures new, thereby eluding the British dominions. After all, the main reason for the Boers originally leaving the Cape Colony (the Great Trek) had been that they refused to accept British rule and were unwilling to comply with British law. As Brookes and Webb note (1965, pp29-30), the
‘… Great Trek was in its essence a political movement, organised and purposeful, at once a protest against British rule and an endeavour to escape from it.’

In May 1843, a Proclamation was published at the Cape Colony announcing the recognition of the district of Port Natal as British territory (Bird, cited in Brookes and Webb, 1965, p48). The question of land titles was complicated and vexatious. The Volksraad had granted land on a lavish scale but no survey had been possible (p50). Now, under British Colonial rule, all land within the District of Natal was (British) Crown Land. Each adult male Boer was limited to enjoy only one farm where he resided, and he was required to repurchase that one farm from the British Colonial Administration. While the land that the Boers occupied was protected, their Eigendoms Grondbrief, or title deed, was not. This meant that the Colonial Administration would only issue a title deed based on a surveyed diagram of a farm that had been occupied for at least twelve months. On 17 February 1845, Dr William Stanger was appointed the first Surveyor-General of Natal (Russell, 1911, p159).

Colonial Government title deeds

Between 1846 and 1864, title deeds were issued in accordance with the laws created for the Territory of Natal by the British Colonial Government. One of the first title deeds issued in August 1847 (and surveyed by Government Surveyor Thomas Okes) by the British Colonial Administration was to Andries Marthinus Laas of Salt River (or Salt River Port – both names appearing on the title deed document) granting him perpetual quitrent (an annual payment to the Treasurer-General of Natal) of a piece of land of 5 976 acres per Title Deed No 815.

Title Deed 815.
(Source: Office of the Registrar of Deeds,
Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal).

Inspection of this title deed shows that Salt River farm extended ‘… northward to Buffalo Kop, southward to the Klaar Water and G P Kemp, westward to Tafel Berg and eastward to Roose Fontein and Wandsbeck’.

The deed was signed by both the Surveyor- General of Natal, Dr Stanger and the Lieutenant- Governor of the District of Natal, Martin Thomas West.

Since farms were not being granted freehold to the Boers (and to other farmers), the British had thereby wrested the land of Natal from the Boers. The British Colonial Administration only issued new title deeds to those who could prove occupancy. The title deeds which were issued (and the succession thereof), remain in force today in KwaZulu- Natal.


The enquiry into the role of William Cowie during and after the Battle of Congella and the Boer camp on the Salt River farm provides a fascinating glimpse of the military history of early Cowies Hill. His health had been indifferent for several years. According to Shelagh Spencer, the first indication of this dates to March 1853; according to his obituary, he had long suffered from an organic disease of the heart and, during his last visit to the Zulu country, for elephant hunting, he had contracted fever from which he had never fully recovered.

Despite his role, William Cowie was accorded no recognition for his bravery during the Siege of Port Natal and died in relative obscurity on 23 October 1856 at his farm Umgeni in the Umvoti District. This was some three years after the death of Cmdt Gen Andries Pretorius. William Cowie was still relatively young – under 50 years of age. While his pioneering and historic role in early Natal military history may be forgotten, for more than 177 years Cowie’s surname, at least, has served as his legacy in KwaZulu-Natal.