Early Days at Umbogintwini – Part 1

by W V Blewett

There are many factories belonging to ICI and its associated companies and some are much older than Umbogintwini, but there can surely be few that have had a more interesting history.  It was built over 50 years ago in a South African reserve and it was thought it would probably have a life of only a few years before the Rand Mines petered out.  I hope I shall be pardoned if I tell you something of its early story, not as a detached historian, but as one who was there.

The erection of the factory started in 1908 in what was then wild “bush” country about 15 miles from Durban on the south coast of Natal.  Kynoch Limited who had an explosives’ factory in Ireland had decided to compete for a share in the large market for nitroglycerine explosives (“dynamite”), a market which till then had been shared between Nobels, with a factory in the Transvaal quite close to the mines, and De Beers, whose factory was near Cape Town some 900 miles away.  This market was, of course, the gold fields of the Rand near Johannesburg, which had been discovered in 1885 and which were, after more than 20 years, still expanding their output!  It was estimated in 1908 that the mines would reach their maximum output in about 1912 to 1915, after which it would slowly decline.  What a different story it has turned out to be – a continuous and undreamed of quantity of gold still being produced there three-quarters of a century since the first gold was found.  I watched peak after peak of production being passed after 1908; and then came the discovery of rich gold fields in the Orange Free State; and again the discovery of extractable quantities of uranium in the gold ores and the old residues.  What the Fairy Godmother still has in store for the gold mining companies of South Africa I don’t know: has she kept her greatest surprise till last?

But in 1908 we were told that we must hurry on with the erection of the factory and make some profit quickly before the mines began to give out!  Umbogintwini was well-placed to compete.  The then separate colony Natal granted Kynoch Limited very attractive conditions and the great port of Durban was only 15 miles away, while the distance to the Rand was only half that from De Beers’ explosives’ factory at Somerset West.  The grant of land was about 1500 acres.  It was largely covered with trees or almost impenetrable scrub.  The village of the same name was later built on the ridge of land on the seaward side of the area; here, from the golf course which was laid out several years later there was a beautiful inland view of flat-topped hills and in the other direction of the Indian Ocean.

What a place for snakes!  Since I first worked at Umbogintwini I have tramped many miles in all parts of Africa, but no other place I know has had anything like as many snakes as that area on which our factory was built; but I’ll keep the snake stories till later.

The Zulu word “umbogot” means a large round pebble as used for grinding corn, etc., and Umbogintwini was called after the river of that name, the bed of which had lots of these pebbles in it.  “Umbogintwini” was thus “the place of the large round pebbles”.  Before the factory started there was only a “Halt” of that name of the South Coast Railway which passed through what afterwards became the village.

I was one of a small group of four “Works Chemists”.  My section was the acid factory making sulphuric acid from pyrites and nitric acid from nitrate of soda; but in the early days we did shift work in any part of the factory.  One of the first jobs was to learn enough of the lingua franca – a degraded form of simple Zulu known as “kitchen Kaffir” – to be able to give orders to the African workers who came from several of the surrounding native territories, Pondoland, Basutoland, Zululand, etc.  Kitchen Kaffir was spoken and is spoken though most of South Africa and in Central Africa – I found it very useful in Rhodesia when I was last there about 10 years ago.  (North of Central Africa the lingua franca is Swahili).  We had about 1000 African workers (a number increased to 3000 during World War I).  The Europeans were largely from Ireland – the others being a mixture of farmers, remittance men, sailors, alcoholics, pioneers, in fact a most interesting bunch of men but a bit difficult on Saturday nights sometimes.

Somebody once said that England was the country where druggists were called chemists, and sure enough the Africans seeing us Works Chemists working in the chemical laboratory were soon calling us “tagati” (witch doctor) and asking for “medicine” for their aches and pains.  They brought us snakes so that we could make medicine from their organs, and they looked to us to dress their acid burns and their cracked skulls after their Saturday night brawls.  At first we had no hospital, but later one was built and a doctor called every fortnight.  They must have been a healthy lot; in fact the acid burns were far and away the most troublesome infliction.  Raw Africans coming new to the factory had no idea that harmless looking sulphuric and nitric acids could destroy flesh in a few minutes, and these accidents were, I’m afraid, fairly common in those days, resulting in severe burns.

The factory started manufacturing in 1909 and most of us began to feel that we had settled in South Africa, and I am the only one of those Works Chemists who has left South Africa.  We came to think with John Buchan that it was “the finest country under the stars”.  That year we were asked to vote for or against the “Union” of the four British colonies that made up South Africa (German South West Africa was, of course, not included in those days) and were persuaded that if we had a Union the two white races, British and Dutch (Afrikaner) would become “one-stream”.  The Africans of course would remain, as always, hewers of wood and drawers of water.  In those days the “paternal” relationship between whites and blacks seemed a practical and permanent arrangement and was as acceptable to the African as it was to the European.  Hardly anyone foresaw either the bad effects that unplanned industrialisation would have or the detribalisation that would result.  As for nationalistic ideas among the Africans, they were thought to belong to the past!  Natal, it should be added, had already started to give a few Africans the opportunity to improve their status and if one reached a certain standard of education, character and citizenship, he could be placed on the same footing as a white man so far as legal and administrative restrictions were concerned.  This privilege, which I saw in the working, was granted to only a few Africans in Natal, but unfortunately (so I think) was withdrawn when the Union was formed.

Generals Botha and Smuts toured Natal to convince us that Union would be a good thing for everybody; and in fact Natal was so dependant on the Rand Mines that it would have had a very difficult time outside the Union.  As it was both Natal and Umbogintwini rapidly developed and all went well, except for a couple of serious explosions, until the First World War.

The first Sunday we young chemists spent in Natal we went out to the factory to get to know its environs and we walked along a disused road with a ditch on either side overgrown with tall reeds.  There was a noise in these reeds like a cow crushing through them and we stiffened and stopped.  Out of the reeds came the big, flat, brown head of a large python (boa constrictor) and we each took a flying leap across the opposite ditch and gave that spot a wide berth.  An adventure I had later was much more exciting.  I had been picnicking in the bush and had left my friends to pack up while I strolled towards and then across a little stream, using the rocks as stepping stones to cross to the far bank of the stream which was a low cliff covered with shrubs and grass.  As I approached it I was puzzled at seeing a lot of stones and earth rolling down the cliff all mixed up with s big, dark, writhing snake.  I called out “Here’s a snake” and my friends shouted back “Kill it”.  I had only a walking stick and I attacked the snake with this before I realised there were three large snakes apparently fighting in the mixture of earth and stones.  It was the mating season.  Two of the snakes, too occupied to notice me and no doubt wondering what had hit them, went off up the cliff on a few feet of tail each, and the third went into a bush at the base of the cliff.  I threw stones into the bush to make it show itself and it came out of the bush at the height of my shoulder.  The stick with which I had lashed at the snakes had snapped off, leaving about 18″ in my hand.  With this I hit the snake across the back of the neck; no doubt someone had told me this was the correct thing to do.  It was, and it killed the snake.  When my friends ran up they told me it was a black mamba and the Africans who appeared confirmed this.  The black mamba is the most feared of all African snakes as it is so big and poisonous.  (One had chased an officer on horseback in the Zulu war, bitten him on the thigh and killed him in a few minutes).  We skinned and measured the snake – it was 10 ft 6 ins.  “But you should have seen those that got away”.

I have never heard of any other “new-chum” innocent enough or fool enough to attack three large black mambas – but new-chums must be specially protected or have beginner’s luck.  I won’t say how many snakes we found on occasion at the factory.  When we had to clear a new patch of grass and had enough workers they would surround the whole area and work in towards the centre, cutting the grass and killing escaping snakes as they went.  The number they killed at the centre of the grass patch on such occasions was unbelievable – mostly small ones, of course.  What was remarkable was how few people were bitten at Umbogintwini.  One day I saw a man bitten.  He was on a motor bike on a steep path through the bush, and as the bicycle roared past me up the slope a green mamba several feet long slithered quickly across the path and the man rode over it to kill it.  It reared up and bit him on the ankle.  That, too, was hardly believable; but I saw the two punctures on his ankle and got him into hospital, which was close at hand.  We gave him an anti-venom serum injection.  It would be dramatic to add that he died in agony; he didn’t, he had nothing worse than a headache.  The snake got away.

At first the staff all lived in Durban and travelled to and fro by train every day, but before long the younger ones found homes or lodgings along the coast nearer Umbogintwini, for it was a few years before we could build a village at the factory; I suppose there wasn’t the money.  The South Coast, as it was called anywhere south of Durban, was then regarded as “out in the bush” and no one foresaw it becoming the highly attractive residential strip of coast that it became later.  I lived in a pleasant little spot called Amanzimtoti in a house on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean.  At that time an old Zulu chief of royal blood, Shingana, came to live only a few hundred yards away from me.  He had been moved out of Zululand because it was feared he might become the centre of any rebel movement; for there had been a Zulu rebellion in 1906 and this old man was looked upon as the Great Chief.  He was the 17th son (daughters were not counted) of Mpanda, a brother of Tshaka the greatest king of the Zulus, the most powerful African monarch in history whose power was known from Cape Colony to the great lakes of Central Africa – a great general and a bloodthirsty tyrant.  And so I came to know a nephew of Tshaka, thus making a link with the first quarter of the 19th century.  Shingana made himself known to me by sending a Zulu messenger to ask me to translate a letter, in English from a Dutchman in Northern Natal, which I did.  I took an interpreter with me to his kraal (group of huts) but Shingana, whom I found squatting, dressed only in a loin cloth, near the fire in the centre of his typical, round wattle and grass hut, insisted on my speaking in my poor Zulu and wouldn’t let my interpreter speak.  I learned afterwards that this was a matter of court etiquette, as a Zulu of the royal family must have as an interpreter only a member of the Mtetwa tribe.

Shingana had fought at Isandhlwana in the Zulu War of 1879 when he commanded an impi (regiment) on the occasion of the annihilation of a British force.  When I asked him to tell me about the battle he said “How can I talk about our fighting you?  We are friends now”.  He was captured later in that war and was sent to St Helena with King Cetywayo.  He had no complaint against his treatment by the British apart from his being allowed only one wife during his exile.  He told me he had, or had had, 70 wives and 110 children, but I didn’t check his figures.  Shingana was not a tall man but the sons I saw were magnificent specimens all six foot tall, with one exception, and wearing only leopard skins; a Zulu could wear this “costume” only if he had killed a leopard single-handed with an assegai (spear).  He was always friendly and courteous but I had the impression that he was disappointed in me because he had hoped, having learned that I was a “chemist”, that I would help him overcome some of the effects of old age.  He must have been an old man, over 80 years of age, when I knew him and he died a few years later.  I often wished I had known more Zulu so that I could have talked to him about “the old days” for there was more than a streak of greatness in the royal Zulus.

All three South African explosives factories had been expanded during the war years and it became obvious that after the war only two of the three factories were needed to keep the mines supplied.  The best-sited factory was at Modderfontein (Nobels) as it was in the gold mining area.  Umbogintwini, in my opinion, was the next best site, but De Beers had only the one factory (built by Cecil Rhodes) and were not likely to close that down.  When in 1919 Nobels and Kynoch joined the other explosives factories in Great Britain to form Explosives Trades Limited (which afterwards became Nobel’s again) Modderfontein and Umbogintwini came under the same management, it was obvious that Umbogintwini would be regarded as redundant.  Before this was announced I had been made manager of Umbogintwini and it soon looked as if I was to be the caretaker of a defunct factory which could only be “scrapped” and not fetch much as scrap.  It went “against the grain”, in those of us who had spent many years at Umbogintwini, to scatter the little community and evacuate the little village with its attractive setting and we made up our mind to put up a fight for the continuation of both factory and village.  There were two factors which led to Umbogintwini being kept going.  The first was that Major (now Colonel) Barley in Nobel’s was studying the manufacturing possibilities of their South African factories and he realised that a good case could be made for the manufacture of agricultural chemicals in South African as these were being imported in increasing quantities.  At Umbogintwini we had come to the same conclusion.

I had been “spare time” farming in the midlands of Natal (what a glorious country and climate that was, comparable with the highlands of Kenya) and we had been running an agricultural experiment station (amateurish, no doubt) on some of our surplus acres at Umbogintwini, where we carried out, inter alia, some experiments on sugar cane, maize and ground-nut diseases for Dr Storey F.R.S., the Government Mycologist, who had a laboratory in Durban but no land on which to do field experiments.  Everything combined to convince me that Umbogintwini could survive and make a profit by manufacturing the chemicals needed by the farmers, viz. fertilizers, cattle and sheep dips, locust poison, fruit tree sprays.  We already had a small superphosphate plant, the output of which went to a fertilizer mixing firm, and we decided that we must make our own fertilizer mixtures to be sold in our own name; and also greatly increase our “super” plant.  (Today I believe Umbogintwini had the largest output of any superphosphate factory south of the equator – about (x) thousand tons annually).

Nobel’s acted gamely.  They said they would give us 18 months in which to convince them that we could make Umbogintwini eventually a profitable venture; and they sent out Major Barley to discuss our problems and difficulties and potentialities.  To cut a long story short, Nobels didn’t wait 18 months; they were convinced we could “make good”.  And in the meantime we had gone ahead with improvising plant and advertising our goods.  The small team of technical men, artisans and unskilled workers had through this difficult time been working most loyally to keep things going.  We had to start to make manufactured products quite new to us and to build the necessary plants from the equipment and machinery of the explosives section which closed down, e.g. nitro-cotton-washing tanks became tobacco fermentation tanks for the manufacture of nicotine products.  Plants to make lime-sulphur; sodium arsenite from Rhodesian “arsenic”; liquid HCN; and in all about 40 products were made in plants constructed largely from tanks, pipes and sheet lead from the disused sections.  This did not happen overnight – it took, I suppose, a couple of years or more.  But we did convert our chemical laboratory and our industrial chemists into agricultural chemists overnight; and they did some very good pioneering and research work, largely due to Geo Ingham.  We showed farms how easy it was to damage germinating crops under South African conditions if fertilizers were wrongly “placed”; how important nitrogen was in the wetter areas especially for sugar cane and for grass; how even the wattle (tree) plantations needed superphosphate after the first rotation.  Soil analysis taught us a lot, I recall – chiefly to keep our mouths shut.  We had thought it a good idea (a fairly new one in those days but soon adopted by charlatans) to advertise that we would tell farmers who sent us a soil sample what fertilizers to use; a very risky procedure in a “new” country.  I remember three farms from very distant parts of South African met at a cotton growers’ conference in Swaziland and decided to take a sample of local Swazi soil, mix it thoroughly, divide it into three parts and dispatch the three portions from their distant farms to Umbogintwini for analysis.  Fortunately for our good name they each received practically the same report.  We had a most interesting time, for South Africa in those days had done very little work on either fertilizers or soils and we found British text-books often misleading for our South African conditions.

We had to learn a lot about packing a range of materials to withstand rough handling.  One day a guard on a train in Rhodesia dropped on the platform more violently than usual a box of glass tubes containing liquid HCN (for fumigating citrus trees).  The absorbent packing was good for most occasions but not for this and some of the contents of the broken tubes was spilled on the platform just as the Governor was being met by a guard of honour.  A dog wandered up to the patch of liquid and promptly turned up its toes, and the Governor was nearly forgotten in the panic.  Our packing case was given the guard of honour.

We had to learn salesmanship, too, over what is a sub-continent; and in our spare time master the essential details of the chemistry of cattle-dipping-tank fluids; the conditions fatal or favourable for the good “condition” of fertilizers dispatched to very different climates and altitudes, and much more etc.  We made lots of blunders in work that was so new to us, some that might have been most serious, but we learned rapidly from our mistakes and we convinced the head of McDougall’s (the insecticide firm, now of Cooper, McDougall and Robertson) that we could make and pack their products.  Major Barley had travelled out to South Africa with Mr Isaac McDougall (who had been the first to use derris, the vegetable fish-poison, as an insecticide).  He came to Umbogintwini and we formed “Kynoch McDougall Limited”.  Umbogintwini was to manufacture a range of “Ky-Mac” products and we were to sell also McDougall’s imported lines.  This put us in a good position to compete with the leading importers, Cooper’s, but we were astonished when a year or two later we heard that McDougall’s in Great Britain had amalgamated with Coopers, which left us in a somewhat anomalous position.

There is no doubt that our rapid success was due to good luck as well as to good guidance, but I do want to pay my tribute to that loyal and imaginative little band of technical men and artisans who kept Umbogintwini on the map where it still us.  (I was there again in 1949 and could hardly recognise it).  The next step was the formation of AE&CI which later grew into African Explosives and Chemical Industries, AE&CI, and which has played such an important part in the modern industrial and agricultural development of South Africa.