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Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
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Development of the Victoria Falls



The following text is adapted from 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2018. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.



The Old Drift

Prior to the arrival of the railway and building of the Victoria Falls Bridge the Zambezi River was crossed above the Falls at several established ferry points. Travellers would head for the local landmark of the ‘Big Tree,’ the huge baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) close to the river above the Falls (and still standing to this day). There they would set up camp before making arrangements to cross the river over to the Controller’s Camp and clear their further passage into Barotseland.

Woods, writing in 1960, records older Livingstone residents recalling that there was more than one funeral at the Big Tree in the early days, but no sign of any graves have ever been found.

Giese’s Ferry was the closest to the Falls, located just a short distance upstream and crossing to the Controller’s Camp, but suitable only for small craft carrying light loads. A little further upstream where the river bends significantly (and close to the Big Tree) was the Palm Tree Ferry, where travellers could cross the river to two points on the north bank, including again the Controller’s Camp. The most important crossing was nine kilometres from the Falls, where the river was at its narrowest, about a kilometre in width, and also at its deepest, allowing larger craft and heavier loads to be transported. The crossing was known as the Old Drift, having been the traditional crossing point controlled by Chief Sekuti and his people who had inhabited the large islands on the river and controlled the crossing, before being displaced by the arrival of the Makalolo.

Mr Frederick J ‘Mopane’ Clarke (1873-1937) arrived at the banks of the Zambezi in mid-1898, charged with establishing and operating the crossing and associated forwarding services on behalf of the Chartered Company and establishing a small trading post on the north bank. Clarke had been one of the early European negotiators in Matabeleland, working as a labour recruitment agent for the mines in the south before arriving at the Zambezi. It was said to have been the Matabele King Lobengula who had given Clarke his nickname, saying Clarke was like the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane) - “tall, straight and hard of heart.”

A carpenter by training, Clarke soon erected a small hub of accommodation huts and set himself up as forwarding agent and hotel keeper. The writer Fuller, having interviewed Giese’s widow in the early 1950s records that Clarke had already established the nucleus of a small trading settlement at the time of the ‘Great Indaba’ on the Zambezi between Lewanika and Lawley in June 1898, although most other commentators place his arrival later in the same year (Fuller, 1954).

“[D]inner cost four shillings, a bed fifteen shillings and a whisky and soda (the staple diet of the Old Drifters) one shilling.” (Phillipson, 1990b)

Clarke's Huts at the Old Drift
Clarke's Huts at the Old Drift

Clarke ran the crossing using the iron barge transported to the Zambezi by Lawley, and later a steam launch, also provided by the Chartered Company. Passengers were taken in the barge, paddled by eight Barotse men, whilst wagons and goods were towed by the launch. The Drift also became known more simply as Clarke’s Drift, and later as the Livingstone Drift.

“At the Old Drift itself, goods were ferried across the river on a pont towed by a small steam launch. Passengers were carried in an iron boat propelled by eight Barotse paddlers and the fare was one shilling each way. All this equipment was apparently owned or supplied by the Administration, but it was managed by ‘Mopane’ Clarke who was, to all intents and purposes, in control of the crossing. A number of smaller craft also plied between the Falls and the Old Drift settlement.” (Phillipson, 1990b)

Clarke later employed at least two Europeans to operate the crossing, W A Carter, an engineer, supervised operations on behalf of Clarke, and William Trayner as boatman.

All supplies for the North-Western Rhodesia Administration - including for the growing administrative capital established by Coryndon at Kalomo - as well as for the Northern Copper Company and Tanganyika Concessions Company came through the small settlement, as well as for the increasing number of independent traders, hunters, prospectors and missionaries operating in Barotseland.

Mission Station

In August 1898 the Reverend Giovanni Daniele Augusto Coisson, an Italian working under the auspices of the Paris Missionary Society, arrived to start a mission station among Sekuti’s people. Coisson chose a site back from the river a short distance upstream from the Old Drift settlement and established the foundations of a small mission and school, led by an African evangelist, Petrose Kasana.

“The Paris Missionary Society sent an Italian-born cleric, the Rev Giovanni Daniele Augusto Coisson, and his wife to open a mission at the Old Drift. They brought with them a Lesotho-trained Lozi evangelist, Petrose Kasana, who in 1899 established a small school at the mission.” (Phillipson, 1990b)

A letter from Coisson in late August 1898 recorded that the school already had four pupils, although two of them were herd boys who had to spend their time guarding the cattle. The following day the school only had two pupils, after the chief ordered the herd boys to take the cattle further afield (Watt, undated). Initially Coisson remained based at Kazungula, travelling each month to the Falls to support the work of Kasana. During this time Coisson established a more permanent Mission Station consisting of a thatched chapel building and cottage for himself and his family, after which they moved permanently to the site.

“Coisson remained at the Old Drift for ten days while he was building temporary huts for his family about ten minutes walk from the river. Six Africans helped him to erect the pole and dagga huts. A month later the Coissons moved into their new home. Emily and Francois were the first white children in the settlement and Mrs Coisson appears to be the first woman, because in her letters she does not mention any other...”

“The Coissons seemed to be on very friendly terms with the inhabitants, which numbered in 1899 less than six permanents. F J Clarke often used to visit them. Mrs Coisson wrote of him: ‘We like him very much, he is a real gentleman; which is not always the case with Europeans who come here.’ Mr [Gifford] Moore of the BSAC, who by June 1900 has set up a permanent camp at one hour’s walk from the mission, was another visitor of the Coisson’s. Relations with him were good, but he is described as a very talkative gentleman and rather fussy. He was always welcome at the station and would go any time.” (Watt, undated)

Mission Station at the Old Dirft
Mission Station at the Old Dirft, circa 1900.

By 1900 Coisson had established a fine mission station, with its own riverside landing stage and spacious church building surrounded by a stake fence. The church building was used as the school and by April had six African boarders under the care of the missionaries. Their son, Enrico, was born on 17th May that year, the first European child born at the settlement. Coisson records that Georges Mercier, a Swiss carpenter, and his wife, Madame M Mercier, entered Barotseland in 1897, travelling north to help establish the Paris Missionary Society mission station school at Sefula. After this he presumably arrived at the Drift to assist Coisson with the construction of the mission station, for he is buried on the banks of the Zambezi at the Old Drift, having died on 18th November 1900 of blackwater fever, aged just 26. His wife was already dead and buried at Sefula.

Watt quotes a description of the Mission which appeared in the ‘News of Barotseland’ (No.22), presumably a newsletter of the Chartered Company:

“The mission station which Mr Coisson has entirely built and planned himself stands on the peninsular formed by a bend in the Zambesi which flows close behind it, though the front of the house is quite a little walk from our landing stage. Within a stake fence stand a spacious church, a cottage with a verandah and a high pitched thatched roof, divided into two rooms, another much smaller cottage divided into kitchen and store, each barely containing three people; and three of four round huts.” (Watt, undated)

Trading Places

In 1900 Clarke established the first wood and iron building at the Drift, operating as a general store (and which would later evolve into the Zambezi Trading Company). The company of A & I Pieters soon opened a second store and bar, managed by Mr H E van Blerk, and George Smith and Jimmy James established a partnership as butchers and bakers to the growing community.

“In 1900 F J Clarke built a wood and iron shed which he used for forwarding goods; this also acted as a general store and [later] took on the name of the Zambesi Trading Company. Clarke also had a liquor licence and his was the first bar to exist in the Old Drift. A [&] I Pieters and... van Blerk then opened another store.” (Watt, undated)

Smith And James Old Drift
Smith and James, Butchers and Bakers (from a postcard by P S & Co).

Other traders soon followed and established businesses and stores and the beginnings of a small community slowly established itself on the north bank to await the arrival of the railway, which they confidently assumed would have to cross the river close by. Trade must have been slow in these early years, but a steady passage of travellers passed through the Drift, including an increasing number of Company employees. Frederick Cunningham Norton arrived at the Falls in 1901, responsible for managing the Chartered Company’s store depot.

“During the early years at the Old Drift business was conducted whenever it was called for. Stores were open all week and even the Administration functioned on Sundays. By the end of 1901 Sunday was taken as the day of rest.” (Watt, undated)

In a letter written in January 1901 Coisson records Gifford Moore, ‘Mopane’ Clarke, and two independent traders, Murray and Pearce, as the core of the early community. When Mr Aitkens, District Commissioner for Barotseland (1900-07), returned from leave in England in June 1901 he brought the settlement’s first gramophone - no doubt requested by Clarke as an attraction for his bar.

In addition to his roles managing the crossing and as a forwarding agent for the growing number of mining operations to the north, Clarke arranged logistics for an increasing number of ‘sport’ hunters intent on bagging one or more of Africa’s ‘Big Five.’ Clarke also acted as a recruitment agent to supply labour south of the Zambezi, including for the De Beers Mining Company. Harding recorded in 1901 that Clarke had recently recruited 650 workers over a period of three months (Vickery, 1986).

A New Commissioner

Mr Francis (Frank) William Sykes arrived at the Falls in May 1901, reporting for duty at Constitution Hill as the new District Commissioner.

“In May, 1901, on one of those bright clear mornings which follow each other with such commendable regularity on the high veld of Rhodesia during the winter months, I saddled up in Bulawayo for the Falls. In those days it was a ride of close upon three hundred miles [483 km]... We duly arrived at the wonderful Falls after a sixteen days’ journey. Although for some years afterwards duty or pleasure took me twice or thrice a week into the spray-zone of the Falls, one can never forget the first impression conveyed to the mind by that mighty avalanche of water hurled from the upper river into the seething abyss three hundred feet [91 m] below. It is the sensation of a lifetime.” (Sykes, 1909)

Conservation of the Falls

The District Commissioner on the north bank, Frank Sykes was also appointed the first Conservator of the Falls, responsible for the Falls Park established around the immediate area of the Falls on the north and south bank. The Chartered Company had been alerted to the need to take action to protect the natural environment of the Falls after it was rumoured in 1894 “that some enterprising individual [sadly un-named] was going to ‘peg out’ the land around the Falls and charge gate admittance” - an initiative they were keen to forestall.

“The Company wanted ‘immediate action’ to protect the Falls - and particularly its timber resources - from ‘disfigurement at the hands of transport riders, traders and others’ ...A park was designated around the waterfall itself, and a Conservator was appointed... Frank Sykes, who filled this post, was also Civil Commissioner for the Livingstone area.” (McGregor, 2003)

In June 1903 a brick house was being constructed for Mr Sykes at the growing Administrative camp on Constitution Hill, no doubt in anticipation of the arrival of his wife and daughter. The house, as with his role as Conservator, was jointly funded by the administrations north and south of the river.

“Sykes felt the landscape [at the Falls] needed to be manipulated to ‘excite the wonder of the onlooker’ and to maintain its ‘primitive charm.’ He felt it necessary to ‘open up views of the river by judiciously cutting down trees,’ ‘to fill up gaps by plantations’ and to enlarge hippopotami tracks which were ‘the only means of approach to some of the best points of view.’ He also wanted to charge admission, a proposal that was dismissed by the Company as impractical and ‘undignified.’” (McGregor, 2003)

The regulations protecting the environment of the Falls not only restricted over-enthusiastic ‘sportsmen’ from shooting animals, but also limited access to the river and Falls for the local Leya people. Sykes was later assisted by a Curator, Mr C E F Allen (Forester to the Rhodesia Railways and former employee of Kew Gardens), who was appointed in 1904.

Next page: Life at the Drift

Recommended Reading

Fuller, B. (1954) Bid Time Return. De Bussy, Holland.

McGregor, JoAnn (2003) The Victoria Falls 1900-1940: Landscape, Tourism and the Geographical Imagination, Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 29, Number 3, September 2003 , pp. 717-737(21).

Phillipson, D. W (1975 & 1990) Mosi-oa-Tunya : A Handbook to the Victoria Falls Region Longman, Salisbury/Harare, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe

Roberts, P (2018) 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905.' Zambezi Book Company

Sykes, F. W. (1909) The Riddle of the Zambezi. The Wide World Magazine. May 1909, p.116-126.

Vickery, K. P. (1986) Black and White in Southern Zambia: The Tonga Plateau Economy and British Imperialism, 1890-1939. Greenwood Press.

Watt, A. (undated) History of Livingstone (unpublished document held by Livingstone Museum, c1960s).


Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

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