Durban Aflame, The burning of German Businesses - 1915
11 March 2017
Guest speaker : Donald Davies of SA Military History Society
Donald set the scene by introducing John Frederick Baumann who arrived in Durban in 1851 and established a business as a bread baker and grocery store. He and his nephew, John Michael Leonard Baumann who was an apprentice baker in Germany joined him many years later (1880) after JML had established his own bakery in London. A great seller was the “Ships Biscuits” supplied to sailing vessels and various garrisons stationed about the country. (And who does not know of ‘Bakers’ biscuits?). Baumann Baking Co. West Street, Durban 1895 (Courtesy of www.triton.co.za) The Baumann business was one of the German-owned businesses that were severely affected by the ‘Avenge the Lusitania’ campaign (ironically, the Baumann sons were fighting on the British side). Latent animosity built up from 1899 (Boer War events) and continued during the course of ‘The Great War’ in South Africa between the English and Afrikaans-speaking sectors, and the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 perhaps sparked the flame. The Lusitania (passenger ship) was headed towards an English port and was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat and sank in the Irish Sea 18 minutes after the strike. There were 703 survivors from 1900 passengers and crew. Despite warnings by the Germans in April of that year they would attack in the sea vessels, and a published piece in USA on 1 May 1915, the Lusitania went on its journey. Aboard were a small number of shell casings, but not live ammunition. An official of the Cunard Line stated “no submarine will catch the Lusitania”. (A few potential passengers did not board for the journey as they took heed of the German Embassy warning, rather than the reassurances of the Cunard official).
This sinking was used extensively by British propaganda to rally men to the British cause. From the 13 May 1915 onwards, a systematic and highly organized set of events took place in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Bloemfontein with the burning of various business owned by Germans (with East London and Pretoria not being affected). In Durban, on the evening of 13 May within one hour: Baumanns Bakery in Point Road, Guttens Small Shop, Rand Hotel, Sea Breeze Hotel, Alexandra Hotel, Anchor bar. The crowd on the streets grew larger, and goods from some of the premises were dragged out on the streets and burned. The Police were reinforced by Marines. The burning carried on with Rolfes, Niebel & Co in Cato Street and Smith Street, Liebermann & Belstedt in Mona Road, Mullers Wood Mart, Karl Gundelfinger’s building. If the buildings did not immediately catch alight, they were returned to later in the evening. There were a couple of ‘mistaken identity’ events e.g. WH Muller & Co (Netherlands). On Friday 14 May the burning continued with: St. Cyprians Church (Aglican Church), Heubner’s Store, Eberhard, Bull & Oehmann, Orenstein – Arthur Koppel Ltd, Mr. Liebermann’s home on the Berea, Vogels Sweet Shop, and Joisten’s shop in West Street (which was saved). The next series of buildings burned were Malcomesses, Buttery & Hutton, Korte Cabinetmakers, the German Club, Baumanns in West Street, Central Motors, Lowenthals, Rand Hotel. The various fire stations and fire chiefs had a great deal of work to do during this time and the burning was made worse by the breeze that had come up and certain buildings caught alight by accident. In the following morning, Arabs Store (Turkish), the Sea Breeze and Beach Hotels continued in the afternoon/evening with the Hotel Oceanic, Berea Bar and Bartholomai Jewellery Shop. On the Monday, a public meeting took place outside the Town (City) Hall where strong resolutions were taken e.g. sign allegiance to the Crown, or face the consequences. A few German people were interned at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg, with sporadic outbursts of unrest and Germanophobia. ---o0o--- Some of our members contributed to the meeting by relating family memories of this series of events. It was ironic to note that some of the German sons were fighting in the war on the side of the British, that some non-German buildings were burned by accident or locality. What struck me was that in 1915 (with no e-mails and cell phones that we have today) that with telephone, postal service, and perhaps telex or radio contact – this highly orchestrated chain of events could be organized and people mobilized to carry out the deeds within a week of the sinking of the ship. The perpetrators were never brought to justice, and so this event remains shrouded in secrecy.
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