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header_07b History of John Dunn


Few personalities in the history of Natal and Zululand have aroused as much controversy as the legendary “White Chief John Dunn”. He is mostly remembered for taking forty-nine wives and siring one hundred and seventeen children. But, this fact alone singularly unusually for many white men took wives and concubines from the indigenous black populars. Rather, John Dunn’s exceptional place in history rest on his prominent role in events that were crucially important in the shaping of modern South Africa. In a sense John Dunn’s history is “living” history of his numerous descendents have formed a distinct and vital community in southern Zululand.

In1820, John's father, Robert Newton Dunn, left his home and family in Inverness, Scotland and joined the influx of British settlers on the eastern shores of South Africa. Four years later, at Port Elizabeth, Robert married Anne Harold Biggar. They had four children; Sarah Mary, Agnes, Louisa and John. John was born in 1834, the year the family moved northwards to Port Natal (Durban), this would make him one of the first white settlers to have been born in the frontier settlement.

kilt_zulu 1Robert Dunn established himself as a successful hunter and trader in ivory and hides. The Dunn family enjoyed a privileged colonial lifestyle in Port Natal. John became close to the indigenous people of the area and he learnt to speak Zulu fluently. In 1847 Robert Dunn was trampled to death by an elephant whilst out hunting with John. Financial disaster followed and Anne Dunn was forced to sell all in order to pay the families debts. She returned to Port Elizabeth with her daughters, leaving 17 year old John, alone and penniless.

At this juncture in his life, John Dunn, then seventeen years old with little formal education and no trade set about the task of fending for himself. His a amazing skill with the rifle, his fluency in Zulu and his extensive knowledge of the physical and human environment of Natal earned him a modest living as a guide for hunting parties.

He then turned to transport riding, until his employer fooled him of his salary. John retreated to the bush, taking with him 15 year old Catherine Pierce; the daughter of Robert Dunn's English assistant - a Cape-Malay woman. The two teenagers led a nomadic existence on the borders of Natal and Zululand. In 1853, they married. A friendship developed between John and Natal authorities eccentric Border Agent, retired British army officer, Joshua Walmsley. Walmsley was shocked by John's coarse and uncultured lifestyle and, under of his auspices John finished his education and became the Border Agent's assistant. With a unit of Zulu policemen, it was John's task to monitor all traffic crossing the Thukela (Tugela) river to and from Zululand.

Meanwhile, tension was mounting in Zululand as Mbuyasi and Cetshwayo, sons of the ruling Zulu King Mpande, were competing for succession of the throne. In December 1856, John Dunn became embroiled in the bitter rivalry, which culminated in a Zulu civil war.

To find out more about the intriguing adventures of this interesting man, enjoy a private tour conducted by Dan Dunn a third generation descendant of the Legendary John Dunn.

To make a booking, please e-mail me on dan@dandunntours.co.za   with your request, travel date, group size and any special requirement that you might have.

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