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Nathaniel Isaacs - Explorer and a Founder of Natal

Nathaniel Isaacs (1808-1872) is an undeservedly neglected historical figure - as an explorer he was one of the first white men on the African continent in the 1820s and 30s. He also wrote an important and celebrated account of what he found. He may also be credited as one of the founders of Natal.

Isaacs was born in Canterbury but left his home at an early age to work for his maternal uncle Saul Soloman on the Island of St Helenas as a teenager. Quite soon after took an opportunity to go on to Africa where he made his name.

Isaacs explored East Africa and became famous in his time for the account of his adventures and journey in his 'Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa with a sketch of Natal' (1836). The book was noted for its description of the Zulus before colonisation and a description of the despot, King Chaka.

The young explorer described how he narrowly avoided death at the hands of the king by what was essentially a mixture of chutzpah and courage - he saved his life and won respect from Chaka for claiming the wrath of the British Empire would fall on his nation should he be killed and for being unafraid of the prospect of his own death.

Later Isaacs even fought for Chaka and was badly wounded by a spear. Isaacs was a would-be Empire builder, attempting without success at the time to persuading the British Government to annex Natal. It seems that his primary interest was in establishing valuable trade for his country. Britain was later to annex Natal in 1845.

After his disappointments with the British government, he continued his career by trading with Africa and later settled surrounded by natives to cultivate and export arrowroot to England. Here he apparently sought in vain to dissuade his native retainers from labouring on the Jewish Sabbath. He died aged 64 at Egremont near Liverpool - contrary to assertions that he died and was buried in Africa.

While there is a Cape Nathaniel named after him in Africa, his modest tombstone at the very back of Canterbury cemetery gives little indication of the adventurous, significant and perhaps controversial life of this nearly forgotten figure.

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