The first ten Rickshas / Rickshaws imported to Natal arrived in 1892, imported by sugar magnate Marshall Campbell from Japan.
The ‘Ricksha’ became Durban’s main mode of transportation, both in the city centre and docks. By 1902, 2170 Rickshas crowded the streets, pulled by a small army of registered ‘natives’.
Because of the money offered by this occupation at that time, pulling a rickshaw a highly sought after and competitive means of employment. It is said that in two days a puller might earn a shilling, equal to what a ‘head boy’ working in a home might earn in a month.
Soon after their introduction in South Africa, the British proposed that rickshaw drivers wear uniforms. This was partly done so that police could identify ‘pullers’ from other ‘natives’ who were most likely bound by a strict curfew that restricted their movements after a certain time.
The uniform was an ordinary unbleached calico suit, trimmed with a single band of red braid. Pullers were allowed to dress their hair in a traditional manner and opted to walk barefoot. The feathered tufts (as seen above) were called ‘Isiyaya’ or ‘Isidlukula’.
As time went by, these Zulu pullers began customizing their uniforms by adding extra braids and wearing bangles of plaited reeds with seeds which rattled upon their white washed lower legs. Fierce competition developed among the pullers to design the most original and elaborate costume, giving rise to the elaborate aesthetic now associated with them today.
By 1904 there were over 2000 rickshas trekking around the city. It became fashionable to own your own private ricksha. Durban’s steepest roads had notices stating ‘Dangerous to Rickshaws’. Because of this, overweight people would often employ two pullers, adding to uphill power prowess and downhill breaking.
Durban rickshas became so popular that its imagery was used internationally by the government to lure pith helmeted travellers to the country (centre). Collectable ‘cigarette cards’ (left) were produced as well as large paper fabric labels (right). The labels were used in the UK to visually identify a type of export fabric.
By 1918, horse drawn rickshas had also become popular, but the increasing popularity of the motor vehicle created a traffic problem in Durban.
By 1930 it became unbearable, with over 9000 motor vehicles and an excess of 10000 horse drawn vehicles on the city streets. Increasing numbers of trams and buses added to ricksha competition. Even so, the convenience of short journeys in and around the city centre kept rickshas somewhat popular. However, by 1940 less than 900 were left to ply the streets.
According to public records, by 1968 there were only 260 rickshaw’s left in operation. In 1970 there were one hundred eight six registered pullers and in 1971, ninety. At that moment, the very last of the Mpondo pullers working around the market area were seen. By 1975 there were only twenty nine rickshas working the beachfront. By 1980 - 10 remained, these in poor condition.