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Gallery Ezakwantu

African Art  - Art Africain - Tribal Art -  菲洲艺术 - Afrikanische Kunst - Außereuropäische Kunst


Central and Southern African Tribal Art





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Zulu Ricksha


1892 - 2000  


Power Carriages of the Mandlakazi Clan

Japanese translation Jinrikisha:  Jin (man) - riki (power) - sha (carriage)  

A moment of contact and wonder.




Les Deux Carrosses - Claude Gillot - 1707








Dr. Killie Campbell and Barbara Tyrrell at Muckleneuk


The first ten Rickshas / Rickshaws imported to Natal arrived in 1892, imported by sugar magnate Marshall Campbell from Japan. His daughter Killie Campbell, would later establish one of the world's largest Africana library collections, assemble the what is the largest collection of watercolours by Barbara Tyrrell and put together a museum showcasing important tribal artefacts. Her collections are preserved at Muckleneuk and may be accessed by appointment with the 'Killie Campbell Library' in Durban.





To everyone's disbelief, 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.





Contrary to what one might assume, pulling a rickshaw was not considered a demeaning task, but a highly sought after - competitive occupation. 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.






A proposal was made that these pullers wear uniforms. A law was passed to this end, apparently so that the police could recognize pullers from other natives. 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 above and below were called 'Isiyaya' or 'Isidlukula'.






Feathered headwear was part of Zulu tradition before the time of  Shaka Zulu. The Kaffirs Illustrated by G. F. Angas was published in 1849. Above left, Plate 19 - 'A Young Zulu in Gala Dress. Above right,  Plate 17 - 'Zulu Boys in Dancing Dress - Dabiyaki - Upapazi'. Note the tuft (above left)  was worn with ostrich and other exotic bird feathers.






In a heartbeat, the pullers individualized their new attire 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. The puller (above right) seems to have added wings.





Cattle played an important part in Zulu culture. Two horns were added to the pullers brow, intended to show the man to be as strong as an ox. Porcupine quills and feathers became part of the decorative competition. Above (left), a traditional Zulu beaded sash  was added to the man's chest. Both men wear earplugs. Tufts to either side of the face appear to have evolved from traditional headgear - to stylized cattle ears.   





By 1900, Durban had become well-known as a city that could be traversed on a Ricksha. Solders involved in the Boer War were some of the first to have 'tourist' photographs taken.  Above, Private Arthur Grevell of the 6th Queensland Imperial Bushman, with his Lee-Metford rifle, its bayonet tucked into his left leg.





Many early Zulu ricksha images survived, due to the uniqueness of Durban's century old ricksha men. Visitors were offered professional photographs (above), who also purchased souvenir postcards (below left). The advent of the Brownie box camera from 1900, added to popularity and 'wish' for a 'Zulu Ricksha' souvenir.






Some pullers walked the streets looking for customers, while others waited at designated ricksha rinks. Ricksha cart construction altered. Twin seats were added as well as longer handles. The latter allowed the puller to move forward or back quickly to balance weight. Once moving, the puller could sprint and bound along at a fast pace, much to the delight or terror of the passenger. A rod or foot was added to the rear so that the carriage could not fall backwards.





The ricksha service was responsible for what became a convenience of movement and was unique to the city of Durban. 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.





The uniquely South African phenomenon of elaborately decorated Ricksha pullers caught the eye of National Geographic Magazine.  At the same time, the Encyclopaedia Britannica referred to 'Ricksha Boys' as a Durban tourist attraction to the outside world.





The advent of the motor car created fierce competition for rickshas. By 1918, horse drawn rickshas had also become popular. The pullers were under the constant threat of various by-laws. Strikes occurred, as well as public petitions in support of the services, which ricksha pullers rendered.





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.






Through rivalry, feathered crowns once used in battle were transformed into an urbanized celebration of the earlier tradition. Plate 20 - 'Zulu Soldiers of King Panda's Army' (left) and Plate 13 - 'Utimuni - Nephew of Chaka' (right) from George Angas ' The Kaffirs Illustrated', highlights related imagery that by 1940 - dated 100 years.





Zulu tradition inspired individuals to boost their popularity as pullers - as they were spectacularly outrageous! Tourists flocked to have their holiday photographs taken with them. The combination of feathers, tufts, quills, traditional beadwork and other exceptional ornamentation reached a zenith. Urban life and Zulu culture came together on common ground.






Two distinct groups of pullers evolved. Those working the docks and general passengers in the city were virtually all of Mpondo origin. Those who applied their services to the tourist trade hailed from the 'Mandlakazi Clan' of the Nongoma area in northern Zululand.






As the market changed, pullers succumbed to the absence of their former white clientele. Rickshas became known as the poor mans taxi. Pullers abandoned the fiercely competitive scene in droves. Those who kept going gave fun rides along the beachfront to tourists.





From the 1950's, rickshas presence in the tourist trade became an enterprise in its own right. The Mandlakazi beachfront pullers adorned themselves entirely with beaded vests, skirts, aprons, belts, sheepskin anklets and other accessories, that virtually covered their entire body.






Headdresses become enormous, incorporating two to four painted ox horns each. Annual competitions for the best costume were held by the city. Above, the winner for 1950 (left) and 1959 (right centre). The ricksha carriages themselves were decorated (above left - below left).






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.






Gallery Ezakwantu displayed keen interest in Durban rickshas when encountering them in 1976. During the 1990's our attention was taken forward by collecting them - ultimately preserving examples.





No less than ten trips were made to Durban between 1995 and 2000. The purchase of ricksha costumes was surprisingly easy. The pullers found our interest to buy, both humorous and at the same time, flattering. A measure of pride was displayed each time a puller sold his attire, and disappointment by those to whom we showed no interest. The act of concluding a sale became something like winning a prize for all parties. 





There were times we flew into the city and hired a car to collect (above). Other times we drove into the vicinity, removing any need to pack or ship (below).





We did not purchase a carriage, but the large headdresses, together with the body shirt, tasselled apron, beaded front cover and animal hair leggings. Perhaps twenty complete outfits were obtained over the period. They were offered as sets with accompanying information to South African museums, art galleries and private collectors. One of the most hilarious sales was to Durban's Local History Museum, the entity who put forward 'Zulu Treasures'. (They could have traveled a few kilometers and bought one themselves - hello!)






The fellow pulling the ricksha above is remembered as an impossible nut to crack. His ricksha attire represented the most outstanding combination of creativity remaining and he knew it. He was delighted to smile and graciously say no! One day he was gone. We could not determine what became of him or the costume. What we do remember is the wonderful twinkle in his eye and his deep gallant laugh saying no no no!





The images above and below display some of the full costumes acquired. Often the 'model' was the same person, put forward by other pullers as 'spokesperson', though he could hardly speak English.






Collection of these artefacts ensured their preservation for posterity. To the best of our knowledge, not a single Zulu ricksha example had been obtained by a Southern African Museum or National Art Gallery prior to our quest.






Two examples had been purchased and exported by Lionel Finneran (1940-2011) during the late 1970's (personal communication). A single other example found its way into an ethnic collection in Massachusetts USA prior to 1950.






We managed to turn the dismal numbers around, leaving behind historic objects and information.






Our sales of Zulu ricksha attire provided the following entities with one or more examples.


Local History Museum - Durban - South Africa

South African Cultural History Museum - IZIKO - Cape Town - South Africa

Spier Contemporary Art - Stellenbosch - South Africa

University of Witwatersrand Art Galleries - Gertrude Posel Gallery - Johannesburg - South Africa

Zulu Cultural Museum - Ulundi - South Africa


British Museum - London - United Kingdom

Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA - Los Angeles California - USA

Norma Canelas and William D. Roth Collection of African Art - USA

Seattle Art Museum - Loan Competition - Seattle Washington - USA


Subsequently - Durban's Phansi Museum confirmed they had received the donation of a ricksha costume a few years ago.






Other Zulu cultural overlaps played out in 'arts' of Durban. Above are two that interconnect with the Zulu ricksha. The horned figure (above left) is by the hand of an early 20th century artist whom has come to be known as 'The Master of the Remnant Bark'. (two toned wood left / carved into the ricksha). The staff (above right and below) was a status trophy given to the winning dance competition at Kingsmead.




Zulu Treasures - Amagugu kaZulu - Page 184 - The Dunlop Ngoma Dancing Team - Circa 1950


Click the image above to learn more about the unique Zulu prestige trophy staff.





Like the Zulu Ricksha pullers, competitive dance competitions brought about an infusion of Zulu and European culture, people who found themselves living side by side. Like the country, native beadwork and tribal dress emerged from a century of transformation, only to blend in and disappear into modern day cosmopolitan life. Three cheers to the old dancers and faces of outrageous Zulu Ricksha fun!









Galerie Ezakwantu

Southern African Tribal Art - African Art 


Central and Southern African Tribal Art


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