He made the bricks that built PMB

2013-05-27 00:00

CHARLIE Nulliah was an unlikely exhibitor at Pietermaritzburg’s Prestigious Royal Agricultural show. Given the mores of Pietermaritzburg society at the turn of the century, he should have been a labourer on the farms whose cattle and produce were exhibited. Instead, he was an owner.

Surendra Bhana, in his book Indian Trade and Traders in Colonial Natal, wrote that the scale of Charlie Nulliah’s enterprises may be judged by the fact that he hired ship-loads of workers newly arrived from India, he was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Agricultural Show for 28 years and he was awarded first prize on many occasions. This year, his grandson, Sathia Nulliah, will be the third generation in the family to exhibit at the show. Sathia’s father, Bobby Nulliah, who became a leading South African industrialist carrying out his operations from Pietermaritzburg, exhibited the concrete products from his factory Goodhope. Sathia, a manufacturer of timber products for both the domestic and export market, has a stand at this year’s show.

It all began with the enigmatic Charlie Nulliah who came from indentured stock, yet hired indentured labourers to work on his extensive operations. Despite not being able to read and write, he became a leading entrepreneur, race-horse owner and philanthropist. He had extensive land holdings throughout Pietermaritzburg and the surrounding areas. One of his properties, Brookside, the smallest of his estates, was situated where the current interchange on Dr Chota Motala Road is being constructed. The Brookside property stretched along the N3 from Orthmann Road to the Liberty Midlands Mall. On it he ran his brickworks — Brookside Brick &Tile — where the distinctive red face bricks were manufactured that were used in the construction of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and other historic buildings. He also owned a brickworks in Mayville in Durban, after which Brickfield Road is named.

Authors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their book, Inside Indenture, described him as a trailblazer, a colourful character and a leading early 20th-century Pietermaritzburg personality.

Charlie’s Brookside property was modelled on an English colonial estate with landscaped gardens and a tennis court, yet within its confines, he lived as a traditionalist with his three wives and 11 sons and 11 daughters. He was also the head of the “panchayat”, that decided on matters affecting the religious cum caste group of the Telegus. According to Desai and Vahed, he was a strict upholder of traditions. His will had the following instruction: “If any of my children or grandchildren marry any person other than a person of pure Indian blood and other than a person belonging to the Telegu or Tamil caste and other than by Hindu rites, then such a child or grandchild shall not be entitled to inherit …”

While he moved around with ease in white colonial circles, he was active in the resistance politics of the time. He was a member of the 1913 passive resistance strike committee and hosted Mahatma Gandhi at his Brookside home. He was vice president then president of the Natal Indian Congress.

According to Sathia, his grandfather was born in 1864 soon after his parents arrived as indentured labourers from India. He was named Nulliah Naidoo and took on the name Charlie Nulliah. Today his descendants either go by the name Nulliah or Naidoo. Shortly after his parent’s indenture ended, the family relocated to Pietermaritzburg in 1876 and the city remained Charlie’s home until his death in 1943.

His parents opened a general dealer store in Pietermaritzburg and Sathia says that little is known about the circumstances under which he developed his extensive business interests, but by his early 30s, Charlie was already recognised as a leading Natal-based industrialist. He owned a post office, ran an extensive farming operation, owned the brickworks and was a leading racehorse owner and trainer. Bobby Nulliah had told the family that his father had a friend and business mentor, J.A. (Jack) Peters. Charlie’s farms included citrus estates in the Howick area and three farms which were later sub-divided in the Greytown-Muden area, Table Mountain and around Darvill in Pietermaritzburg. He grew sugar cane and bred cattle on an extensive scale; hence, his association with the Royal Agricultural Society.

Brookside was also home to his racehorse stables. Desai and Vahed wrote that Nulliah was the first black person to be a registered racehorse owner with colours (green, cerise sash and cap). He was the first black member of the Pietermaritzburg Turf Club and the only black member of the Durban Turf Club. Prior to obtaining colours, he raced in partnership with his friend Jack Peters. According to Racing almanacs in 1897, their horse, Speculator, the 6-4 favourite, was placed third to Campanajo in the first Durban July Handicap. The distance was over one mile with a prize of 500 sovereigns. The following year, they won the event with the 2-1 favourite, Campanajo, which they had bought in the interim from Messrs Molyneux and F.W. Murray.

From 1904, Nulliah had 42 racehorses in training. During this time his horses participated in over 170 events. His horse Mielies, won the Coronation Cup in 1905. He quit racing in 1922, shortly after his son Varthan was fatally injured after falling off a racehorse during a training session.

As a philanthropist, Charlie left his mark on the city’s educational, cultural, sporting and religious life. He initially provided tutors for his children. Later he and Swami Shankeranand, who visited from India and played a major role in uplifting the lives of the local Indian community, petitioned the government to build a high school for the community. Pietermaritzburg’s first Indian high school was built next to Brookside. It was initially known as Higher Grade, the York Road School and later Woodlands High School. He used his daughters, whom he educated, to motivate others to send their daughters to school.

Nulliah was a founding member of the Veda Dharma Sabha, the Hindu Young Men’s Association and a Trustee of the Siva Soobramoniar Temple in Longmarket (Langalibalele) Street. He founded football and cricket clubs, and was patron from inception — for 28 years — of the Higher Grade School’s football and cricket clubs.

Today his descendants live all over the world and have made their mark in industry, the medical and educational fields. Besides the pinkish redbricks of the city hall, there is very little to show that this trailblazer was once part of the city’s history. His family has written to the KZN Provincial government motivating for the new interchange onto Dr Chota Motala Road to be named the Charlie Nulliah Interchange.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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