Charles Rawden Maclean, popularly known as John Ross, was born in Fraserburgh,
Aberdeenshire in Scotland in 1815. He was the sixth child of naval Lieutenant
Francis MacLean and Charlotte Walker. He later went on to serve as a ship's
apprentice and was only ten years old when his ship, the Mary, was wrecked off
the Zululand coast in 1825. He survived the wreck and settled at Port Natal,
which would later become known as Durban. He became one of the first white
people to meet and befriend the great Zulu king Shaka, partly due to his
distinctive red hair.
He achieved hero status when in 1827, the settlers at Port Natal were struck with sickness and suffered a shortage of supplies and medicines to survive. John Ross volunteered to trek to the Portuguese settlement at Delgoa Bay, now known as Maputo, in order to obtain the essential medicines and supplies for the colonists. Escorted by thirty Zulu warriors granted to him by King Shaka and led by the historic figure Langalibalele, the 15 year old boy set out on a 960 km journey travelling on foot through inhospitable territory and swollen rivers.
Ross accomplished the trip in three weeks covering a distance of over 30 miles a day. Upon his arrival in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) the Portuguese believed Ross to be a spy for Shaka because they were convinced that no Christian would send a boy on such a journey. It is said that without John Ross' help, the small settler community at Port Natal would have surely all died. Later in 1836, early settler Nathaniel Isaacs described the adventure in a series of tales of his experiences at the settlement. It is said the when Isaacs could not remember the boy's real name, he replaced it with the name John Ross. John died at sea in 1880 when the ship under his command, the SS Varne, hit rocks when heading to Southampton.
A statue was erected in honour of sailor John Ross, and stands on Durban's Margaret Mncadi Avenue, previously known as Victoria Embankment. A tablet at the Old Fort in Durban was also erected in his memory, and reads:
This tablet commemorates John Ross (Lieut J.S. King's apprentice) a lad of 15 years of age, who in 1827, braving the perils of an unexplored land inhabited by unknown people and abounding in wild animals, walked to Delagoa Bay and back (a distance of 600 miles) in order to obtain sorely needed medicines and other necessaries for the handful of pioneers at the Bay of Natal.
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