Some may judge rickshaw pulling as being little more than slave labour. But what drove this drudgery to become a home grown subculture, a vibrant muesli of styles, culture and performance – outwitting boundaries of propriety to become a renowned event of choice?
Pulling Rickshaws in Durban, a South African port, is a 130 year old profession. To alleviate transport shortages, Sugar baron Sir Marshall Campbell imported rickshaws in 1892, encouraging locals to become self-employed pullers.
Invented in 1869, Japan, rickshaws were coined jinrikisha or human powered vehicles.
In Durban, they were renamed amahashi (horse) by the local Zulu people and the name stuck. Men, mostly Zulu and MPondo, grabbed the opportunity and become pullers at the docks and town.
These ” erstwhile ubas” ferried goods and business people speedily, hither and thither and the Europeans wives in long frocks, away from muddy streets back to the cool verandahs of Berea where they lived.
In 1899, there were 740 rickshaws, increasing a decade later to 2170. Pullers were also hired privately by the affluent, who had their own rickshaw, an acquisition considered a status symbol.
At the same time, the image of the plump white man (or women) lounging in the back of a rickshaw while being pulled by a sweating black, became fodder for cartoonists and a universal device with which to vigorously lampoon Europeans in colonial times.
Pulling a chunky wooden rickshaw with upholstered buttoned-back leather seats and several passengers is hard slog, especially in the sticky tropical heat and humidity of Durban. Countless trips meant sweat poured off the pullers. So this was an occupation for men of a steely musculature and an iron constitution.
Rickshaws were hired daily and the registered number of pullers (24 000 at one stage in 1902) meant fierce competition existed for rickshaws, clients and subsequently, cut throat rates for short distances. More experienced pullers, jockeyed positions for the best locations in town.
The official rickshaw uniform was “the kitchen outfit”, starched white shorts and shirt, edged with rows of red trim and mid-1890s photography demonstrates this. However it didn’t last!
Pullers distinguished themselves from kitchen staff, spurning the insipid white suit by wearing bits of indigenous attire over, or under it. Leather fringed skirts peeked out beneath.
Whether for competitive advantage or whether traditional healers encouraged rickshaw men to dig deep finding the power and strength of oxen to succeed at their occupations, one will never know, but soon, sets of horns worn on the pullers heads appeared as the first glimmers of a sartorial revolt
Pullers identified with the strength and ferocity of the bull and the headdress grew into a double set of horns, (one set pointing up, one down) worn from 1900 onwards. This was embellished with massed feathers (isiyaya) in the style of Zulu warriors, increasing a wearers’ imposing height and stature.
Their costume though, was always more than the simply historical. More elaborate, constructed from additional elements. They appropriated popular culture, using iconography from other visual sources, like cinema. For example, the feathered headdress changed slowly into a huge edifice, more pertinent to First Nation actors in spaghetti western movies.
Rickshaw pullers whitewashed their lower legs from calf to feet, scratching simple designs through the paint, showing the skin. Some said this imitated knitted socks worn by schoolgirls. Maybe this practice was reminiscent of spatts, elements of military uniform, or even the fetlocks of horses, but it effectively highlighted their fancy foot work as well, so pullers developed and invented performances to enchant passengers, adding to their repertoire with dramatic steps, little trots and wild leaps and gyrations.
Besides these actions, they competed ferociously to look magnificent, constantly out-doing rival rickshaw pullers with something more creative and outrageous in appearance. The focus on aesthetics, style and fantasy, its theatricality was never duplicated by other rickshaw pullers on the planet.
Design concepts of garments were fluid, evolving due to the endless quest for new possibilities. Ensembles were customized, some being ad hoc, held together by large safety pins. The benefit being that this method of fastening facilitated lightening quick changes to rearrange apparel or add flourishes of found items. Structural complexity was hidden by different layers being worn simultaneously.
Indigenous materials were added such as bovine leather and tails, some wild animal skins and bunches of feathers. Shaggy haired anklets or clusters of seed pods, imparted an auditory jangling effect when they marched.
Items symbolically important, such as flywhisks and small Zulu shields were carried by some, therefore augmenting the layers of a complex visual style.
By the 1930s, new materials were added to costumes, headdresses and rickshaws, some were potentially kinetic, like coloured wool tassels, pom-poms, fluttering scarves.
After the 1940s, Small circular mirrors, vinyl, Christmas tinsel and bicycle reflectors added the shock of the new in unlikely places. Strips of white wall tyres with cut out triangular designs, were made into sandals. Large ear plugs constructed from wood and coloured marley tiles were worn in the ears.
Ideas were distilled over time, through the use of proportion, balance and colour into a refined aesthetic. By re-conceiving the potential of dress, these men created unique personal identities and collectively developed a distinct visual language.
A uniformity of horizontal lines in the garments, gave a stability to the form by dividing the body into three or four proportional segments.
Coloured enamel, painted in stripes on horns, complimented and co-ordinated the linear elements in their beadwork.
Flat beadwork panels, with opposing and interlocking triangular motifs, zig zags and linear designs suggestive of Zulu workmanship, were worn over the chest. Many of the rickshaw pullers came from the Nongoma area. Some, were part of the Mandlakazi and Usuthu clans. Beadwork provided visual and material links to their heritage, and the industry of their wives at their homes in the rural areas.
By the 1960s, rickshaw seats had been stripped back to the elementary structure. Pullers used beadwork to customize and redecorate them into chariots of temptation.
The social impact of style, in this case with a touch of flamboyance, is always universally appealing, especially if contrary to the preconceived conventions of those hitching a ride.
But set against Durban’s azure sea and expanses of white sand, the visual combinations of rickshaw regalia were perfect. The colour of white in the ensembles was repetitive: the horns, short aprons, painted feet, predominantly white beadwork and swishing bovine tails contrasted with bold textures, leather tassels, skins and dark feathers – a feast for the senses.
The internal combustion engine changed their occupation to a niche market catering only for tourists. This meant rivalry was stepped up a notch, for pullers to hone their entertainment skills and secure connections to the harbour.
Disembarking from the Union Castle in 1900 onwards, foreigners sought authentic experiences, to underscore myths of the great Chaka Zulu. The heady exoticism of the rickshaw ride was an incentive, especially if recorded for folks at home.
Photography. Black and white images were a major instigator in the popularity of rickshaw pullers.
Early postcards and photos documented or portrayed rickshaw men as a curiosity, as a novel accompaniment to colonial life ( as in the first 3 photographs of this blog) and they were often depicted in side profile, looking away from the camera with no interaction with the lens.
However by the 1950s, rickshaw pullers were in control of the visual medium and had become active agents of their own image, by charging an extra fee for this visual souvenir and by positioning themselves facing the camera with poise and authority. This also meant collaborating with roving photographers at the beach front, who partnered in their enterprise.
A by-product of this practice was that rickshaw pullers were able to disseminate images of themselves, their occupation and vibrant subculture, through clients and the servicemen of two world wars, across the globe.
One can speculate that thousands of black and white prints exist internationally, snapped over 130 years, palm trees fluttering in the background, with the owner beaming broadly from a rickshaw. All include a splendid looking rickshaw man.
Although the pullers in photographs are anonymous, the occupation of each and location of the image was unmistakable. Their custom made garments could also be identified by researchers.
The images that do exist, show the fronts of costumes. But the back, viewed from the seat behind was just as appealing. The pullers movements, creating sensuous convulsions of fur, feathers, swinging fringes and bunches of beads.
The occupation of rickshaw puller was socially acceptable to the Zulu community, as a means to entertain and also earn a living.
Over time, their novelty value, loved by everyone, gained momentum. So a wild ride in one of these vehicles, with the pullers leaping up in the air, legs flailing, at certain moments for spectacular effect, was soon recognized as an official tourist activity.
By the mid 1960s they were marketed on pamphlets and tourism posters as the face of South Africa and an invitation to visit Durban. “Durban for happy holidays” was the advertising catchphrase. This was totally ironic – considering that the apartheid government and all its nasty repercussions, were in full grind.
But these personalities magnetism and the sub- culture they created, was an unstoppable force. A point well recognized by municipal authorities.
But politics did incisively encroach on rickshaw pullers lives after the Sharpville riots in South Africa and from 1969 till 1995, hundreds of men lost their livelihood, directly from the tourist embargos against apartheid.
Some rickshaw pullers costumes ended up in international museums, preserved as a tribute of their vibrant contribution to culture. A wonderful complete costume can also be seen locally at Phansi museum in Durban. This comprises a full “Nongoma style” beaded outfit, with turkey feathers and a kavadi headpiece with wool pompoms.
In 2011. Walking with dignity, was a successful community project to restore and enliven 25 dilapidated rickshaws, (now over 100 years old), to their former glory, giving pullers renewed opportunities to draw customers. Today a handful of rickshaw men still exist, plying their trade along Durban’s golden mile catering to tourists.
They drew out the best of themselves and enriched everyone they touched with humour and memories of fun – lasting a lifetime in the minds of their clients.