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On 08 June 2015. Old Boy Fernando Pessoa, Literary Giant, Honoured at DHS.

On Tuesday 2 June His Excellency the Ambassador for Portugal, António Ricoca Freire, visited Durban High School to place a wreath at the statue of DHS Old Boy Fernando Pessoa in honour of this Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher, who is described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century. We are proud to call him one of our own!

“Here at Durban High School we honour and cherish tradition. In the lead up to our 150th birthday which we celebrate next year, we are so proud of the heritage of our School and all those who were a part of the DHS family since 1866. We look forward to honouring more of our Old Boys, just like Fernando Pessoa, who have achieved success in their lives,” commented Head Master, Mr Leon Erasmus.

Three wreaths were laid at the statue by His Excellency the Ambassador for Portugal António Ricoca Freire, Mr Howard J Buttery on behalf of the DHS Foundation as well as the Head Boy, Liam Whitfield, on behalf of DHS itself, in remembrance of this prominent literary figure.

Earlier that day, Mr Jeremy Oddy paid the School a visit and gave the Boys a talk in assembly about Pessoa so that they too could understand the significance of this famous DHS Old Boy.

The link below is a video clip from IOL News of the ceremony held on Tuesday:

For more pictures please see the gallery page.


Clearly, young boys need direction and guidance at school. The school he attends is paramount in his education and his quest to seek new ideas and to develop his academic skills. One frequently will hear that an intelligent child will succeed at any school. True perhaps, but what if the high school he attends follows the same primary school syllabus as was the case in the era of Superintendent of Education, Mr Robert Russell in the 1880s. In fact 95% of the townsfolk in Durban in those days believed that the level of education at primary schools was sufficient for their boys and what’s more the primary school fees were a lot cheaper than those of the high school.

As Head Master Nicholas of Durban High School was so influential in Fernando Pessoa’s education, the speaker will outline some hurdles the Head had to overcome as he endeavoured to set DHS on its golden era by the time Fernando enrolled at Durban High School in 1899.

Primary schools were thriving and the teachers were paid according to the results they achieved. They only had to satisfy one man, Mr Robert Russell. He set the exams and tested the children. No doubt those teachers studied and were aware of his stock questions. The children would be drilled and crammed with his favourite subjects. Mr Nicholas was the sole teacher at the high school and his learners ranged from 9 to 18 years of age and were all at different stages of their education.

With only about 46 boys in total at both the ‘Maritzburg and Durban High School the idea was bandied about that Durban High School would close and the Durban boys could be boarders at the ‘Maritzburg High School. The idea became a reality when a bill was published in the Government Gazette in September 1886. The proposal was that the land on St Thomas Road, set aside for the building of a new Durban High School, should be sold and the money from it used for University bursaries for the boys of ‘Maritzburg High School.

Then came the winds of change. In the early 1890s parents were encouraged to take a greater interest in higher education than they had thus far displayed. There was consensus on this statement by the Durban City Councillors. These words must have been sweet music to Mr Nicholas’ ears. DHS was at last receiving active support from the town's leading citizens. Their mindset, over time, had changed. Higher education now seemed important. Enrolment at DHS increased as its achievements in academics became evident. DHS in the 1890s was now comparable with the best British grammar schools overseas.

The mayors and leading citizens over time strove for a new high school to be built. A stately, red-brick building on the Berea was soon to be a reality. The foundation stone of the school was laid by the governor, Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson on 3 July 1894. A young cub reporter from the Natal Mercury made his way from town up an untarred Berea Road on a horse-drawn tram. (An extra horse was in harness for this rather long incline. He alighted from the tram in Musgrave Road and walked on to the building site in Essenwood Road.)

He reported 15 January 1894: “…….. the building is rapidly reaching completion. Its appearance has a real English grammar school look about it and its general character is such that it may be expected to excite the pride and passion of its students.”

By the time Mr Nicholas moved from his Bayside school to open his new school in 1895 on the Berea, he was the foremost Head Master in Natal. Neither ‘Maritzburg High School nor Hilton nor Bishops (now Michaelhouse) could compete with the extraordinary success obtained by the school in Durban.

Head Master Nicholas had the ability to produce an intended result, that of excellent instruction and the results achieved by the boys. It is worth noting that his staff were top academics recruited mainly from Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England.

During Mr Nicholas' time at DHS, his boys won the Rhodes’ Scholarships, which were conferred by the Colony of Natal on the student who most distinguished himself in the Natal Matriculation Examinations. DHS boys won the Scholarships 10 out of 12 times.

Mr Nicholas, in Pessoa’s time from 1899 to 1904, instilled in every boy and especially in Pessoa, a love of the classics, English as well as Latin and Greek. He excelled in English. Pessoa was promoted 3 times in a 2 year period. In Grade 10 he was 2 years younger than his class mates and intellectually superior. He did not take part in games. He was pale and thin and appeared to be physically under-developed. Critics of Pessoa are unanimous with regard to his literary development during his years at DHS. His studying of the classics and the influence of English during his adolescence under the guidance of the DHS staff were the key to his great success.

His years in Durban were important for a number of reasons. He was extremely well-read and had a rich cultural background which awakened in him the desire to develop ideas, to dream and to write.

Contemporaries of Fernando at DHS, to name a few, were E G Jansen – later to be Governor-General of South Africa, Charles Clarkson – later Senator in the Government of the Republic of South Africa, Dennis Shepstone – Administrator of the Province of Natal, H G McKeurtan who was the Founder and Editor of the first DHS magazine while still a schoolboy and was classified top student in the final law examinations at Oxford University.

Fernando kept himself out of focus while at school. He was an exemplary pupil. His school mates were accustomed to hearing his long and foreign name being read out at prize-giving ceremonies and to see a lad with deep, dark eyes and his fragile, small body make its way to receive his prizes – he would make a respectful bow and then make his way back to the shadows at the back of the hall.

The year he wrote the Matriculation Examination held by the University of the Cape of Good Hope, he was awarded the recently created Queen Victoria Prize for the best English essay in South Africa.

DHS can boast scores of international sportsmen and top achievers in all fields of endeavour but after their passing they are soon forgotten. But here we have the memory of a diminutive, physically fragile boy who died 80 years ago in 1935. He is a celebrity to millions of people around the world. He is buried among kings and queens and the great explorers of Portugal in the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. I’m proud to say he is the most famous and celebrated DHS Old Boy. A man with amazing thoughts, ideas and manuscripts he left behind for the world to enjoy. Roy Campbell and other great scholars of literature in the last century agree that Pessoa was the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.

Today and in the recent past, whilst the speaker was the Archivist at Durban High School many folk, including the President of Portugal, Dr Mario Soares visited DHS. Others, pursuing the Pessoa legend, on walkabouts with the speaker at the School have been; 4 Portuguese Ambassadors, Bishop Januario Togel Ferreira and many folk who came to South Africa to enjoy the 2010 Soccer World Cup, 7 Portuguese-speaking TV presenters and even Dr L M R Dias, Fernando Pessoa’s nephew who travelled from Lisbon to visit the school. He, himself, is a respected poet. All came to see and feel the spirit of DHS.

A number of World Cup under 19 Rugby matches were played at DHS in April 2004.

The Portuguese side had a fixture at DHS. When they alighted from their bus in St Thomas Road, they immediately made their way to the Fernando plaque honouring the poet, which was unveiled in 1995 by the Portuguese President, Dr Mario Soares.

The captain and coach, through an interpreter, said they were honoured to be playing their group match at the school where Pessoa was educated. They added that they believed that the education Pessoa had received at DHS undoubtedly influenced him and his writings. The team then placed a wreath of red carnations and roses under the plaque.

A bust of Fernando Pessoa was commissioned by Mr A E de Sousa, the present Portuguese Consul here in Durban. It stands in the forecourt at DHS next to the bust of the world-renowned Durban High School educated poet, Roy Campbell, which was created by the same artist, Kevin Jenkins. At 10am on Saturday, 17 September 2005, the unveiling ceremony took place supported by a large crowd. Among the invited guests were the Portuguese Consul as well as community leaders from Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban.

The Portuguese Ambassador, Dr P Barbosa addressed the audience. It was obvious from his address that Pessoa is highly regarded by the Portuguese community worldwide. Dr Barbosa added that DHS was the most important factor in the poet’s development. The event was covered by Portuguese television and press. The following day, Sunday, the event had great coverage in the newspapers in Portugal, particularly in Lisbon.

At the laying of the foundation stone ceremony at DHS in 1894, the Mayor of Durban, Councillor George Payne, spoke the following prophetic words:

“The prosperity of a country depends, not on the abundance of its revenues, nor on the strength of its fortifications, nor on the beauty of its buildings, but it consists in the number of its cultivated citizens, in its men of education, enlightenment, and, last but not least, its men of character; here are to be found its chief interests, its chief strength, its real power.”

Those original school buildings he was referring to were demolished in the 1970s – but the spirit of the genius, Fernando Pessoa, remains at Dear Old Durban High.

Thank you Fernando Pessoa from me, also a DHS Old Boy.