Henry Francis Fynn, pioneer hunter, trader and explorer of Natal, was the son of H. Francis Fynn, who traded between Britain and the Dutch East Indies, and his wife Elizabeth Copestick. His parents moved to the Cape Colony in 1807, leaving him in London. From 1809 young Fynn received six years of education at Christ's Hospital School in London (a charitable institution) and in 1816, at the age of 13, became a surgeon's apprentice. He arrived at the Cape in November 1818 and worked on the government's Somerset Farm (where the town Somerset East was later established) until about 1823. He was next employed as supercargo (trader) on the trading vessel Jane, owned by Henry Nourse & Co. The ship travelled to Delagoa Bay (now Baia de Maputo) and from there Fynn journeyed some distance up the Maputo River. Back in Cape Town Lieutenant F.G. Farewell employed him to initiate trade for ivory with the Zulus. Fynn and his party reached Port Natal in May 1824, where he was soon joined by Farewell. They travelled together to Shaka's kraal near present Eshowe and may have been the first Europeans to visit him. Fynn stayed for some time and was able to treat Shaka for a stab wound after an attempt on his life. The settlement at Port Natal was then granted a concession of land measuring some 50 by 160 km and Fynn became a regular visitor to Shaka's kraal.
From Port Natal Fynn travelled southwards as far as the Mzimvubu River (about 200 km) in search of an overland route to the Cape. During this trip he came across the wreck of the Grosvenor, which had stranded in 1782. During several trips over a period of nine months in 1824 and 1825 he was able to reach the kraal of Faku, chief of the Pondos, and explore parts of the southern Natal and Pondoland coast. In the process he discovered the fossiliferous Cretaceous deposits at the mouths of the Mtamvuna, Mzamba and Mpenjati Rivers, though he did not collect specimens. His discovery constitutes the first geological observation made in KwaZulu-Natal, but was made public only in 1855 by R.J. Garden*.
Fynn settled along the Mzimkulu River in 1827, where he was joined by his father and two brothers in 1829. He had four native wives at this time, and 12 children by them. After the assassination of Shaka in September 1828 the Zula army was ordered by his successor, Dingane, to attack Fynn's settlement near present Port Shepstone. Fynn visited Dingane's kraal to remonstrate with him and managed to keep on trading in the territory. In March 1832 he met Anrew Smith's* party and accompanied it to Port Natal and on to Dingane's kraal. Because of Dingane's swings between hostility and friendship he left Natal and settled in Grahamstown in December 1834.
From the beginning of his stay in Natal Fynn had kept notes on his travels and particularly on the tribes then inhabiting the territory, their customs and beliefs. Unfortunately his early notes were lost, but he again started to write up his experiences in 1830. This may have been as a result of a request by John C. Chase* in November 1829 for extensive information about Natal, in exchange for which he offered money or a share in his intended publication on exploration of the southern African interior. Fynn's response is not known, but several years later he entrusted Chase with his extensive notes on Natal.
During the Sixth Frontier War of 1834-1835 Fynn served as an interpreter to Sir Benjamin D'Urban, visiting the Pondo and Tembu tribes in an effort to secure their help or neutrality in the conflict. In March 1837 he married Ann Brown in Grahamstown, but she died two years later. In January 1841 he married her sister Christina, with whom he had a son, also named Henry Francis (1846-1915).
From 1837 to 1849 Fynn was British resident (diplomatic agent) at Tarka Post, on the upper Swart Kei River, and from 1842 also justice of the peace for the district of Cradock. In 1849 he became British resident with chief Faku in Pondoland until the post was abolished on 1March 1852. Returning to Natal he served as assistant magistrate at Pietermaritzburg and in the Lower Umkhomazi Division. In may 1856 he was appointed resident magistrate of the Inanda Division, north of Durban, but retired in 1859 owning to ill health. He lived in Durban for the remaining years of his life, widely recognised as anauthority on matters relating to the indigenous population of Natal.
Fynn's efforts to write a history of Natal had resulted in a few preliminary chapters as early as 1834. From about 1857 he started writing his reminiscences again, mainly in an effort to legitimise his right to land in Natal, but the task was not completed. His papers were used as a source of information by Chase for his Natal papers, by Bishop J.W. Colenso for his Ten weeks in Natal, and by John Bird for The annals of Natal. Fynn's fragmentary diary was eventually published in 1950 and his papers, now in the Pietermaritzburg Archive Repository, remain an important source for all aspect of pre-colonial native life.
Fynn's father stayed with him and died near present Isipingo. His brother William MacDowell later served as an official in the Eastern Cape. Another brother, Francis (Frank) died near present Port Shepstone before 1830. A third brother, Alfred, shared Fynn's early years in Natal.