Port Elizabeth of Yore : Volume 1 – Defying the Odds

As Port Elizabeth approaches its bicentenary in April 2020, this event has to be celebrated for not only was it the birth of a new town, but it was also home to many of our ancestors. This four-volume set of books records those birth pangs and well as the people and events which over the next 150 years made Port Elizabeth what it is today.

Volume 1 entitled Defying the Odds will be released later this year with the other three volumes following at six-month intervals.

Comments on the back cover

Initially Port Elizabeth was only earmarked as a landing place for the British settlers and not as their destination. Yet in the thirty-year period from 1820 to 1850, contrary to expectations it experienced a tremendous growth spurt. So prodigious in fact was its expansion that it even overtook Cape Town in terms of the volume of exports.

This is the story of the people and events that form the basis of this incredible journey.

This book forms part of a four-volume series which takes the reader on the fascinating odyssey from the original inhabitants – the Khoi – through the town’s development into an entrepôt, wool processor and exporter to its pinnacle as the Detroit of South Africa.

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sinking of the Japanese freighter ‘Paris Maru’

On the 13th January 1934, the Japanese freighter ‘Paris Maru’ of 7,197 tons bound for Cape Town struck Roman Rock which is situated at the bell buoy off Summerstrand after leaving port. Badly holed, she made a dash for port and unfortunately she did not make it. The vessel sank just outside the Port Elizabeth harbour entrance. The wreck became a hazard for shipping and had to be blown up.

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The Swansong of Quo Vadis and How the Other Half Lives

While the hiking function of Quo Vadis might have terminated with a whimper, the game viewing segment of our “hike” bore testimony to both Malcolm’s generosity as well as the capacity of the German contingent to once again  drink themselves into a stupor. For them, the wealth of game was a distraction.

But as Julie Andrews would sing in the Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning”.

Main picture: Malcolm’s shack in the Olifant’s North Game Reserve

On the Saturday morning the hike commenced with the members challenging conventions by refusing to commence the hike. Their objection – a smattering of rain drops – intimidated them. Even the most resolute ultimately succumbed to this mortal foe. None would show their mettle. With my nod of (dis)approval, we trooped off to sunnier climes: Malcolm’s magical bush veldt home.

Quo Vadis members braaing at Woodbush

En route we stopped off at Tzaneen with Arnold & I shopping for a week’s worth of groceries and the Germans shopping for two weeks’ worth of booze. Even with Malcolm’s plaintive pleas still ringing in their ears, that he was already overstocked in the booze department, they could not desist from destocking the liquor store.   

Malcolm’s mansion is located on a private game reserve called the Olifant’s North Game Reserve – so-called to distinguish it from the Olifant’s South Game Reserve – where Janine has her mansion. Apparently as they could not mutually agree on whether it should be a 10-star mansion or a bush cottage, each has their own. It is accessed through a 1930s era farming
area called Griekie for indigent white farmers. All of these game reserves abutting the Kruger no longer have any fencing. Consequentially game can now wander through the private reserves from the Kruger National Park.

Lions on ONGR

Malcolm’s residence is “hidden” on a ridge line. It comprises four wings, two with two bedrooms apiece. The main wing – the living area – comprises a kitchen, lounge and dining room. Clearly no cost was spared in its construction. It is a far cry from the usual hiking huts to which we are accustomed. But it came with unwelcome news, the myriad instructions, the do’s and don’ts all at the behest of Janine, or so Malcolm alleged. Wasn’t Malcolm aware that we were a bunch of slobs with a total disregard for norms and conventions?

This only cast a temporary pall over the Germans as they had more pressing matters at hand like getting stuck into the booze. A bruising battle then ensued for control of the cooking. With the Germans more concerned with getting as much grog down their throats as possible and both Malcolm and I deferring to Arnold it was ever generous Mr. Paikin who gratuitously accepting the title as Cooking CEO.

Before commencing the meal , we had to endure a lecture on the decorum and etiquette of eating. Each was handed their own personalised serviette ring as well as own serviette to be used for the duration of the stay. Eating meat with one’s hands was declared verboten  as apparently only the starving untermenschen may do so. Well I was starving but obviously not starving enough to relax the rules but my eating style or lack therefore did allow me to be accorded the designation as ein schwein.

As regards the cooking, Peter will have to up his game otherwise we will have to employ Paikin as the resident chef in future. This exalted position on his Linked-In CV will enable him to attain even more magical hights in his evolving career.

Game was plentiful with elephants, giraffes and zebras in abundance. Lions had their very own cafeterias well-stocked with tender young impalas. Many of the days were overcast and cool which for me was more reminiscent of Port Elizabeth during the 1960s and 70s than the Lowveld in summer.

On the Wednesday, we attended a nature walk. James, our guide, introduced us to the Lowveld’s fauna and flora. The most unusual was the tree dwelling toad, with their white nests in the branches and the velvet mites. For those of you who log their hiking mileage, I suggest that this three-hour excursion be claimed. Otherwise how do you justify it your wife. In retrospect, it was probably sensible that we did not hike Magoebaskloof as the complaints of aching muscles after a 3-kilometre 3-hour walk bears testimony to our unfitness and progressing years.   

Amongst the impala 2-month old snacks were some larger meals such as these

With most of the Club’s members now spread over the world, having the ilk of Arnold and Kurt or Malcolm and Clive for that matter, on the same hike in future, is highly unlikely. So it was on a fitting note that Quo Vadis closes a chapter in our lives.

Au revoir, auf wiedersehen, see ya
Quo Vadis 1989 to 2020
Quo Vadis members sheltering from the rain at a hide overlooking the Olifant’s River
Difficult hill climb up the 3 steps
Breakfast prepared by Arnold after an arduous morning game drive

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Van Stadens Pass and Bridges

As the Dutch boeren trekked ever eastwards in order to escape from authority, they encountered an enemy of a different kind: a series of rivers in steep defiles. The one solution was to bypass them by traversing the Langkloof route. The final challenges were the Gamtoos and Van Stadens Rivers.  The Gamtoos was the easier foe as it could be crossed by making a turn to the north. The Van Staden river was a foe of superior mein

Van Stadens Pass is a passage through the gorge of the Van Stadens River

Main picture: Crossing the drift in 1870

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Roads and Inland Transport from the 1820s to 1860s

The success of Port Elizabeth has always been determined by its transport links to the interior. Initially it was the port from which the bulk of the Cape Colony’s wool was exported and then in the first half of the 20th century it was the port through which all cars assembled in South Africa were imported. Before the introduction of rail services in the 1870s, inland transport was dependent upon the state of the roads which were execrable. Secondly the condition of the  roads impeded the exports in that it took three months for an ox wagon to complete a round trip from Graaff Reinet to Port Elizabeth and back.

Main picture: Typical old Divisional Council roads, narrow and rutted, with a drift below and ox wagons toiling up the hill

In his excellent thesis Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70 Jon Inggs succinctly summarises the transport conundrum as follows. “The common denominator between all of Port Elizabeth’s major exports was the fact that they were all bulky items, with a relatively low value to mass, produced in the distant interior. Thus their viability as exports depended more on the state of inland transport than on the existence of harbour facilities. The nub of the transport bottleneck was that before the advent of railways in the 1870s, eastern Cape transport was dominated by the humble ox wagon. Instead of casting aspersions at its lumbering appearance and rutted tracks deemed to be roads, they were able to cope with the massive expansion of trade. The exact number will never be known but by using wool export data from the Customs Returns, one is able to obtain a fairly accurate notion of the magnitude of these loads. Fully laden, each wagon is capable of carrying about 20 bales of wool with a mass of 3000 kgs.   

In many instances where figures are available, the number of wagons transporting wool to Port Elizabeth was in fact far in excess of the above estimates.

Distances covered by the wagons

It was not just a case of vast distances being covered but due to the fact that the wagons travelled painfully slowly, it can be deduced that most wagons entering Port Elizabeth had been on the road for at least a month. This time was based upon the estimated travelling distance per wagon being 193 kms.

Increased competition depressed transport costs substantially as follows:

During the shearing season, wool was obviously the dominant cargo. Therefore the bulk of wagon traffic was from the major wool growing regions to Port Elizabeth. In 1853, the districts of origin of the wool exported through Algoa Bay.

As Jon Inggs correctly notes is that “Port Elizabeth owed its importance to the fact that it was the natural outlet to the sea for the major wool producing districts. She maintained her position so long as inland transport depended on the ox wagon”. The introduction of the railways in the 1870s would change this dynamic.

Importance of the road network

From the foregoing, Jon Inggs clearly lays out the statistics illustrating not only the importance of this road network to the rise of Port Elizabeth but also the surprising conclusion that the importance of the road system was greater than the existence of the harbour facilities. Clearly the shipping companies never viewed the road network as a larger constraint than the lack of harbour facilities.

Van Stadens Pass in 1870

Simply put the term “road” was a misnomer as these arterials were in fact little more than deep wagon tracks. When parts deteriorated and became unusable, that section was bypassed, and a parallel track developed. In theory the owner of the land, over which a main road ran, was responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. Thus a variant of the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons was experienced as regards these roads. A lackadaisical  attitude to repairs ensued with the tardy local farmers lethargically filling in ruts with loose material. It is safe to say that the farmers possessed a mitigated factor for the lack of maintenance as the sheer volume of traffic over the most important roads made adequate maintenance an impossibility.

 Inggs laments that “until the 1840s, the government did precious little to keep Eastern Cape roads in good repair apart from setting up tolls, such as the one at Port Elizabeth”. Much like the current fiscal practice of not ring-fencing income for a specific project or budget line item, the Colonial Government merely treated this income as part of the pool of revenue. Even though it was theoretically deemed to finance road maintenance, it was rarely utilised for local road maintenance.

The main reason for the execrable condition” of the Cape roads was the colony’s general lack of funds. Therefore as was the case with local harbour development, it was left to private enterprise to take the initiative. Grahamstown residents, for example, subscribed funds for a new road through Howieson’s Poort in the early 1830s. But this kind of venture was always undercapitalised, and the roads involved usually little better than the rest. Other improvements were limited to privately operated punts at the major rivers and numerous inns to accommodate wealthy travellers”.

The first ray of hope for improvement in these rutted roads which ineluctably compelled the ox wagons to a slow walking pace arose in 1838 with the appointment of a new governor, Sir George Napier. One of the immediate needs that he identified was the upgrading of the Port Elizabeth – Grahamstown road. Faced with the prospect of further Xhosa incursions across a porous border, the army also expressed an interest in road construction. It was the treasury which had to express their displeasure at this suggestion in the starkest terms claiming that the treasury’s cupboards were bare. To rub salt into the treasury’s wounds, the Government Engineer, Major CC Mitchell, in the late 1830s revived interest in a general colonial road scheme. The adoption of this scheme would have spread the limited funds over a vaster distance much like attempting to feed the multitude with one container of peanut butter.

It was during the 1840s that three factors combined to bring the proverbial road pot to the boil again. Firstly aside from the rapidly expanding wool trade with its increasing volumes, the new prosperity generated revenue which could be applied to road building. Secondly “the continued disturbed state of the frontier awakened official and public opinion to the necessity of good roads. It was not until 1843 that the………………..master mind of John Montegu [found] convincing formulation and support.

This was to result in Montegu setting up a central road board which were supported by a series of local boards. For this purpose, they utilised the colony’s convicts exclusively for the construction of the main roads. “Unfortunately the main consideration was the improvement of communications between Cape Town and the Frontier”.  Naturally Port Elizabeth, much to their chagrin, wanted their town to be the hub of the road network in the Eastern Cape. Bypassing Port Elizabeth fanned the flames of the Separation fire as the residents of the region once again considered themselves the spurned bride at the nuptials.

The next colonial official to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Eastern Cape in 1847 was the newly arrived Lieutenant Governor, Sir Henry Young, an ardent separatist. Almost immediately, he reported the deleterious effects of Montagu’s road system on the Eastern Province. These protestations fell on the deaf ears of Executive Council which promptly rejected his concerns on the basis that Montagu’s system was to be given a 7-8-year trial period.

Inggs notes that “It has been shown that the western dominance of Montagu’s road system has been grossly exaggerated. In fact, the eastern districts  got 25% more from Board Funds than it was entitled to between 1844 and 1855”.  Road building was held up  due to spite but rather due to other exogenous factors. Construction was interrupted due the outbreak of the War of the Axe from 1846 -47.  Work was suspended until 1848 when 250 convicts were allocated to the priority project viz the Zuurberg Pass. Its status as a priority arose from the necessity to bypass the circuitous route via Grahamstown for traffic from Cradock and Colesberg.  Further work after the completion of the Zuurberg Pass in 1850, was delayed due to the outbreak of the 8th Frontier War from 1850 to 1853. The reopening of the Zuurberg Pass in December 1853 was the swansong of Grahamstown as an important commercial centre.

The status quo was maintained until 1864 when the Divisional Councils were made responsible for maintaining government main roads.  


Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

The Circumcision Genocide: The Unkindest Cut of them all

During the period June 2006 to June 2019, the traditional initiation procedure for African males has resulted in a veritable genocide in South Africa. Yet year after year all that government provides as a solution and solace for grieving parents are platitudes and promises.

What is the extent of this travesty?

Main picture: Xhosa initiates

The extent of this disaster is obvious from the cumulative statistics for this period. These statistics relate only to the Eastern Cape.

Consequence Number affected
Hospital admissions   8218
Deaths      794
Amputations      317

What has been the response from the government? Apart from some platitudes and proposals, no concrete action has been taken. Has any person been charged for culpable homicide? Has anybody been incarcerated or even fined? A deafening silence will be heard. Instead somebody is fined R200,000 for uttering the word Kaffir. The use of such a pejorative and demeaning term cannot be justified but none of the perpetrators of death was even fined by a derisory R1. Where is the justice?

On the other hand what has been the response when one black scholar was drowned while on school-organised adventure in the North West? Immediately the Education MEC for Gauteng, Pansy Lesufi, was baying for blood. The principal of the school was suspended, the South African Human Rights Commission became involved and vitriol was heaped upon all and sundry. Yet 794 black youths can callously die without nary a raised voice. The school officials deserve to have  opprobrium heaped upon them as all the basic control procedures such as the issue of life jackets seemed to have been ignored but what about the rights of 794 youths on the cusp of attaining adulthood. Does tradition trump life itself? Any government truly concerned about the rights of all its citizens would have put in place the relevant controls and punishments to prevent this senseless slaughter.

Why the asymmetrical treatment? Surely one irregular death is the same as another. This demands equivalence in the treatment not only between the various methods of death but also the severity of crimes such as crimen inuria versus death.

At this rate, South African doctors will become the most experienced in the world in performing penis transplants. In fact we will be in the invidious position of inviting foreign doctors to hone their skills in this little-practiced area in medical treatment.

Renewables Footprint to Meet Energy Requirements

A TED Talk about the reality of renewables set the cat amongst the pigeons – in my mind at least. Most people are unaware of the energy intensity of fossil fuels vis-à-vis renewals whether biofuels, solar or wind power which means that the facilities to produce the latter are so much larger.. Furthermore, renewables such as solar and wind power are subject to the vagaries of the weather as well as the diurnal cycle. These factors confound the issue of reliable 24/7 power  requiring alternative energy sources such as batteries, open [or closed] cycle gas turbines or pumped storage schemes to meet such shortfalls.

Main picture: The future blight on the landscape. Wind turbines on all available land in windy regions

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The Latest Sorry Sordid Secret Saga of Marathon Running Shoes

Disclaimer: As apposed to my brother Dean, I should be the long distance runner in the family.  I, in my callow youth, was short, wiry and ornery (but mostly just went my own way).  Suddenly one day in standard 9 the ugly duckling became a ‘swan’.  From always being on the ground in the annual class photographs I suddenly found myself in the second row – heady times.  In Matric, I proudly took my place alongside all those guys in the back row who had played rugby lock their whole lives – traditionally reserved for the tallest while the coach struggled to find a position where he could hide me.  I might have got tallish, but I never got broad, let alone broadish.  I left Varsity a tad under 6 ft and weighing in at 73kg.  By the age of 55 I had put on weight – I weighed 75kg.  I was long distance material – rangy and still a bit ornery.  Dean, my elder brother by 4 years, was not the archetypal long distance runner.  He was an inch or two shorter than me and struggled with his extra poundage for his whole life.  In addition, a very, very septic burst appendix (caused by our sister Cheryl, a tough little shit of note, giving him a voltruis skop in the right side when he was 10 or 11) ensured that his 6- pack, if he could get one, was ripped to pieces by the aggressive surgery resulting in a recurrent stitch when running.

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Evaluation of the Rev. Francis McCleland


The objective of any biography is to obtain an understanding of what motivates that person and how they handle situations, especially the troublesome ones. Essentially what one attempts to do, is to understand what makes a person tick. Even in the best cases, vital pieces of evidence are missing, hidden behind the veil of their private lives. Just ask a divorced person for a resume of their ex-spouse and compare the response with what is publicly known about the person. The mask will slip, and the real person will be revealed. So it is with Francis McCleland except that Francis’ obnoxious actions towards third parties became common knowledge and were not restricted to one person. Being so egregious, the other parties took public umbrage at Francis’ actions and hence his personality – or at least  to the putrescent bits.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Impetus for the Separatist League

Almost ab initio, the Cape Colony was cleaved into two after the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. The Eastern Province separatism originated as early as 1823. The initial resentment which inspired separatism arose due to the British settlers’ demands for a greater military presence on the frontier. Within thirty years, this resentment was driven by a different set of concerns as the two regions differed in their demographics and their politics. However, the west-east division was not absolute until it was built into the structures of the Cape’s legislature with all the English majority areas being demarcated as being part of the Eastern Province. This was a prelude to the formation of the Eastern Province Separatist League which demanded greater autonomy for the Eastern Province as a separate Colony with its own capital. 

Main picture: In 1854, the Cape Colony was split into 2 provinces comprising 22 districts

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My Draaifontein Great Grandmother: Mary Ann Beckley

Normally women during this era were hidden from the purview of subsequent generations. Whether they are remembered – if they are recalled at all – is through the deeds of their husband and not for what they achieved themselves. But Polly – Mary Ann’s sobriquet – was different. She survives not through some outrageous deed but rather her wistful letters and poignant poetry.

Main picture:Joseph James and Mary Ann Beckley with their youngest daughter Grace on the front verandah at Draaifontein.

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