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.
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
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
In the 1800s, before New Brighton was transformed into a “Model Native Settlement” by relocating blacks from the inner city locations to this area, this stretch of land between the mouth of the Papenkuils River and the Fishwater Flats abutting the Swartkops River, was known for the New Brighton Hotel and the Outspan, both owned by Matthew Berry.
The awarding of shooting rights to this flat vacant expanse of land and the mystery of the missing game birds would have to be settled in court.
At the risk of stating the obvious, most residents of Port Elizabeth regard Uitenhage as a dirty unpleasant industrial town, the like of which one never needs to visit unless it is on official company business. Yet 200 years ago, when the hamlet of Port Elizabeth was established, Uitenhage was the district administration centre with Port Elizabeth forming part of Uitenhage. Today the converse is true. In short order, Port Elizabeth surpassed Uitenhage and is now the driving force in the region.
In Port Elizabeth’s hubris, it should never dismiss Uitenhage out of hand but should rather acknowledge it as having an equally interesting history and that it now boasts the largest industrial plant in the Eastern Cape in the form of VW.
At 1768 m, the Cockscomb is one of the highest peaks in the Eastern Cape. Apart from that, its claim to fame during the age of sail was that the mountain acted as a mariners’ landmark as it was visible from the sea. As the local burghers never showed any inclination to climb it, it fell to an outsider, an adventurer, with time on his hands to become the first to do so. It was to be Lieut. Walter Sherwill who, during 1840 whilst on a visit to Port Elizabeth, would succeed.
Call it what you like, but this crude fort had the distinction of being not merely the first military fortification in Algoa Bay – as Port Elizabeth was then called – but also the only fort in Port Elizabeth to experience military action. What would the future hold for this extemporised military fortification? Certainly, it should have been recognised much more than the Johnny-come-lately, Fort Frederick, which was unbloodied in war. Star Fort did not survive long which is quite understandable given the fact that it was hastily constructed and just as hastily abandoned.
Main picture: There are no extant sketches of this fort other than this reference to Star Fort on the map of Cradock Place on which it is situated
Events both locally and in Europe were tumultuous during the late 18th century. With the French under Napoleon rampaging across Europe and the ideals of the French Revolution spreading to Holland itself, the Stadtholder, Prince William of Orange, took refuge in England and requested the assistance of the English. This highly unusual request was for the English to take custody of the Cape Colony in order to prevent the French from doing so and thus controlling the sea route to India. This annexation would be predicated on the understanding that it would extend until such time as the Dutch were able to re-assume control. The Cape at this time was still under the control of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC.
To enable a smooth transition of power, the Prince requested the Governor at the Cape and the military authorities to give control to Britain when the Naval contingent arrived in Table Bay, but although this was eventually achieved, the burghers, especially in the interior, wanted independence from authority of any kind, Dutch, English or otherwise. Herein lay a second threat. As the spectre of unilateral declarations of independence amongst the restive local Dutch population became ever more palpable, speed was of the essence.
In September 1795, the British squadron sailed into Table Bay to take control of the Cape. Bearing the Deed of Transfer, the transition was achieved without any hostilities being experienced with the VOC officials. Notwithstanding the relative ease of the handover, the burghers at Swellendam and Graaf-Reinet made thinly veiled threats pointedly warning the English that they were intent on achieving independence from authority of any kind. In truth, a far greater threat lurked in the form of intervention by the French. This could take the form of manpower or weapons or perhaps even both. To stave off disaster, boots on the ground would have to be despatched post haste to the eastern frontier. Even though it was an article of faith amongst the English soldiers regarding their superiority over colonial inhabitants, these colonials were more akin to themselves in their use of firearms and not ineffectual spears and shields.
What led to the redoubt’s establishment?
In truth the real impetus for the establishment of this fortification was an act of expediency driven by the conditions on the ground. This related to the interminable Frontier Wars as well as the well-founded fear that the French would come to the assistance of the rebels at Graaf-Reinet who had declared independence.
With little faith in divine intervention or happenstance to resolve these problems, in early 1799 Major-General Charles Dundas set the wheels in motion by despatching two forces to Algoa Bay. Being a distance of approximately 750kms from Cape Town, Brig-Gen Thomas Pakenham Vandeleur must have picked the short straw as he was commanded to lead one column on this momentous overland journey through the Langkloof. As it is reported to have taken 18 days, this implies that the men, who were on foot, marched over 40 kilometres per day. It is presumed that officers such as Vandeleur rode on horseback.
Their ultimate destination was a farm, “Riet Vallei” in the Zwartkops Valley close to where Uitenhage would be established some 4 years later in 1804. It was the farm of a widow, Betje Scheepers, whose husband had been killed in a Xhosa raid, which Vandeleur chose as the halting place. While his men rested their blistered feet & weary limbs, Vandeleur went on to Algoa Bay to meet the second contingent of troops whose fortune it was to be ferried by ship, the HMS “Star” and HMS “Hope, to Algoa Bay.
This freshly disembarked force of the 91st Regiment formed a camp on Ferreira’s farm, Papenkuilsfontein, where they built “Star Fort”, an earth redoubt, which became the first defence fortification in the eastern part of the Colony. This farm was later made famous by Korsten with his whaling and sheep farming industries and was renamed “Cradock Place”. After completion of the Fort, the two detachments joined forces at “Riet Vallei” and continued their march to Graaff Reinet to quell the disturbances among the dissatisfied farmers. It is interesting to note that this Fort was constructed around the rudimentary house of the farmer, Ferreira, on whose farm they were encamped.
Hoping to restore their independence and territorial rights, during May and June the Khoikhoi, began attacks on Dutch farmers, now short of ammunition, in the area between Graaff-Reinet and the Zwartkops River. The Xhosa under Chungwa also made attacks and farmers began to leave the district. In August the Xhosa invaded along the Fish River.
First military action
It was during one of these periodic forays into the Colony that Star Fort featured prominently in a daring enterprise.On their return from Graaff-Reinet General Vandeleur and his men found that serious trouble had once again broken out nearer the coast; the land lay devastated and deserted, the inhabitants including Widow Scheepers of the farm Riet Vallei, after being besieged for three days and nights, had taken refuge at “Star Fort”.
A huge body of black warriors – Khoikhoi and Xhosa – attacked Star Fort in broad daylight on the 10th August 1799, driving off cattle and sheep pastured outside the fort. The horses of the Dragoons were grazing some distance away. Hence it took a while before a pursuit could be organised once the attackers had herded the defenders’ animals away. It was only when the raiders reached Kleinskool that the incensed Dragoons caught up with them. Accompanying them were two field pieces. Here the attackers had elected to savour some of their spoils of war by having a hearty meal; the ingredients had unwittingly been supplied by the troops’ own livestock. Caught unawares, forty of the attackers lay dead at the conclusion of the clash, while the rest of their erstwhile companions dispersed into the surrounding scrub and bush.
According to Harradine, in order to strengthen this post against further Khoikhoi and Xhosa incursions, a breastwork was added. In addition, it was planned to erect a blockhouse armed with two 3-pounders near the mouth of the Baakens River. On the 19th August the “Camel” left for Algoa Bay with a blockhouse for 50 men and 30 artificers aboard to erect it.
It was on the 20th September 1799 that this puny earth fort made its greatest contribution to the defence of the hamlet of Algoa Bay. As the blockhouse had not yet been completed and the building of Fort Frederick not yet commenced, it was the insignificant Star Fort which would have to play a leading role in the defence. This action commenced with the French frigate, the Preneuse, entering Algoa Bay under false colours and exchanging fire with the sloop, Rattlesnake, and the storeship, Camel. The masts of the “Camel” were damaged, and the quartermaster and a carpenter were killed. Although having the advantage, the French ship left the Bay and was later sunk off Mauritius, when her true identity became known.
It was the troops at Star Fort, who saved the day for the English vessels. As the British ships were hopelessly outgunned by the Preneuse, the HMS Rattlesnake and the HMS Camel were at risk of being sunk. By moving their puny guns from the fort to the seashore and engaging the French frigate, the French vessel gained the impression that there was a formidable shore battery. Under this mistaken impression, the Preneuse left the Bay. It needs to be understood that this ruse was only successful because their fire was at night. As the French vessel could only discern the flash as the shot was fired but could not ascertain the fall of the shell, they were unable to determine the effectiveness of the shore battery’s fire. Being in a rolling ship, an artillery duel with a fixed shore based battery would place them at a disadvantage, they elected to retreat instead.
Mark on history
In this regard, Margaret Harradine makes a salient point. This redoubt has subsequently been referred to as “Star Fort” even though this appellation was not used once during its occupation, despite letters being posted from it during this time. Perhaps that is indicative of the lack of significance of this fort to the residents of the future town. Nonetheless, there is somebody who recognised its existence and noted the fact that it was not a chimera; the artist who drew the map of Cradock Place.
How long was this fort in existence for? No records are extant to determine this but given the fact that a stone fort formally known as Fort Frederick overlooking the Baakens’ lagoon had become operational during February 1800, the importance of this earth redoubt was probably called into question. A best guess as to its fate is that it was carried away in the winds unnoticed and unmourned by any of the troops that were stationed there.
The hallmark of the half decade prior to the arrival of the British Settlers in 1820 was the steady encroachment of the Dutch farmers from the west. In spite of every effort on the part of the Cape governors to prevent the farming burghers from spreading eastwards, this ineluctable movement did not abate.
This blog covers the settling of this peripatetic people in the Zwartkops Valley
Main picture: Trekboers crossing the Karoo by Charles Davidson Bell
Today the elegant Victorian mansion ‘Knockfierna’ in Park Drive now masquerades as a school. It ushered in the 20th century as the home of a wealthy wool merchant and farmer, John Daverin. Much more than that he was also a Member of Parliament and philanthropist. Now largely forgotten, his legacy endures in the form of the St Georges Preparatory School.
Detailed information on the house and the three occupants who resided there prior to its conversion into a school are covered in a separate blog. This blog is merely a copy of the school’s history from its website.
Main picture: St George’s Preparatory School in Park Drive
In the age of radio, it is highly unusual for a vessel to just disappear at sea without a trace. But that is precisely what happened to a Harbour Patrol Vessel, a Namacurra pennant number Y1506, based at SAS Donkin, in Port Elizabeth.
What role did these Namacurra class patrol vessels play in the defence of the harbours but more pertinently how and why did this vessel just disappear into thin air? Was its disappearance similar to the modus operandi of flight MH370, the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 which simply vanished? On purpose.
This blog is a verbatim copy of an article of unknown origin or authorship. That begs the question of who indeed wrote it. As a best guess it was Tennyson Bodill as it came from his files.
Notwithstanding vigorous growth during its first forty years, Port Elizabeth was still a dinky-sized town in 1861. From a scruffiness in its early years, which was unbecoming, it was the debut of the Town Hall which ushered in a whole array of elegant buildings such as the original Standard Bank building. What the town lacked then, and the city does now, was greenery. This paucity of vegetation has deprived its inhabitants of its aesthetic beauty, which would have enhanced the attractiveness of the town.
Main picture: The original St Mary’s Church before it was burnt down in 1895. Never an object of beauty, it was a plain unadorned box of a building.
John Howard, an American cyclist, once quipped: “The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine.” As an epigram, a wit could have rejoined that 2nd class cycling is better than 1st class walking. Surprisingly in an era post the advent of bicycles but prior to the arrival of motor vehicles, photos of cyclists are rare; so rare that I only possess two.
If social cycling did not prosper, competitive cycling did with cycling Clubs soon being formed. From curiosity value in the Penny-Farthing, bicycles evolved into more practical machines.
Main picture: Members of the P.E. Amateur Bicycle Club, which was formed in 1881 and later amalgamated with the Amateur Athletic Club, in front of the Pearson Conservatory in St. Georges Park. A penny-farthing can be seen in the centre. Some of the club’s rides were from the park to Fitch’s at Witteklip which represented a 26 mile ride.