Port Elizabeth of Yore: Frederick Korsten: Founder of Eastern Province Commerce

Of all the early inhabitants of the nascent Port Elizabeth, Frederick Korsten, probably more than anyone else, deserves to be recognised and remembered. Yet there is no real tribute to him. The most fitting monument would have been the preservation of his former magnificent home, Cradock Place. But even that now lies in ruins. 

A comprehensive biography would have sufficed. But that also failed to materialise. John Centlivres Chase did make an attempt in 1868, yet in length it is little more than a eulogy. What he fails to mention or even allude to is that Frederick Korsten was his father-in-law. Nor does he provide any insights into what exactly made Korsten tick. 

Such disdain for history reflects poorly on the denizens of Algoa Bay.

Main picture: Frederick Korsten

A Life at Sea

Like many of the dramatis personae of early Port Elizabeth, Frederick Korsten was neither of Afrikaner nor of English extraction, but rather he was Dutch. Frederick Korsten was born on the 17th August 1773, at Zierikzee, the capital of the Island of Schouwen, in Zealand, at the mouth of the Scheldt. Korsten was sent to the ancient city of Breda to be educated and thereafter, like most of the sons of respectable Dutch families, he was destined for a commercial life. To this end, at an early age, he was placed in the counting house of one of the principal merchants in Breda.

But the young Korsten was bored. What stirred him was the idea of adventure to foreign lands. Imbued with Shakespeare’s maxim, “House-keeping youths have ever homely wits”, in 1795 he sought public service in one of the colonies of Holland, expressing a preference for Demerara, a historical region in the Guianas on the north coast of South America which is now part of the country of Guyana. It was a Dutch colony until 1815 and a county of British Guiana from 1838 to 1966. Korsten even obtained an influential testimonial or recommendation “as an intelligent, active young man” and also “een aller beste patriot”, being a very good patriot. But it was not to be as there was no immediate opportunity for foreign employment. Instead, he entered the employ of Burgomeester Kornelis van der Boddaart of Middelburg, Zeeland. However his ardent desire for foreign adventure was finally fulfilled as on the 5th October of that same year 1795, he received a commission as a cadet on the frigate, Castor, a ship of forty guns. Korsten was handed the document signed and sealed by the Secretary of the Navy by Captain de Kantor. This document was headed by the slogan “Gelykheid, Vryheid, Briederskap” – Equality, Liberty, Fraternity, as befitted the age and the times.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

The Castor was one of the ships comprising the fleet assembled by Admiral De Winter at Texel, a municipality and an island  in the province of North Holland in the Netherlands. It is the largest and most populated island of the West Frisian Islands in the Wadden Sea. The objective of this fleet was the recapture of the Cape of Good Hope, which had fallen to the British during the previous month. This fleet, comprising two 64s, two 54s, seven frigates and sloops together with some of the best land troops, set sail for the Cape on the 23rd February 1796. The journey to the Cape was recorded in a journal by Korsten. The fleet adopted a circuitous route in order to evade the blockading British fleet. Instead of taking the shorter southern route through the English Channel, the Dutch fleet headed north around the Faroe Islands, which it sighted, as well as the Hebrides, only reaching the Azores a month later on 22nd March 1796. It then made Madeira, Palma and afterwards Tenerife on the 4th April 1796. Here it revictualed and refitted, staying forty-three days. Refreshed and revitalised, on the 17th May the fleet headed eastwards across the Atlantic towards Fernando Noronha, Cape Augustine on the Brazilian littoral. From there, it sailed diagonally across the Atlantic to Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town, which they reached on 31st July 1796 after a voyage of 159 days.

View of a saltpan, near the mouth of the Swartkops River by RJ Gordon in 1778

View of a saltpan, near the mouth of the Swartkops River by RJ Gordon in 1778

Wary of the British, some vessels entered the bay with caution. Finding the “coast clear”, the Dutch squadron entered and anchored at Hoetjies Bay after which the sick were landed on Schappen Island. Several of the officers landed in order to make a reconnaissance of the area and discovered that the farms had been vacated and all the cattle removed. Meeting an inhabitant, they were informed that there was a division of opinion amongst the residents of Cape Town. Some were displeased at the presence of the English whereas others were not. The reason supplied for their lack of antagonism was that they now received good prices for their produce. On the 11th August 1796, Cadet Overbeek was sent ashore in order to purchase cattle but it was futile as none was available. He might not have been fortunate in his primary mission but he did learn that a British force was en route to Saldanha Bay.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

On the 15th August 1796 the Dutch squadron was aroused by shots from the shore, which continued until the next day. Cadet Overbeek was again charged with the task to reconnoitre the shore where he met a European on horseback. This stranger informed Overbeek that a person from Cape Town was anxious to communicate with Captain Claris, one of the captains of the fleet. Not only that but also this unknown person desired to meet Claris post haste. In the logbooks the name of this mystery person was left blank. Before this rendezvous could eventuate, at nine o’clock the next morning strange vessels were spotted outside the Bay. Furthermore, a body of cavalry, infantry and artillery made their appearance on the hills and beach, set up their guns and commenced firing at the Bellona, which had been stranded.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

At 4pm, an English frigate entered the Bay without a flag. In retaliation, the Dutch Rear Admiral fired and the frigate, obviously performing a recce, retired. Then when the Admiral hoisted the Batavian flag, at 5pm two English vessels entered the Bay. For the first time, the Admiral was able to view the full extent of the enemy arrayed against him. It totalled thirteen vessels under the British flag: five ships of the line, seven frigates and a brig. The Dutch exposed their broadsides while the British formed in two lines and anchored at the mouth of the Bay, preventing their escape.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

The following day, the 17th August 1796 should have been one of elation and joy for Cadet Korsten as it was his birthday. Instead as he sat down to complete his log entries, he was in a fit of depression at the prospect of an inglorious result.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

Some of the Dutch officers were invited on board one of the British ships. After an interval, at 10am, a signal was sent from the Dutch Admiral informing all his officers to attend a meeting aboard his ship. Almost as a stinging rebuke for the imminent surrender, a mutiny broke out on board the Castor, with the crew demanding wine. Without permission, they seized it, saying that it was better to drink it than give it to the English. In the resultant fracas, they threatened and prepared to hang the steward, who was not very popular amongst the crew. Using profane and offensive expressions to voice their anger, a scene of wild disorder ensued until Captain de Kantor returned at 4pm. As he announced their surrender, he was met with incongruous cries of “Oranje boven.”

The Mill at Cradock Place

The Mill at Cradock Place

On the following morning, the 18th August 1796, an English officer came on board the Castor and took possession of the ship by hoisting the British Standard over the Batavian. In a state of deep distress, Cadet Korsten admitted to shedding “some natural tears” at the indignity upon his country and his profession as he became a prisoner of war.

Cradock’s Place 1870 by Walford Arbouin Harries

In service of the enemy

Notwithstanding this abrupt and humiliating change in his circumstances and prospects and his well-known nationalistic tendencies, Korsten soon reconciled himself to the reality of the situation and appears to have sufficiently ingratiated himself with persons of influence in Cape Town. This culminated in a rapid appointment as temporary clerk in the Court of Justice. Moreover, upon a strong recommendation by members of that body, in April 1798, he was appointed its second sworn clerk by the Governor, Lord McCartney. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, on the 25th January 1799, he married the eldest daughter of the late Jan Hoets, a wealthy merchant of Cape Town.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

On the restoration of the colony to Holland at the peace of Amiens, the colonial civil servant visited North America and England. On his return in 1803, he entered the service of the Burgher Senate, in which position he remained as Secretary and Town Treasurer until January 1805. At this juncture, Korsten retired at this own request on the grounds that his official duties interfered with his mercantile pursuits, which civil servants were then allowed to follow. Clearly Korsten performed an excellent job as he received flattering testimonials from the President and members of the Senate for “activity and trustworthiness, and that he retired with honour, after repeated applications” for the above reasons. This view was endorsed by the signature of the Governor-General Janssens on the 7th January 1805.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

Into business fulltime

On retirement from the civil service, Korsten devoted himself entirely to his business as a merchant in Cape Town. In 1808 using his own vessel, the Helena of 500 tons, and with his wife and only child in tow, he visited first England and then his country of birth, Holland. At Walcheren, he witnessed the ravages of the fever that destroyed so many of the British troops in that disastrous expedition. At the latter end of the year 1810, once again using his own vessel, Korsten returned to the Cape Colony in order to resume his mercantile affairs.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

To a Terra Nova

By 1811, the eastern districts of the colony had largely been cleared of the marauding black tribesmen. This allowed the Cape Government to proclaim its intention “to found extensive settlements from Algoa Bay, the future naval mart of those quarters, to Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet.” Perhaps it was the bold assertion in 1798 by Barrow, who foretold the possibility of business in the Algoa Bay environs in the salted provisions business that hooked Korsten. This prediction was not based upon caprice but due to sound judgment. A combination of cheap cattle and extensive saltpans in the neighbourhood, made this business viable.

Cradock Place in 1885

Cradock Place in 1885

Korsten despised both risk and danger but decided to explore the business opportunity in spite of the area’s isolation from the rest of the Cape Colony and the potential for further incursions by marauding tribes. Therefore, when a tender was advertised on 28th December 1811 for the supply of salted beef destined for Mauritius and elsewhere, Korsten immediately responded positively. During March 1812, he entered into a contract to supply 3,000 barrels of salted beef with the concession that the contractors and their employees were exempted from commando service. Furthermore, they were at liberty to cut wood for casks in the Government forests.

Cradock Place#13

To facilitate this process, on 1st January 1812, Korsten purchased the “opstal” on the Loan Place, “Papenkuils Fontein” later to be renamed Cradock Place in honour of the governor of the Cape, Sir John Cradock. This opstal was located about five miles from the landing place in Algoa Bay at the mouth of the Papenkuils River, resplendent in flamingos. It was here that Korsten built a huge estate at great cost. This included accommodation, cattle and slaves. This business venture can rightly be described as the first trading establishment in the Eastern Province and Korsten personally oversaw the operation of this business until 1820.

Cradock Place#19

To provide some measure and idea of the extent and nature of the business, which was in effect a commercial outpost or entrepôt of the Colony, it was not unusual to find twenty wagons bearing produce on the property. Previously they would have had to travel to Cape Town in order to acquire imported and locally manufactured items. Instead of a tedious and expensive annual visit to Cape Town, these local farmers could now exchange their produce for these items at Papenkuils Fontein. The extent of the contractual business can also be gauged from the fact that frequently no fewer than forty oxen were slaughtered daily and salted, chiefly by experienced Europeans that Korsten had employed.

In addition, the military officers and messes on the frontier were supplied with all their importable essentials, as were the civil servants of George, Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet. In reality, the huge “supermarket” that Korsten had created at Cradock Place enjoyed a complete monopoly in the supply of most non-agricultural products in the Eastern Cape. But this was a natural monopoly in that he enjoyed no exclusive privileges but rather benefitted from the inertia of the local inhabitants in order to engage in such trade.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

In addition to his salting business, Korsten established a tannery, a cooperage for the manufacture of barrels, a windmill for grinding produce and a whale fishery at Gomery near current day, Cape Recife. As part of the whaling business, Korsten had oil tanks constructed at a cost of £2,400. To construct them, he was forced to employ a Mr Diesel from Cape Town. Besides the whale fishery, which in one year slaughtered twenty whales, Korsten also was in possession of a lease on the Santa Croix and Bird Islands which in one season alone produced 14,000 seal skins. Ultimately, the whaling business became precarious when the American whalers intercepted the whales before they reached Algoa Bay to calf.

Korsten did not restrict his business operations to Port Elizabeth, as, in accordance with his entrepreneurial spirit, he periodically established businesses elsewhere. At various settled localities, he recognised a need as only small settlers’ stores attached to military cantonments existed. At Port Elizabeth he opened a business, placing a Mr de la Harpe in charge, at Uitenhage, a Mr Hickman and at Grahamstown, a Mr Arnoldus B. Deitz.

Ruins of Cradock Place

Ruins of Cradock Place

The original 6,000 acres of grazing land at Cradock Place was insufficient for Korsten’s salting business. As a result, Korsten deemed it necessary to acquire or lease three additional properties, Gomery in Summerstrand, Bushy Park and Hankey on the Gamtoos River.

Having nurtured his businesses in Port Elizabeth through their infancy, shortly after the arrival of the settlers in 1820, Korsten sold his business at Cradock Place and took up residence at the Fishery for several months. Of interest to me would be the reason for Korsten’s sale of this prosperous business. I suspect that a sale at that juncture, when the business was at its zenith with no discernible competitors, would have been at a premium. Possessing a keen business sense, he would surely have been aware of the threat potential competitors posed on his margins.

Ruins of Cradock Place today [Jonker Fourie]

In 1823, Korsten left Port Elizabeth and retired to Cape Town where he purchased a property at the top of Government Gardens, known as “The Mill.” At the same time, he carried on in the wine and grain trade, supplying frontier homes.

By 1826, it was evident that the new owners of his Port Elizabeth business and the lessees of his Cradock Place property had failed in their business dealings. After selling “The Mill” to Colonel Bell, the Colonial Secretary, Korsten returned to Port Elizabeth, directing his chief attention to the whale fishery. Induced by the example of the Daniels, Whites and Campbells, Korsten went largely into wool farming for which Cradock Place, the estate Chatty and the Deal Party property, which he had purchased some years before, were found to be well adapted to sustain a flock of 4,000 sheep. This business was continued after his death by Scheuble and Chase.

In 1836, Korsten was nominated by the Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban to represent the Eastern Province in the Legislative Council in Cape Town. In spite of strong urgings by D’Urban to accept, Korsten was not swayed.

Early in 1839, Korsten’s health began to fail. Aiding his rapid decline was a bitter disappointment through a breach of faith on the part of a friend resulting in a pecuniary loss for Korsten. Korsten finally died on 16th June 1839.

Cover of the original book in 1868

Cover of the original book in 1868

 

Source:

Old Times and Odd Corners: The Founder of Eastern Province Commence and his Frontier Home by John Centlivres Chase

Photos of present day ruins from Jonker Fourie, Port Elizabeth’s prolific photographer of items of historical interest


3 Comments

  1. Love this, and makes me re-look at Port Elizabeth, as in history. The mill there, and I long ago snitched your pictures, was a windmill, upright with the gigantic blades, using wind-power and not water-power. They were the easiest mills to construct, however, unless well maintained, they could and did fall apart easily.

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