Port Elizabeth of Yore: Bureaucracy in Action in Algoa Bay

What one is unaware of is that bureaucracy prevailed even in ancient times. It is not a recent invention and in fact, its application could have been much more stringent than current applications as no latitude was permitted. In many cases, the punishment was extremely severe. 

Much like today, junior civil servants did not have cart blanche to acquire additional or even replacement capital equipment without obtaining the requisite levels of approval.

This blog will provide some examples of mid-19th-century bureaucracy in action within the Harbour Master’s office.

Main picture: Market Square in 1842 with Scorey’s flagstaff in the centre next to John Centlivres Chase’s house in the centre

Flagstaff on the Landing Beach
In January 1829, Captain James Scorey erected a flagstaff on the Landing Beach and lent it to the Port Captain, Francis, for the use of the port. Scorey left the sea in 1829 and after acquiring Captain Moresby’s house close to Military Road as well as the land in Rufane Vale from Hunt, he ran the hotel which became known as “Scorey’s Hotel”. In addition, he owned a good deal of land, which he put up for sale in 1839 before leaving P.E. The advertisement in the Government Gazette refers to a “signal station“.

During the latter part of 1836, Scorey submitted a claim for a flagstaff with the current Harbour Master, Dunsterville. As Port Elizabeth was not a separate District at that stage, Dunsterville’s superior, the Civil Commissioner of Uitenhage had to approve of the reimbursement to Scorey. This he duly did in a letter dated 19th August 1836 to van der Riet, the Civil Commissioner at Uitenhage. Apart from submitting the claim for the flagstaff he also enclosed a reply from his predecessor, Harbour Master Francis who confirmed that the flagstaff had been provided by Scorey as well as a letter from the Coxswain that the spare flagstaff was also supplied by Scorey. Also enclosed was a tender from J. O.  Smith for replacing the flagstaff and Union Jack, as the Port Office did not possess one.  

In turn, Van der Riet must have communicated with the Colonial Secretary in Cape Town to obtain his overall approval. This approval was forthcoming on the 2nd September 1836 in a letter per Letter Book M164 sent from the Colonial Secretary to the CC van der Riet based in Uitenhage in which the Governor approved John Owen Smith’s tender to supply a flagstaff for £13 10s “provided one cannot be procured at a cheaper rate” He also authorised Dunsterville to obtain a Union Jack for £3 15s. Finally, he also promised that a Set of Mariott signals would be forwarded from Cape Town.

A buoy for Roman Rock
Submerged seven feet beneath the surface of the sea off Shark Rock was a treacherous obstacle, an immovable object referred to as Roman Rock. To make the location of this submerged rock visible to passing shipping, a buoy was attached to it. Moreover, in September 1829 two beacons were erected near the landing beach, one beside the sea and one inland, which, when aligned, assisted mariners entering Algoa Bay to avoid Roman Rock.

The first indication that there was a problem regarding the buoy attached to Roman Rock is on Friday 23rd September 1836 when the alarm was raised about a damaged buoy. Henry Green Dunsterville, the Harbour Master, and brother of the local surgeon, George Edward Dunsterville, communicated his concerns to van der Riet, the Civil Commissioner of Uitenhage as follows: “One of the marks which shows the position of the Roman Rock in the Bay having been blown down, the spar broken….. as early as possible [inform me] whether I am at liberty to incur an expense of about £25 or £30 to fix it”. Replying to an earlier letter dated 27th May, he suggested that the Roman Rock Buoy be built in Cape Town and reminded his audience that the warps and lines at Port Elizabeth fall entirely under the Commissariat Department and not the Harbour Master. In this regard, he explicitly states that the Commissariat needs to receive an order for them to be placed under the control of the Harbour Master. Some two months later on the 15th August 1842,  Dunsterville finally encloses the estimate for repairing one of the Roman Rock beacons blown down during the recent gale. Sensing the urgency of the matter and to prevent a catastrophe, the Civil Commissioner of Uitenhage, van der Riet, orders in what can be imagined as a “strident tone”: “Replace beacon immediately. Accept G. Sandford’s tasks for E.G.S.’s.”

One of the inherent long-established principles of bureaucracies is to form a committee whenever a problem is intractable or culpability for non-performance needs to be apportioned, is to create a committee. And that is precisely what the Colonial Secretary, Montagu did. He brought into being a Buoy Committee and informs Dunsterville of the reasons why the Committee has released Salmond from his contractual obligations to instal the buoy.  

Pay rate and increased work volumes
We can all relate to feeling aggrieved when pay increases lag behind the increase in the volume of work to be performed. In the case of the surf boat crew whose job it was to transport cargo from a ship at anchor in the roadstead to the shore and vice versa this problem was especially egregious as the tonnage volumes increased significantly over the period 1832 to 1835. As the Khoikhoi or Hottentots, their colloquial name, were less productive workers than the Mfengu, who steadily were replaced by their Xhosa brethren.

In a letter dated the 8th December 1835, Dunsterville wrote to Smith, the Acting Colonial Secretary in which he laid out the facts regarding the increased tonnages shipped. He explained that his men have little chance of earning extra as they formerly did. He suggested that their pay be increased in return for working the Commissariat boats when required. Currently they were paid 1/2 day’s wages by Commissariat Department for that work.

Manby Apparatus as an extra duty

Prince Alfred’s Guards Rocket Brigade with the Manby Apparatus.

The Manby Apparatus is a small mortar which fired a shell to which a line was attached. Fired onto a distressed ship, a rope could then be linked between the ship and the land. The apparatus had been in use in England since 1808. However, it was only in September 1847 that this contraption, paid for by public subscription and purchased from the Ordnance Dept, Woolwich, in England, arrived. Initially they were manned by the Port’s boat crew. The newly appointed replacement Harbour Master to Dunsterville by the name of Benet on the 13th November 1847 applied to the Acting Government Secretary, J.C. Chase for an increase in their remuneration.  Benet reiterated the views of the boat crew manning the lifeboat who regarded manning the Manby Apparatus as “an extra duty for which they expect to be paid”.  They also felt that they should not maintain them either. Because of the dangerous nature of work and the low pay, Benet recommended “that some compensation be made to them”. Of course the logic of the boatcrew was fallacious as they would only be performing one job at a time; in other words they would either be operating the Manby Apparatus or they would be manning a boat

In 1881 a Rocket Brigade was formed by Prince Alfred’s Guard. Many lives were saved when severe gales occurred.

First strike in the Cape
Statistically, the Eastern Cape is recognised as having the most militant workers. Perhaps this situation is related to the fact that the first recorded strike in the Cape occurred on the 9th of November 1846 in Port Elizabeth.   Despite being the highest paid workers  at that time, the demand by the Mfengu beach labourers was for higher wages.   

Beach labourers loading a surfboat with wool bales for onward transport to a ship at anchor in the roadstead

In June 1852 they went on strike again because a new Town Regulation required them to wear clothing while working.

In an article entitled Fingo Strike Revisited in the EP Herald dated 20 October 1857, the newspaper reviews the impact of this strike as follows: “Instead of a 1s increase they received a 1s decrease to 5s 6d and the Boating Companies ‘insist upon a more regular attendance‘ i.e. combined breakfast and dinner with a regular period of 1 hour. “The building of a jetty by the Port Elizabeth Boating Company has been a very significant hint to these people that their rule on the beach will no longer be tolerated. We would undoubtedly have them well paid to work hard ten hours a day in the water is no trifling tax on a man’s energies, for which he ought to be handsomely remunerated and we consider 5s 6d a full equitable reward for the services performed”.

Of the two communities of workers employed as Beach Labourers, the Mfengu were the crème de la crème. Apart from not being indolent, they were not prone to drunkenness, unlike the Khoikhoi. As a consequence, the Khoikhoi were not favoured as workers and rapidly displaced by the Mfengu.   On the 4th April 1839 Dunsterville, the Harbour Master, wrote to the Civil Commissariat Vander Riet in Uitenhage as follows: In consequence of repeated drunkenness and neglect of duty on the part of Matthew Kemmett, my coxswain, I have been obliged to discharge [him] from the 1st instant. Replaced by William Warner.

Fingo Strike Revisited Eastern Province Herald 20 October 1857 Various extracts from the Port Elizabeth Letter Book in the Cape Town Archives supplied by Jon Inggs
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.