Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Moresby of the HMS Menai

Normally when critical civic events occur, it is highly unusual for lower ranking military officers to not only offer their services but also to willingly partake in those activities. In the case of Port Elizabeth, it was the actions of two Captains, one a military officer, Captain Francis Evatt,  and the other a naval officer who expedited the disembarkation of the 1820 Settlers.

This blog will deal with the selfless actions of the latter, Captain Fairfax Moresby of HMS Menai.

Main picture: Captain Sir Fairfax Moresby

Sea salt in his blood

Born in Calcutta during 1786, where his father had “shaken the pagoda tree” (made a fortune), Fairfax Moresby was sent to school in England at Stow, Lichfield, where he had as schoolfellow the future Sir Robert Peel. He showed an early liking for the sea and entered the Royal Navy in 1799 at the age of 13.

Sir Robert Peel

Porter noted that Moresby “became a midshipman, but for some disciplinary fault he was disrated and became so embittered that when his ship returned to Portsmouth he deserted. While tramping to -he knew not where – he was found by a naval captain who recognised him and who persuaded him to return. The kindly captain persuaded the boy’s commander to take him back without punishment and gave the boy a Bible which he treasured all his life.

He served under Nelson, fighting the French in the West Indies, was promoted to lieutenant and was in command of his own ship by 1811 at the age of 24. He served in the Mediterranean, suppressing the pirates in the Greek archipelago and capturing French privateers. During this period, he also took part in land operations with a naval brigade, against the French at Trieste”.

In 1814 Moresby received an award for gallantry and was made a Commander of the Bath. In 1819 he was given command of HMS Menai, a 24-gun frigate which formed part of the naval force guarding Napoleon on St. Helena. He described how he caught a glimpse of the famous captive working moodily in his garden.

Napoleon on St Helena

Off to the Cape

In December 1819 Moresby was sent to the Cape as the senior officer under the Naval Commissioner, Sir Jahleel Brenton. Without premeditation, Moresby offered his services to acting Governor Sir Rufane Donkin, and in March 1820, the HMS Menai sailed for Algoa Bay.

Moresby supervised the preparations for the reception of the settlers by using his crew to erect sheds and tents for the accommodation of stores and the settlers themselves. He also supervised the landing of stores and equipment intended for the use of new colonists. Thereafter, Moresby continued to provide any assistance within his power.

As A Porter states: “His concern for the settlers did not end with the landing. He did everything he could for their welfare and comfort, as the following extracts from the letters of Thomas Philipps, a settler leader, shows: “Monday, May 1st, 1820. Captain Moresby … came up to us astonished to find us on shore (they had landed soon after daybreak). He offered every assistance to us and to all, walking through the rows of tents till 10 o’clock at night to see all our wants supplied.

Tuesday, May 2nd. Captain Moresby had been up as soon as the sun, insisting on our whole party

coming down to his marquee for breakfast. Captain Moresby and Mr. Ellis earnestly begged I would leave my family behind with them, stating their health ought to be re-established, and so many arguments were used that we mutually consented, although’ never shall I forget my little John’s heartfelt sobs.” (The children had been sick with measles on board).

From the same source we learn that Captain Moresby led divine service on Sunday for the settlers, and also organised balls in the  large marquee.  After one of  these which lasted until dawn, the ladies were each given an acorn to plant on land which had been granted to him by Sir Rufane “in hopes that the British oak would rear its head and remain for ages in commemoration of the landing.” That ground is now built over, and the oaks, if they ever grew, have long since disappeared.

Sir Rufane wrote to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies , Earl Bathurst, highly commending Captain Moresby, and also to his immediate superior, Rear-Admiral Lambert, in the same strain, obviously hoping thereby to further the captain’s advancement.”

A debt of gratitude acknowledged

The high esteem in which Captain Moresby was held by the settlers was shown by the fact that after Sir Rufane had granted him a large tract of land in the Baakens Valley – later known as Rufane Vale – and a building erf facing the sea, the whole male population of the “town of tents” assisted in digging the foundations of the house that he intended to build.

The erection of a house to be named Markham House,  was commenced on the erf and Donkin laid the foundation stone while the labour was provided by Settlers still in Port Elizabeth. Moresby named his house “Markham House” after Donkin’s late wife whose maiden name it was, and the name also echoed that section of the Baakens River called “Markham’s Cove,” down to whose banks the gardens of the house stretched.

Scorey’s Hotel being depicted as the large building on the left with the garden of Anne Scorey just below the hotel

Donkin reprimanded

Sir Rufane was later called to account for making this grant and defended his action vigorously: “To Captain Moresby of the Royal Navy I granted indeed with satisfaction. That officer commanding His Majesty’s ship Menai superintended the disembarkation of the settlers with an anxiety, attention and ability which called forth their gratitude and my best thanks. The zealous and excellent officer, entering fully into my views as to the importance of Port Elizabeth told me that if I would give him a Lot, he would build a house upon it. This he did at once, and that house has become a most comfortable inn, and it contributed to the growing importance of the place. This was money out of Captain Moresby’s pocket for which he has never had the smallest return“.

Map of PE Central showing Scorey’s Premises as No 8

Surveying Algoa Bay

It was Moresby who christened the two islands near St. Croix, Brenton and Jahleel after his Commander.

On completion of this task, Moresby surveyed the coast and river mouths from Cape Recife to the Keiskamma. The resultant report was published in the Government Gazette of 15th July 1820. Referred to as a restrictive survey – perhaps it should rather be called an inspection of the bay – the report states: “Should Port Elizabeth ever become a place of commerce consequence (which there is no doubt it soon will), chain-moorings, or even anchors of a larger size, with chain cable, should be laid down for those ships that wish to approach near the shore, for the purpose of loading and unloading.”

I do not,” adds he, “make the remark from the insecurity of the bay – for I consider it, at all times equal to Table Bay, and for six months, very far its superior.” And the gallant Commander goes on to say, “Had I my choice of trusting my ship for the year round to Torbay in England, Palmero Bay in Sicily Algoa Bay, I should, without hesitation, prefer the anchorage of Port Elizabeth.”

Captain Fairfax Moresby

To make this bay – what it deserves to be and must sooner or later become, a place of extensive commerce, there are four improvements yet to be introduced, viz a landing jetty, a supply of water to the beach, a buoy on the Roman or Despatch Rock and a lighthouse on Cape Recife. It is satisfactory to state that arrangements have been made for the commencement of the latter immediately.”

A Distinguished Career Followed

Moresby was posted to Mauritius in February 1823 in connection with the suppression of the slave trade. After leaving Mauritius in 1823 he assumed various commands, was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1849, Vice­ Admiral in 1856, Admiral in 1865, was knighted in 1865 and became Admiral of the Fleet in 1870 at the incredible age of 82. He died in his 91st year in 1877. He never returned to live in Port Elizabeth.

In conclusion

Among the many persons connected with the landing of the 1820 Settlers there is one who has never received the credit due to him. Like Moresby, Captain Evatt was also civic minded and altruistic. Maybe due to Evatt being involved in many other civic issues that his name is recalled 200 years later with alacrity. Notwithstanding that fact, it was Captain Fairfax Moresby who was chiefly responsible for the landing of over 3000 settlers, who amounted to 1020 men, 607 women and 2032 children, without a single mishap, a remarkable feat seeing there were no shore facilities. It should also be borne in mind that this exercise occurred over an extended period from arrival, in the middle of April, to the day of HMS Menai’s  departure on the 25th of June which included many blustery days.

Moresby has been described as “one of those enviable men whom a person cannot help liking at first sight” . That he had a tender heart is shown in a touching little poem on the death of a thrush which had been the wardroom pet  on  his ship all through  his battles with the French.

Addendum: Report by Captain Fairfax Moresby

Cape Recife is situated in Latitude 34° 02′ S. Longitude  25°  39′  E. of  Greenwich. It is a low rocky point; the breakers extend one mile and  a half into the sea.  The coast from this point runs N. 32° W. 4 miles to Beacon or Rocky Point; off this point lays a bed of rocks, but sufficient water for ships to pass within a small dangerous rock, over which the sea breaks in bad weather, bearing from Beacon’s Point W. ¾ N. by compass, and Cape Recife S. ¼ W. This rock is a small pinnacle; we frequently tried to heave the lead upon the top, but never had less than 20 feet. Ships of large tonnage should therefore give Beacon’s Point a good berth, in approaching Port Elizabeth.

From Beacon’s or Rocky Point, to the landing place at Markham’s Cove, is N.W. by N. by compass, nearly 3 miles; sand hills covered with bush. Immediately over Markham’s Cove is Fort Frederick, at present the only land-mark by which a stranger is guided to the anchorage, and this from many positions is not easily distinguished; but a Pyramid, about to be erected as a private memorial, half-a-mile to the South-East of Fort Frederick, will stand conspicuous to ships approaching the land.

From Markham’s Cove to Ferreira’s River is N. 13° E. by compass, nearly 4 miles; between this point and Beacon’s Point may be considered the anchorage of Port Elizabeth; the water deepens gradually from the shore; the bottom is hard sand, in which the anchors hold well. Where merchant ships have generally anchored, the ground is not so clear as further out, arising from numerous anchors that been left; but should Port Elizabeth ever become a place of commercial consequence, chain moorings, or even anchors of a larger size, with chain cables, should be laid down for those ships that wish to approach near the shore, for the purpose of loading or unloading, the expense would not be very great, and a small tax for such an accommodation, would be cheerfully paid.

I do not make this remark from the insecurity of the bay, for I consider it at all times equal to Table Bay, and for six months very far its superior.

His Majesty’s Ship Menai, lay off Port Elizabeth from the 29th of April, until the 25th of June, 1820; during that period there were only two days we could not communicate with the shore; with a South-East wind a swell rolled in, but never any high breaking sea. Ships have, from time to time, rode during the whole year in this bay, and some of His Majesty’s Ships have rode out the heaviest South East gales that have been known.

Had I my choice of trusting my ship for the year round, to Torbay, in England, Palermo Bay, in Sicily, Table Bay , or Algoa Bay, I should, without hesitation, prefer the anchorage off Port Elizabeth, Algoa Bay.


From the 1st April, to the 1st September, the wind scarce ever blows from the South-East; and calculating upon the average number of days that ships can communicate, and carry on their commercial occupations, Port Elizabeth infinitely surpasses Table Bay.

In proof of what I have said, not a single accident happened in landing the Settlers from England, (who amounted to 1020 men, 607 women and 2032 children) from the period of their arrival, in the middle of April, to the day of our departure, the 25th of June. It is true, that two small coasters were wrecked last year, on the same day; but if their loss is attributed to the right cause, it will be rather to their want of good tackle, than the force of the wind; – even from these vessels not a man perished.

No ship should anchor nearer the shore, until the bay is cleared of anchors, then 6½ fathoms, without they have chain cables; – thus, in considering Port Elizabeth a safe ancho rage it may naturally be looked forward to as a point to where the coasting trade of the Colony can be carried to an extensive scale. Between Port Elizabeth and Table Bay, the anchorages are numerous; and there are few masters of coasting vessels in England, Holland, or France, who have not hourly more dangers to encounter, and more difficulties to surmount , than the trade from Port Elizabeth to Table Bay.

As the Export Port to the Isle of France, &c. Port Elizabeth is admirably situated ; and as a place for refreshment during the winter months, few seamen would risk their ships in Table Bay, or encounter the delay in beating up to Simon’s Bay with a North West wind, when Port Elizabeth affords much easier access, and articles of refreshment at a more moderate price.

The bay abounds in fish, and this will be soon one of its most important exports. Fresh water, there is abundance of; at the expense of a few hundred Rixdollars, it  might be carried to the beach in a stream, sufficiently strong to water any number of ships.

The thermometer, during our stay at Port Elizabeth, at noon, varied from 66° to 59°. The nights were cool, the morning air fresh and invigorating. High water at full and change, 3 h. 40 m. Tide rises about six feet.

Ferreira’s River [Papenkuils] is closed at the mouth by a bank of sand , except at spring tides, and is not worth notice; from thence to the mouth of the  Zwartkops, is N.E. by  E. ½ E.: 2 miles to the shore, sandy and flat. The surf rolls in much higher with every sort of weather, than at Port Elizabeth.

The Zwartkops, in Latitude 33° 51′ 24″ S.  Longitude  25° 43′ 30″  E. is a river of the first consequence, if Port Elizabeth should continue to flourish. From the accompanying survey of it, the capacity of its water is evident; and I have little doubt, that when commercial gain shall stimulate the merchant to enterprise, the Zwartkops will be found capable of admitting ships of considerable tonnage; in fact, there is now in the river, the remains of a Dutch ship of 200 tons, and there were but few days, when boats could not have come over the bar whilst we remained at Port Elizabeth. Ships may anchor off the Zwartkops to wait for tide; but I do not consider it so safe, as the anchorage off Port Elizabeth.

From the Zwartkops to the Kuga (Coega) River, situated in Latitude 33° 47′ 19″ S. Longitude 25° 49′ 30″ E. is 5 miles. The coast is sand hills, with a flat sandy beach. The mouth of this river is  closed,  and  the  water  peculiarly  salty. From  hence  to the Sunday River is East 4° 35′ South 9 miles. The mouth of this river is situated in Latitude 33° 43′ 06″ S. Longitude 25° 32′ 30″ E. of Greenwich. Between this Point and Cape Recife, may be denominated Algoa Bay.

The Sunday River runs into the sea close to a remarkable rock, which I have denominated Read’s Monument in remembrance of a fine youth, a midshipman of the Menai, who perished with three Seamen, in the execution of their duty whilst surveying the coast.

On its Northern side, the bed of this river is deep but the surf beats with violence over the bar across its mouth; and as here the coast is exposed to the constant rolling swell, little chance of its ever being useful to commercial purposes offers. There are times when boats can enter or leave Sunday River; but from its mouth commences that wild inhospitable coast, that refuses shelter to any class of shipping.

The Island of St. Croix, in Latitude 33° 47′ 30″ S. Longitude 25° 36′ 60″ E. lays S. 57° 50′ East of the mouth of the Kuga, 3½ miles; and S. 71° 10′ W. from the mouth of the Sundays, 6 miles; it is about 2¼ in circumference. Another small rocky Island, which I have called Brenton’s Isle, lays S. 46° W. of St. Croix, 1-1/8 mile distant, and about ¾ mile in circumference. Off the mouth of the Kuga, South 2/3rds of a mile, is the Island of Jahleel, about the same size as Brenton’s Isle. Round these Islands there is good anchorage; and in the event of necessity, a ship might find partial shelter near St. Croix. These Islands are inhabited by immense numbers of seals, which at times literally cover their surface.

The coast from the mouth of the Sunday’s River, runs to the Eastward towards the Bosjesman’s River. The mouth of this river I did not examine; from reports I received it did not appear to merit attention. From the Bosjesman’s River, the coast continues the sameness of appearance, sand hills covered with bush. The Bird Islands are alone visible along the whole line of coast.

The mouths of the Karega and Kasouka were nearly closed, a weak stream alone running over a bed of light sand. The winter torrents, no doubt, will at times fill the beds of these rivers to a great extent. Further eastward is the Kowie, a river that promises fairer than any I have visited (except the Zwartkops) at some future time, to admit ships over its bar. Like all the other rivers I have visited, it receives its inland stream into an extensive sandy basin, from which it forces its way, through a narrow channel on its Eastern side, into the sea, not wider at low water, than 20 yards; this stream runs in a S.S.E. direction; the surf broke across a bar about ¼ of a mile from the entrance, but not violent, and at low tide there must have been several feet of water. What leads me to expect more from this river than the others I have visited, is, that the water appears deep close to the shore, and there are two extensive beds of rocks, which bore by compass S.E. by S. from the river’s mouth about 2½ miles.  If there is anchorage under those rocks, ships might perhaps be able to wait the convenience of tide before they attempted to enter the river.

The next appearance of a river to the Eastward is the Kleine Monden, which has apparently at times three outlets to the sea; but they were all closed when I saw them, and I suspect are only open at spring tides, or when the mountain waters come down.

From the Kowie to the Great Fish River’s mouth, the coast has a more verdant appearance, the sand hills are covered with luxuriant bush; but there is not an inlet or curve of any sort that offers shelter for ships. The surf rolls in high breakers along the coast.

The country at the mouth of the Fish River, is open, interspersed with picturesque ravines, generally clothed with bush; when I arrived, the water was at the lowest ebb; from the S.W. side a sand bank projects to within 20 yards of the N.E. side; the current was running through this channel slowly into the sea, and I could trace its stream gradually decreasing in breadth, until finished in a point, making the mouth of the  river form the base of an equilateral triangle; from this point part of the ebb is thrown back on the flat beach, runs to the Westward, and finds an outlet close to the rocks on the western side; at this spot the water appears deep. At the breadth of 10 yards, the sea did not break successively, but at times there was an interval of 5 minutes, when a boat could easily have landed; but when it did break, it was with treble the violence of the constant rolling surf along the sand before the river’s mouth. The entrance of the river E.S.E. and W. N.W. the stream inclines a little to the S.W. after passing the extreme point where the sea broke with violence across.

The position of the Fish River may be easily ascertained at sea, in a fine day, by some distant hills of an undulating form, bearing N.N.W. per compass; these hills are then between the ravines through which the river flows.

The Great Fish River, at particular seasons, swells to a considerable height; at these times, from the violence of the current, no ship or vessel could possibly enter; but when the causes have ceased that filled its bed, the river becomes a mere stream, and for several months in the year, I much doubt whether the strength  of  water  would turn a mill.  I think the  water is sufficiently  deep, to admit ships to  anchor off  the river’s mouth. As the tide rose the surf increased, but at dead low water, there must have been several feet on the bar. Not the least appearance of shifting sand, or rocks, were observed amongst the breakers. The land, on the Western bank of the Fish River, near its mouth, is most beautiful, being a rich black earth, with a covering of luxuriant pasture.

I crossed this river at the first ford from the sea, about six miles inland; here the stream meanders through a deep and bushy ravine. We led our horses down on Friday the 12th of May and were near an hour in descending. When we reached the bank, the tide had not sufficiently receded to admit our crossing; in an hour it was effected, and when the tide was perfectly out , there was but a very small fresh water stream.

From hence to the Beeca, we continued in an E.S.E. direction; we crossed this river at a ford where the tide reaches at springs, there was scarcely any water in its bed. From this ford to the mouth of the Beeca is about 6 miles. I remained here to witness the effect, that the ebb and flow of tide had on the bar. The stream runs S.W. into the sea; is not more at low water than 12 or I4 fathoms across, but deep. This river bids fair to admit coasting vessels, from the following causes:-

The water clear of the river’s mouth, appears deeper; the mouth is so narrow, and the river so confined, that the tide is more rapid than at the Keiskama, or the Fish River; the breakers are not more than would be expected at a depth of 8 or I0 feet, and resembled what is generally seen of rivers’ mouths that are known to be navigable; the coast, however, is still as inhospitable as what I have hitherto seen. From the  mouth of the Beeca to the  Keiskahama, is about 15 miles, in an E.S.E. direction; there are several small streams, up which the sea flows 5 or 6 miles at spring tides; but  the sea rolls in high breakers along the coast.

The first view of the Keiskahama, is the  most flattering to those who visit  it for  the reason I did, viz.: “to ascertain whether it was open at the mouth for the purpose of commerce An extensive basin of water receives the inland stream; the extreme points between which the Keiskahama flows when its bed is full, bear from each other N.E. by E. and S.W. by W. about I mile distant; but this bed can  only be full when  the mountain  torrents are  the cause.

It was nearly high water when I visited it,  the  mouth  of  the river  then about 70 or 80 yards across, the stream running South into the sea, strong and deep. Part of it is forced back along the shore, similar to the Fish River, but the greater part runs close along the low rocky shore, forming the N.E. point; its breakers were here, evidently, not so successive, and I do not despair of there being a channel at high tides, for small vessels; but the wildness of the coast, with the flat that reaches 1¼ or 2 miles seaward, blight the hope that this river can ever be constantly open to the most enterprising trader. It is not at present , nor calculating upon probabilities, can ever be, the resort of the King’s Ship; the tides are too feeble, and of too little elevation, to serve any great purpose; about 7 or 8 feet was the highest I could decide, by the marks on the shore, that the tides rose.

I remained until low water, the river then did not exceed 40 yards in breadth. The ravine, through which the Keiskahama serpentines, runs in a N.W. and S.E. direction. The entrance may be known at sea, in clear weather, by a range of mountain s in the interior; one standing by itself, rising in a conical shape, flattened at the top; and a short distance to the Eastward, another high mountain, forming three distinct elevations and falls; when these mountains bear N.N.W. they are on with the Keiskahama. The N.E. point of land, close to which the river flows into the sea, is low and  rocky, running from a remarkable little green hillock, detached from the one where the bank begins to rise; the S.W. point is a sandy hillock. Along the coast, the sand is covered with bush, through which , at different places, it is visible.

Having given an account of the rivers between Cape Recife and the Keiskahama, I shall close with this general observation: That from the straightness of the coast, few ships will ever venture to approach them; that although they are generally called rivers, they are mere streamlets, when not filled by mountain torrents or heavy rains.

It is true, that the Fish and Keiskahama Rivers, close to their mouths, appear magnificent sheets of water; but as I crossed the Fish River 6 or 7 miles from its entrance, almost dry footed , the Beeca, without wetting my shoes; and I am told, the Keiskahama has a ford at an equally short distance from its mouth, they are in themselves but streamlets; the tide does not rise sufficiently high to make them, what are called in England, tide harbours.

If, therefore, trade is ever carried on, it is my opinion, that by Port Elizabeth , or the Zwartkops alone, it can be effected with security.

We have, from time to time, heard of lamentable shipwrecks between Cape Agulhas and the Keiskahama; no  doubt,  the  greater part of these would have been avoided, had a light warned the mariner of his danger. The expense of erecting a light-house on Cape Recife and Cape Agulhas, would not be very great, and the expense of lighting them very trivial. How willingly every navigator to and from India would contribute to the expense of these buildings, is well known; and, if but one ship had been preserved by such a beacon, that has buried her crew and cargo on the sandy shores of Africa, it would pay for years, (if money alone is to be considered, and not the life of man,) the expense of a light-house.

7th July 1820


Remarks on the Rivers and Coast between Cape Recife and the Mouth of the Keiskahama, with particular description of Port Elizabeth, Algoa Bay, Southern Africa by Captain, later Admiral, Fairfax Moresby (December 1972, Looking Back, Vol X11, No 4)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Captain Fairfax Moresby by A. Porter (December 1975, Looking Back, Vol XV, No 4)

HMS Menai – The log book from 1820 to 1821 is in the NY Library


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