Port Elizabeth of Yore: James Laing’s View of PE in 1831

James Laing was a Scottish missionary who spent the greater part of his life ministering to the needs of the amaXhosa who used the sobriquet indoda ebisithanda -The Man Who Loved Us – to describe him. Even though Laing never stayed long in Port Elizabeth as he was merely passing through, he has left us with a verbal sketch of the town together with his view of the town.

Main picture: James Laing

The party arrived in Port Elizabeth—a town for which Laing had few kind words—on 14 April. They were met by Alexander McDiarmid, artisan missionary at Burnshill, a day later and together they set out for Grahamstown by wagon on 20 April 1831. The details of Laing’s stay related below are all obtained from a diary that he kept.

Tuesday April 19 1831 [Letters] Port Elizabeth.
We landed here on Thursday, the 14th Instant, after an agreeable passage of ten days from Cape Town. It will be seen from the letter which I sent off to Mr Knox the day after coming on shore, that then nothing relating to the movements of my Missionary friends was known to me. I regret that I did not delay that letter a day longer, for had I done so, I could have told Mr Knox of the arrival of Mr M’Dermid [McDiarmid] at Algoa Bay. It was pleasant to see him come from the field of action in good health and spirits. He is altogether an excellent character, and well fitted to conduct us with our baggage to Caffraria. He came on horse-back, and told us of the approach of three waggons, which arrived this day, (19 April) and in which we expect to set off tomorrow.

Two of these waggons belong to the Society, and one them belongs to Mr Thomson, Kat River, who wrote to me when in Cape Town, that he would send it to assist in conveying us up the country. With them are several Caffres and Hottentots. The Caffres are fine looking young men, and very modest in their demeanour.

The want of the letters which I complained of, has been fully made up. Yesterday I had a letter from Mr Chalmers, and to-day, two letters from Messrs Ross and Bennie. It appears that Mr Bennie is not yet ordained, but his ordination is intended to take place about the beginning of June. I have no reason to complain of want of congratulations on coming to South Africa; nor could matters have been better arranged as to the time of Mr M’Dermid

[McDiarmid]’s meeting us. He was only a single day later than we were. Had Mr M’Dermid [McDiarmid] not come for some days, it was my intention to have gone to Uitenhage, to have staid in Mr Smith’s house, to which I was invited in his absence, by his sister-in-law, Mrs Burnett. But the near prospect which we had of seeing the waggons, made us lay aside the thought of going to Uitenhage. This is the most awful place for drunkenness that I have seen. It is not uncommon to see 12 or 20 Hottentots entering the Brandy Shop at once. The consequences of the drinking are worse here than they generally are in other places; Mr Collins is much needed here. There is a Missionary of the London Missionary Society, doing something to stem the torrent of immorality; but his efforts will not be sufficient to reclaim the Hottentots, so long as they can easily obtain so much Brandy.

You will perhaps wish to have some idea of the village in which I am at present writing. It is small, irregular, and stands on sand at the side of a barren country. We have good accommodation in our Inn, which is kept by English people. There may be 300 or 400 inhabitants about Algoa Bay; but the houses are so scattered that it is difficult to form a correct estimate. Last Sabbath evening, I preached to a respectable, and not small congregation, in the Chapel of the London Missionary Society.

Comments on Laing’s observations
In the case of the Inn or hotel at which Laing stayed, Laing is probably referring to Scorey’s Hotel, previously the home of Captain Fairfax Moresby of the HMS Menai. Known variously as Hope Stoep Hotel, Scorey’s Hotel and Markham House, it stood on the site of the present Markham Hotel in Military Road. J.J. Redgrave, Port Elizabeth in bygone days, (Wynberg: Rustica, 1947)

1823 Port Elizabeth from the burial ground by John Francis Comfield. The Inn at which Laing stayed, is probably the building on the left

Rev. Alexander Smith was amongst the first of the Scottish missionaries recruited by Dr George Thom and arrived to take up his appointment in the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk at Uitenhage towards the end of 1823. He remained at Uitenhage until he retired from active ministry on 14.3.1863. Cape Statistical Blue Book, 1831; W.J.S. Sellick, Uitenhage past and present (Uitenhage: the Author, 1904), 21, 30; G.M. Theal, Records of Cape Colony, v.16, 7-8; A. Dreyer, Eeuwfeesd-album van de Nederduits Gereformeerde-Kerk 1824-1924 (Cape Town, Suid-Afrikaanse Bybel Vereeniging, 1924), 94.

The high incidence of drunkenness to which Laing refers is borne out in Redgrave’s Port Elizabeth in bygone days, 157-9. The problem may be attributed at least in part to the increase in shipping at the port around 1830 eading to greater labour demands and a consequent rapid burgeoning in population including many Khoekhoe people seeking work. From the late 1820s to the 1834-1835 Frontier War, shipping authorities in Port Elizabeth drew their main source of beach labour from amongst the Khoekhoe. The liquor trade was virtually uncontrolled and Redgrave writes of “shady drinking shebeens” springing up in Strand and neighbouring streets close to the landing place where people of all races could be seen “at all hours of the day and night wallowing in the gutters and sinks, suffering from the effects of the dreadful ‘Cape Smoke’ [a rough and potent Cape brandy]”. It is possible Mr Collins was a Scottish temperance worker known to Laing and the Society. J.J. Redgrave, Port Elizabeth in bygone days, (Wynberg: Rustica, 1947); E.J. Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth harbour development 1820-1870″, M.A., Rhodes, 1986, 76.

The Union Congregational Church in Chapel Street, which was begun in 1825 and funded by public subscription under the direction of the missionaries at Bethelsdorp, was opened in 1828. It was demolished in 1967.
South African Almanac and Directory for 1831 (Cape Town: George Greig, 1831)
Looking back, 4 (2), June 1964, 9;
Looking back, 8, no.1 (March 1968): 19.

Monday May 2 Chumie [Tyhume] 1831
Before I say anything relating to affairs here, I shall mention a few circumstances relating to our journey. After much preparation, we left Algoa Bay on Wednesday evening, 20 April. We had never travelled in a waggon before, that and yet from the care of Mr M’Dermid and the driver, we found this mode of travelling not altogether uncomfortable. We had in setting out a proof of the good will of a humble

individual to the Missionary cause. One of our waggons required a little repair. A smith was requested to perform what was necessary, and when offered payment, would not accept of it. This was doubtless, because the business was Missionary, and deserves to be recorded, to shew that there are some, who so far from looking on Missionary work as an object of gain, deem it their duty to perform as much of it as they can, free of remuneration. We proceeded by the light of the moon for about 6 miles.

Like most visitors to Port Elizabeth in its early days, they all, to a man, expressed their dismay and disdain for such a despicable place. Upon reflection I sometimes wonder what my great great grandfather, the Rev. Francis McCleland, thought of Port Elizabeth and especially their shady hotels and bars.


A Missionary Life Among the amaXhosa: The Eastern Cape Journals of James Laing, 1830-1836 by Sandra Carolyn Teresa Rowoldt Shell, Student number: RWLSAN002, A dissertation submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Master of Arts in Historical Studies, Faculty of the Humanities, University of Cape Town, 2006

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