Port Elizabeth of Yore: Moorings instead of a Harbour

As Jon Inggs acknowledges in his enlightening thesis on the development of the harbour until 1870, “Nothing was done to improve landing facilities at Algoa Bay before 1820 apart from setting up a flagpost on the landing beach with the dual role of marker and signal as to whether it was safe to land or not”.

What would be done, if anything, over the first decade from 1820 to 1830 in order to improve matters for shipping in Algoa Bay?

Main picture: Port Elizabeth from the shipping in 1850 by HWHC Piers [NMM Art Museum]

Rationale for using Algoa Bay

Prior to the British occupation of the Cape, Algoa Bay had been a backwater accorded no focus or consideration at all. In the wake of the occupation, the British must have viewed the eastern extremities of the colony as potentially vulnerable to interference by the French. Hence they must have investigated potential landing areas and identified the western shores of Algoa Bay as suitable for an incursion. It was also in close  proximity to the regional administrative centre being Uitenhage. Hence they selected the hill overlooking the mouth of the Baakens River as the location on which to construct a  fort. Furthermore, unlike the eastern shores of the Bay close to Bird Island, this area was sheltered from the southerly and south-westerly seas by the protective headland of Cape Recife. Nonetheless, this area was exposed to the full force of the south-easterly gales which often blew with great gusto.

Algoa Bay during north wester in 1909

The safety of these westerly beaches was borne out by the fact that not a single casualty was sustained when landing through the surf by the Settlers. Nevertheless, the success of the operation was attributed to the skill of the men of the navy and the garrison. Central to the transfer of the Settlers, was a large flat-bottomed boat which had been brought out on the Weymouth especially to land the settlers on the beach.

Proposals

Even before the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, the government had planned to make some modest improvements to this landing area. This would be in the form of chain moorings. For this purpose a 1179-kilogram anchor was purchased by the Table Bay deputy port captain, William Bridekirk, in April 1820 and hence too late for use with the initial settler landings. As Inggs records, “He considered it a bargain at R$442 [R$ = Rix Dollars]. Although it was R$192 more than the original estimate, he considered it a trifling difference when quality and utility is taken into consideration.”

Moorings were also suggested by Captain Fairfax Moresby of the HMS Menai who was in charge of landing the settlers at Markham’s Cove. He proposed “chain moorings, or even anchors of a larger size with chain cables should be laid down.” After surveying the coast as far as the Keiskamma River, he reckoned that Port Elizabeth was the only place from which an extensive coasting trade could develop.

Ships at anchor in the Bay

Initial upgrades

Apart from the government moorings laid by the Locust, over time, others were laid down by private individuals for regular traders. But moorings were no guarantee of protection as the Heworth was to learn in March 1823. Even though it was using the Locust’s moorings, the bête noire of shipping in Algoa Bay, the southeaster, wreaked its baneful havoc. It ripped the hapless Heworth from its mooring and drove it ashore near the landing area. Although the cargo was saved, a soldier from Fort Frederick was killed when he was dashed against the rocks. A similar fate awaited the brig Singapore in May 1824 despite being attached to the moorings.

In April 1825, Captain James Smith of the brig USK, validly complained that unmarked mooring anchors and chains were strewn about the best anchorage at Port Elizabeth. Inggs noted that “they were dangerous in that they were liable to cut ship’s cables, especially during gales. At least four chains and anchors were identified. Three belonged to the Locust and one to Chiappini & Co.” Smith’s proposed solution was their removal. William Bridekirk, the deputy port captain in Cape Town, weighed  into the debate by admitting that the government’s mooring chains were broken, and all the anchor buoys lost.

Suggestion of a wharf

Lord Charles Somerset was a strong proponent for the establishment of a port on the Kowie River. This spurred some residents of Uitenhage in July 1825 to approach the Governor to build a wharf in Port Elizabeth. Their rationale was grounded in the “immense saving [that] would accrue to Merchants in not having to provide surf boats”. Somerset signalled that he agreed with the advantages but would not support its construction due to “the embarrassed state of the colonial treasury”.

The residents of Uitenhage were not the only people taking up the cudgels for some form of wharf or jetty, it was also the customs official at Port Elizabeth, William Dunn, who in 1826 “was promoting a jetty because it would make the landing of goods possible in almost any weather conditions”. Probably due to being “engineering challenged”, he passed the baton as he “was sure that an engineer would be able to supply an instant prescription”. Dunn noted like an economist that his proposal would dispense on the one hand with “the expense of a boating establishment [presumably surf boats].  Instead on the other hand, wharfage due would become a source of revenue for the Colony but an additional expense for the shippers in the form of wharfage dues.

Port captain

In June 1827, Mr. D.P. Francis was appointed as Port Elizabeth’s first Collector of Customs and port captain at a stipend of £400 per annum. As the Colony placed much greater value on a customs collector than a priest, my great-great grandfather, the Rev Francis McCleland, as a priest in Port Elizabeth only earned £200 per annum, much to his chagrin. As Francis had returned to England after arriving as an 1820 Settler, he notified the authorities that he would leave England in July and arrive at the Cape in good time to take up his post on 1st January 1828.

Watercolour entitled Ships anchored in Algoa Bay in the olden days by BI Forster in NMM Art Museum

The 1828 report on the harbour facilities in the Cape recommended that a floating jetty be built at Port Elizabeth. Their raison d’etre was the inefficiency of the boatman and labourers  involved with the landing of goods and passengers through the surf. In January 1829, Captain James Scorey erected a flagstaff for the use of the port.

According to Jon Inggs, “The only other improvement to the port facilities during [this decade], was the provision of water to ships by a Malay, Fortuin Weys.” This enterprising blacksmith erected a pump and laid pipes from it to the landing beach. Weys was described by Thomas Pringle as “one of the wealthiest and most respectable inhabitants of the place”.

Progress

The decade from 1820 to 1830 had witnessed little progress in the development  of a harbour however elementary. In reality, at this stage in the town’s development, a harbour was not crucial to the success of the town. It is safe to say that this lack of progress in harbour development did not hinder the town’s growth and, as will become evident over the coming decades, that despite the labour intensive lighter system being in use, it never detracted from the town’s development.

Source

Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986


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