Port Elizabeth of Yore: Rivalries and Competing Visions

Systems, towns, people and religions do not operate in a vacuum. Rivalries and competing visions form the cornerstone of civilisation, and so it was for the infant town of Port Elizabeth. Competing interests without the best interests of this struggling Bay at heart, sought to create an environment advantageous to themselves. One of these competing visions was the most suitable location of the proposed harbour on the Eastern Province coast.

This contestation, which forms the focus of this blog, could rather have been titled “The Tale of Two Harbours” but as I have already dealt extensively with development of PE’s harbour, the focus now will predominantly be on the Kowie Harbour..

Main picture: Kowie River with sailing boats of yore

The proponents of a harbour at the mouth of the Kowie River proclaimed it as the solution to the 5-day trek by ox wagon from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown. These advocates  envisioned a central hub at Graham’s Town which initially, like Uitenhage, was substantially larger and more vibrant than Port Elizabeth. What was ignored in this equation was that Graham’s Town’s continued growth was predicated upon the continuing military presence due to the Frontier Wars. In fact, Graham’s Town could be classified as a typical garrison town in which the military personnel vastly outnumbered the local population and the commercial activities overwhelmingly related to providing supplies to the military. What Graham’s Town did possess and at which they had beaten a march on Port Elizabeth, was the establishment of a newspaper. In this regard, the Graham’s Town Journal had commenced publication in December 1831 whereas the Eastern Province Herald only commenced printing in 1845. Being an ardent proponent of the Kowie Harbour proposal, the Journal was able to apply pressure – albeit subtle in many cases – on the authorities.

The issue that would thwart all efforts to construct a harbour on the Kowie River was the issue of a bar at the mouth of the river. Removal was the easy part but preventing it from reforming was the difficult part. Many prospective entrepreneurs grappled with this dilemma. The Kowie’s mouth presented a narrow channel, half choked up with drift sand and fordable on horseback at low tide.

The newspaper skirmishes
The battleground was the Graham’s Town Journal and Eastern Province Herald / News while the combatants were the journalists of the newspapers on the one team and the letter writers in the opposing team. Irregular forces were the enterprising individuals who through their private initiatives attempted to tame the forces of nature. One such person was William Cock, leader of the eponymous 1820 settler party, Cock’s Party, who embarked upon a scheme of forcing a new channel and opening it into the sea along the western bank.

Not all articles on the issues were a formal presentation of the facts conflated with the author’s perceived advantages of their proposal and the negative aspects of the opposing solution. Instead they used satire, political rhetoric or even skits. In that period, satire was a common form of defence for making a point. A letter to the Editors in the Eastern Province News dated 16 October 1850 by ‘Punch‘ entitled ‘Harlequin and the Magic Harbour’, lampooned the Kowie scheme “The curtain arises and discovers a glorious display of sandhills, stunted bush, the sea rolling heavily on the shores, and in the interior of this break of the coast is a pool of smooth water, and the whole plot of the play is in the insane idea that this will ever become a harbour. The clown (C-K) is discovered, like another Robinson Crusoe, setting contemplating this scene.

Another example is recorded in the Eastern Province News dated 21 February 1852 when they announce that a spoof on the Kowie scheme entitled “Kowie Ship Canal and Great Lake, Wooden Atmosphere, Tubular, and Lunar Grand Junction Railway Company” from Company Secretary Jeremy Diddler would be performed. Not all negative letters of the editor in this regard adopted the satirical or faux concern or delight but instead adopted the serious issue approach. Two such letters will be used.

This correspondent makes an insightful comment that “Doubts are expressed about the viability of the Kowie scheme even in Graham’s Town. Pasturage around Kowie is so bad that local farmers would not take wagons down there for fear of their oxen dying. It was long known that the Kowie was unapproachable by sea “but now we learn with surprise that the Kowie is unapproachable by land”. What is being referred to is that “the Kowie River estuary [in those days] was a swampy region bounded to the east and west by steeply rising ground known today as the East and West bank”. [sEPN 21 February 1852]. Many referred to either the state of the “road” from Port Elizabeth or the time taken to traverse it, or both such as this article in the EPN dated 17th April 1852: It is cheaper to improve the Port Elizabeth / Graham’s Town road and reduce the travel time from 5 to 3 days instead of spending £50,000 on the doubtful Kowie River Scheme. “Let Graham’s Town then be arbiter to her own interest or she is enveloped in Egyptian bondage and irretrievably ruined as the boastful emporium of the Eastern Province.

Progress proceeds apace
As if blissfully unaware of the contestation by either party to the debate, bureaucracy takes its own merry time, at its own measured pace and bases decisions on mercurial political factors.

On the 1st July 1832, the GTJ reported that they – presumably the government – “Need to develop Fish or Kowie for harbours. I have seen several vessels in the Kowie and one in the Fish River. Only needs two or three merchants to experiment with a small specially built vessel to make a success of the scheme. All of the vessels seen had a shallow draft. What was not stated was that the sandbar’s magnitude or position could change with great rapidity effectively trapping the vessels in the estuary. Another issue not mentioned relates to government finances or lack thereof. The Napoleonic Wars had drained the British Treasury which left little for colonial adventures or capital projects.

In a letter from “An Albanian” on the Kowie question in the GTJ dated 12th June, “I have had from my first knowledge of the Kowie River, a strong prepossession that it will eventually become a place of note, and of great benefit as a commercial and fishing port to that fine part of the Colony. In consequence I have drawn together a few facts, of which I have a positive knowledge, as also from notes taken at the time, and on the spot”.  

Representations by locals induced Donkin, when inspecting the frontier, to make a brief survey of the Kowie mouth. Joseph Dysan, who had served in the East India Co and the Royal Navy, was instructed by Donkin to remain at the Kowie and make some observations and keep him informed. After a few reports, Dysan was appointed Harbour Master and a proper boat’s crew was engaged and a proper establishment set up. It was arranged that salaries be paid quarterly and provided with the same rations as a ship of war on the station to be provided.

Old Harbour Master’s house circa 1838

Moreover, the GTJ also reported that The Harbour Master was to have a proper house and land and each man a cottage and erf of ground for garden and a commonage to pasture a few cows. Liberal terms as an inducement for fishermen and seafarers to settle there. The plan would have succeeded if the succeeding authorities had fulfilled Donkin’s arrangements. . The next Harbour Master was allowed to keep a store to trade and as a natural consequence, the boatmen and port affairs were neglected and eventually given up. The author used to accompany Dysan when he surveyed the adjacent coast and fished in the roadstead The Boatmen often caught more than they could dispose of because of a shortage of salt. They then got salt and sold it as cured fish all around. Settlers never materialised to take up fishing. It was a failure, and it was left to the incoming Secretary of State in 1831 to abolish the office of Harbour Master and the Customs Department and disposal of all the buildings.

Misguided enthusiasm
With the withdrawal of the officialdom, private initiative and enterprise with its prophets and ideas both whacky and mundane, stepped up to the mark; the self-anointed prophet who, with the proverbial laying of hands, would quieten the forces of nature. This spirited and enterprising saviour was William Cock, leader of the Cock settler party. The solution upon which he embarked was to force a new channel and an opening to the sea along the western bank. According to H.L. Huisman in his article ‘Across the Kowie River’ this entailed “building a series of training walls by driving rows of timber into the riverbed. The rows were then wattled somewhat like a basket and then bush, rubble and sand were deposited in layers between the basket work. The river gradually  took its new course and by 1841 the work had progressed so well that the narrowed river burst through the sand bar and opened for itself a new outlet to the sea.  

Interest in a Kowie harbour reawakened
Another decade would elapse before interest in a harbour at the Kowie was reawakened. The EP Herald of 10 September 1845 reported that “The appointment by the Government of J. XXXX Esq., Civil Engineer, to survey the mouth of the Kowie, with a view to ascertaining its suitability as a port for shipping presents an occasion for the people of Port Elizabeth to urge the claims which this place has upon the aid of government. We regret that there is no other suitable Port to be found nearer the frontier districts than Algoa Bay”.

According to Eric Turpin, the defender of the Kowie scheme in 1844, W. Smith, a Director of the Kowie Shipping Co pointed out that since 7 February 1841 during which period the river mouth had easily remained open, 7 ships had made 37 entrances of the river. These vessels ranged from  50 – 160 tons with the loss of only 2 ships but no loss of life. Moreover all of the cargo was salvaged. Although condemned, both vessels were refloated. Meanwhile in Port Elizabeth within 10 months, 7 vessels had been wrecked with 12 lives being lost including £50,000 worth of property not to mention the ships which smashed the Jetty Company’s £8,000 Jetty, a sum equal to that expended on the whole of the Kowie works. What Smith had failed to mention was the fact that, according to Eric Turpin, Insurance for ships using the Kosie Harbour was unavailable at any price making the financial risk balance between the opposing ports more in equilibrium.

 In spite of doubts still being expressed regarding the viability of the Kowie River Harbour, the EP News reported on the 27th December 1851 that “£25,000 was conditionally voted for the Kowie Harbour [by Government]. A Joint Stock Co. must build a £6,000 sea wall before the Government pays its first £6,000.

Use of East London as a harbour
Potentially East London could, under certain circumstances, fulfil a more advantageous role as a harbour in close proximity to its hinterland. But it did not live up to the hype in all cases. In a letter to the Eastern Province Newspaper dated 17th April 1852  from Observer entitled Sir Harry Smith and his favourite Graham’s Town makes the claim that “Sir Harry’s East London Policy was the very hight of folly? A ship with part of the 12th Regiment from Mauritius had to land them at Port Elizabeth instead of East London “so as to save time and avoid risks? Observer reckons that Sir Harry should have used Port Elizabeth at first outbreak as it would have saved time, money and property.

Furthermore he propounded that it was cheaper to improve the Port Elizabeth / Graham’s Town road which would reduce the travel time from 5 to 3 days instead of spending £50,000 on the doubtful Kowie River Scheme. “Let Graham’s Town then be driven to her own interest or she is enveloped in Eqyptian bondage and irretrievably ruined as the boastful emporium of the Eastern Province.”

Victory  declared
As Port Elizabeth’s port went from strength to strength, rapidly dominating the volume in import and export stakes, the Kowie’s much vaunted harbour ambitions sank into oblivion. The introduction of a railway service which reduced the time taken between Port Elizabeth and Graham’s Town by 80% and the end of the Frontier Wars, capped Graham’s Town’s growth. The antagonists did not have to sheath their swords or bury the hatchet as the venture at Kowie gracefully faded away.

Fortunately for posterity, a harbour was never constructed on the Kowie River. If the sponsors had succeeded, the Kowie River estuary would have fallen foul to prosperity and like the Baakens lagoon been converted into dystopic factory lands with the toxic effluent from woolwashing destroying the vegetation and killing the fish. Finally, the once sparkling blue lagoon would be filled in with rubble from the various building sites in Main Streets

EP Herald and EP News: For a period of 3 years the EPH was known as the EP News
GTJ – Graham’s Town Journals

The Wicker Work Harbour: The Story of the Kowie by Eric Turpin (1983, Howard Timms, Cape Town)
Across the Kowie River by H.L. Huisman Article


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