Port Elizabeth of Yore: The creation of a Port without a Harbour.

For the majority of the 143 years from 1652 to 1795 during which the Dutch occupied the Cape, Algoa Bay and its potential use as a Harbour can be likened to a black hole. Nothing was known about it and the Government authorities were ignorant of its existence. The raison d’etre of the use of Cape Town was that it served as a replenishment station en route to the Dutch East Indies. Nothing more and nothing less.  

It took more than a century after 1652 before the Dutch authorities displayed a modicum of interest in this Bay. This blog deals with that unhurried awakening of interest and its gradual adoption as a harbour. If the truth be told, without the British occupation of the colony, the recognition and adoption of Port Elizabeth would possibly not have arisen and some other river mouths such as the Zwartkops, Buffalo or Kowie would have snatched the prize.

Let it be crystal clear: It was not a foregone conclusion that the harbour in Algoa Bay would be situated at the mouth of a paltry stream such as the Baaken’s River.

Main picture: Blockhouse on the Baakens River in 1803

The eastern seaboard as a terra nova
It was the Portuguese who named the bay Baia de Lagoa which was subsequently corrupted to Algoa Bay. The reference to a lagoon did not relate to the Baaken’s River which in those days possessed a magnificent lagoon which was subsequently filled in. Instead, it referred to the lagoon at the mouth of the Zwartkops River. As late as 1776, the status of Algoa Bay was regarded as no more than a watering place. Dutch ships did not call at Algoa Bay until a century after Van Riebeeck’s landing in 1652. To buttress this assertion, there is no record of Dutch Indiamen having put into de Baaij de Lagoa.

It was only during the governorship of the Dutchman, Ryk Tulbagh, that curiosity was piqued about what lay on the eastern boundary of the colony beyond Swellendam.  To satisfy that need, Tulbagh organised an expedition under the leadership of Ensign A.F. Beutler with Carel Wentyll as land surveyor. Amongst the instructions received by Beutler was to explore for navigable rivers and gauge their potential as a harbour. On May 13th the party reached Algoa Bay only to find a wrecked French ship’s boat at the mouth of the Zwartkops. The assessment of Beutler and Pieter Clement regarding the safety of the Bay in times of distress differed markedly with Clement believing that the safety was questionable due to its exposed position. Based upon these discordant views, the DEIC abandoned the idea of using Algoa Bay in times of distress. According to Soonike, as late as 1785, Dutch inhabitants of the area such as the Botha’s of Buffelsfontein had never seen any shipping in the Bay.

Mfengu unloading coal from surfboats

In September 1795, the British captured the Cape of Good Hope and they were blissfully unaware of Swartkops River Bay. In effect, the invaders were just as ignorant of Algoa Bay as the Dutch before them. By implication, the Bay would have to be “discovered” again. 

Revelations by John Bruce
 In January 1796, John Bruce submitted Sketches of the Political and Commercial History of the Cape of Good Hope….. in which he records that 2 or 3 ships could safely anchor in the Zwart Kops Rivier’s Bay beyond the two islands in all winds and any parts of the Bay except when it was experiencing southeasters. His recommendation for the best time of the year to use the Bay was between mid-May and mid-August but his caveat was that he doubted whether it was possible to establish a harbour there or, in fact, anywhere in the Cape Colony. The only exception was Saldanha Bay, but it lacked water.

Despite this negative conclusion, Bruce believed that Algoa Bay possessed great strategic value. If so used, Bruce suggested that the military station should be located at either the Fish or Sunday’s River. In that case, it could be used to fend off a possible French attack from the French bases at Illa de France and de Bourbon. Dundas’ failure to submit the Sketches to Calnet torpedoed that suggestion.

Investigation of Bays and Harbours
Urgency was demanded. With a paucity of forces in the Cape both naval and foot soldiers, harbours and bays were required to offload reinforcements anywhere along the vast coastline. The Secretary to the Governor, John Barrow, was instructed to “investigate the Bays and Harbours as well as the interior of the country”….”particularly of the Bay or Harbour said to be forward where the Zwartkops River falls into the sea”. Moreover, he was tasked with considering its defences “in the cheapest practicable mode”.   

Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats in 1870s

Meanwhile, Admiral Pringle dispatched Lt WM Rice to survey the entire coast from Simon’s Town to Algoa Bay. On the 15th August 1797, Rice arrived at Algoa Bay aboard the HMS Hope. Rice spent until September 12th surveying the roadstead. He measured the swell and deduced that it rose by 15 feet with high surf and proclaimed that the best shelter was at the St Croix islands.

Assessment of vulnerability to attack
Barrow seems to have exaggerated the vulnerability of Algoa Bay to French attack. On the other hand, Rice stated that “There is no fortification at present nor does any seem necessary except a few guns planted on the sand hillocks to oppose an enemy’s landing. The Bay being so extensive that an enemy’s fleet might anchor in shelter out of gunshot from the shore”.

Map of the original 7 districts
Map of the original 7 districts

During 1799, unrest broke out again. Instead of using the sea to swiftly transport the troops by sea to Port Elizabeth, the British soldiers were compelled to march from Cape Town. The infantry officers were dispatched on the Star with orders to march from Algoa Bay to Graaff-Reinett, the epicentre of the uprising in order to confront the rebels.

Dundas reached the frontier on 15th July 1799. He ordered timber to be shipped aboard HMS Camel in order to build a blockhouse at Algoa Bay. This structure was erected on the eastern bank of the Baakens River behind sandhills overlooking the landing beach. They were also instructed to protect the watering place near the landing beach. A second masonry blockhouse, christened Fort Frederick, was also built. Even though it was envisaged to mount artillery in this fort, none was placed in it. Instead, due to their limited range,  the two 8-pounder cannons were placed on sand dunes, two miles from the roadstead.

The nightmare: Landing stores in the surf
Unlike in England where jetties were readily available in a myriad of coves, estuaries, river mouths and other natural inlets forming extemporised harbours dotting the coastline, South Africa was the opposite. Even most river mouths were not amenable to shipping as a natural sand bar at its mouth precluded entry. The only plausible method of loading and unloading was by using surfboats. This procedure was tedious and painfully slow as it required loading the boat in the shallows and then unloading it into the recipient ship at anchor in the roadstead.

The realisation soon dawned that the process could be accelerated by having multiple boats to augment those on board the vessel at anchor. Consequently, in August 1800, a surf boat was requisitioned from the Cape Town Port Department, but this soon proved to be inadequate.

In 1803, the Cape Colony was handed over to the Batavian Republic. The intractable transshipment conundrum was gleefully placed in the hands of the replacement Governor General, Janssens who grasped the nettle on his tour of inspection during May 1803. During his tour, he requested the master of the De Verwagting to propose an improved method of landing stores onto the beach. Captain Daniel Corrach suggested that a second surf boat of thirty feet, be procured. In addition, he mentioned that some block and tackle as well as warps and ropes be acquired to haul the surf boats ashore. Corrach did not forget a vital ingredient, the manning. For this, he requested several strong sailors to operate the landing gear. Janssens concurred and gave his approval for the use of troops stationed at Fort Frederick. At the same time troops from Fort Frederick were earmarked to be trained to assist distressed ships. A Proclamation giving effect to these instructions was issued in May 1803 by Janssen.

Mitigating danger
In 1811, Lt. Col. Cuyler, the Landdrost at Uitenhage, persuaded the Cape Government to set up a flagpost on the Landing Beach to signal whether it was safe to land and also to serve as a marker. Cuyler also advised the authorities that it be noted on the ship’s charts.

By this time, it had been noted that there was a continuous danger in the roadstead from a submerged rock near Cape Recife directly in the path of ships arriving from the west. This danger was first observed in 1803 by Capt. Selby of the Young Nickalus. Capt. Evatt, the Commander of Fort Frederick, who took it as his civic duty, personally pointed out this danger to ships.

It was eventually Capt. William Walker, of the HM Store Ship Dispatch, who took up the cudgels regarding the dangers from the rock which he named Dispatch Rock. In January 1818 he wrote a special report which he sent directly to the Commanding Officer of the Cape Naval Station, Admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton to have Despatch Rock [as it was sometimes incorrectly spelt] noted on charts and have a buoy placed on it. The Navy did publish a Notice of the danger in the press, but it neglected to arrange the attachment of a buoy.

Danger at Cape Recife
Maybe these were acts of self-preservation, but other persons would also raise awareness of the dangers lurking in the water in Algoa Bay. Now it was the turn of the dangers of Cape Recife to be exposed. Shortly after Cuyler and Walker warned of the dangers of Dispatch Rock, in October 1811, Capt. Richard Dighton of Upington Castle suggested that a signal flag or some other marker be placed on Cape Recife to warn of the mile-long shoal that projected into the sea from it.

Next to be proposed was something more substantial, a lighthouse. It was in July 1819 that Capt. Callender proposed to install a lighthouse at his own expense. The quid pro quo or proviso in this instance would be a charge of 6d per ton on all merchant vessels using the Bay. His proposal was flatly rejected by the Government Secretary, Lt. Col. Bird who refused to accept the offer on the basis that he felt that it should be a government project.

Capt. Fairfax Moresby
Shortly it would be the turn of another set of actors to enter centre stage. The cast numbering 4000 would play a starring role in the area and indeed ultimately the whole of South Africa. Their moniker would forever be The 1820 Settlers.

With Lord Charles Somerset on leave in England, the reins of office were handed to Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin with the designation of Acting Governor. Donkin had been on his way home from India when he was detained at Cape Town and handed the baton of responsibility for this enormous undertaking. By all accounts, he undertook this responsibility with the utmost diligence and thus was awarded a Certificate of Meritorious Service, or rather should have received one.

Painting by Thomas Baines showing the guides for the warps

First on his list of duties was the appointment of a person whose responsibility it would be to ensure the safe landing of 4000 people. At hand he had Capt. Fairfax Moresby of the HMS Menai who could take charge of the landing. In this task, Moresby would be awarded lavish praise. He undertook his duties with alacrity and humanity realising the upheaval in the settlers’ lives. One aspect which is seldom commented upon is that British Society was cleaved and riven by Class and Social divisions. Of the many issues in this regard would be the living areas of each class. Whether the resolution of this issue was endogenous or exogenous cannot be ascertained, but the higher classes were “tented” higher on the hill than their lower-class brethren.

To assist with the unloading of the passengers, a large flat-bottomed boat was brought out by the HM Storeship Weymouth to transport the settlers to the beach. In this process, Government surf boats were also utilised. Apart from the menial job of relocating passengers from their ship to the shore, Moresby was also tasked with performing a complete trigonometrical survey of Algoa Bay and compiling a report of the coast from Cape Recife to the Keiskamma River.

Moresby presented his report in July 1820 in which he asserted that Algoa Bay was generally a safe roadstead but further out, the Bay was fouled by derelict anchors discarded by passing ships. Furthermore, Moresby stressed that with it now being a settlement, it was essential to 1) lay moorings in the anchorage 2) build a lighthouse at Cape Recife. Moresby stressed that a lighthouse was not expensive, and the cost could easily be recovered by levying a small duty on all ships frequenting Port Elizabeth.

The Government adopted Moresby’s plan for laying down moorings and launched the scheme by putting down chain for the government vessel Locust. In April 1821, the Deputy Port Captain in Cape Town purchased all the requested equipment, including 26 cwt of chain and a new anchor with an iron stock. At a later stage, additional chain moorings were laid for use by general shipping. The request for a lighthouse at Cape Recife was rejected on the grounds that a decision to build one at Cape Town instead had been ratified.

Problematic moorings
By 1823, it had been conclusively proved that the moorings in Algoa Bay were not strong enough to hold in southeaster gales. During March 1823, the Brig. Heyworth broke her moorings. Valiant efforts were made by government surfboatmen, members of the Deal Party contingent located in Deal Party as well as soldiers from Fort Frederick who ran ashore on soft sand near the landing place. These attempts saved a cargo of government stores. However, a soldier of the 6th Regiment based at Fort Frederick was killed when he was dashed against the rocks. Despite problematic mooring chains, nothing was done to repair or replace the defective government moorings. In 1824, the Brig. Singapore suffered a similar fate to the Hepworth when she broke from another brig. By August 1825, the condition of the moorings was poor with chains broken, buoys lost from anchors and anchors sunk but unmarked. Mariners appealed to the Government to raise derelict anchors or at least to attach markers to them.


Free port
Up until the end of 1824, Algoa Bay was not a free port. By implication, no commercial trade was allowed to be undertaken using it and it serviced only naval and government vessels. During early 1825, a Petition was drafted requesting the Cape Government to open Algoa Bay as a port in order to allow ships to discharge cargo directly in Algoa Bay without stopping at Cape Town. During March 1825, Captain J. Ward of Port Elizabeth pointed out to the Government Secretary, Sir Richard Plaskett that if the petition was granted, it would be necessary to appoint a Port Captain or nautical attendant, as well as a head of its Customs House department. A magistrate would also be necessary otherwise a ship’s captain would have to travel 20 miles to make an oath on his manifest. On July 26th 1826, Port Elizabeth and Port Frances were declared Free Ports.   

To meet those staffing requirements, the following appointments were made:

  • William Dunn appointed 1st Collector of Customs on 1st October 1821
  • E. Wallace appointed 1st Harbour Master in August 1826
  • D. Francis, Dunn’s successor as C of C, appointed 1st Port Captain

Loading and unloading operations
The incoming ships were serviced by government surfmen in either the large flat whaleboat or in one of the three Algoa Bay surfboats. Soonike described the operation of the surfboats as follows: The boats were pulled back by warps from the shore by a detachment based at Fort Frederick who assisted in landing the cargo through the surf. Perhaps this was the original method of operation but later on it operated on very different basis as follows: The warp was attached to a buoy beyond the breakers. and to the shore. The warp was threaded thriugh two iron rings on the surfboat, one on the bow and the other on the stern. See the drawing by Thomas Baine in this article. The surfboatmen did not row the boat out beyond the breakers but pulled the warp through the front ring.

This process was not flawless as cargo was frequently damaged in the transfer process. Numerous complaints were lodged but the government was unresponsive to the situation and did nothing to ameliorate it.

Proposed outsourcing operations
Given the level of dissatisfaction with the levels of service, Capt. Ward issued a proposal to the harbour authorities in terms of which he proposed to purchase the government surfboats along with all the necessary equipment and that he manage the landing operations. This represented the inception of the Boating Companies which ran these landing operations until the new harbour became operational in the 1930s, id est, more than a century after non-jetty landing operations commenced.

What was music to the ears of the users was the fact that Ward claimed that his operation would be cheaper than the government operations. Whereas the Government surfmen charged R$ 4 per ton, Ward proposed charging R$ 2-4 per ton. In addition to cargo tariffs, Ward quoted on the cost of passenger cost. Currently, the Government Surfmen charged what they liked whereas Ward proposed charging a fixed tariff using 4 soldiers as R$ 2 – 4 and Officers plus a ton of baggage R$6. The corollary of this proposal was negative comments such as this one: “Government monopolies are bad enough, but not as bad as the monopoly of the individual who has their own interests to look after”.

State of play
The operations of a functioning harbour had been instituted albeit in an elementary manner. The fight to establish a proper harbour would be ongoing. Surprisingly in the process, Port Elizabeth did not suffer the repercussions of antiquated manual processes. Instead, it claimed the right to be the colony’s most productive harbour.

Accordingly, this blog signs off on the year 1825. What still had to be determined was whether the rank disfavour that the PE harbour experienced was a result of the lack of political heft vis a vis Cape Town or was it a consequence of the political machinations of the so-called boat companies which monopolised the harbour operations.

In the following blog on this subject, it will be revealed.

The Maritime History of Port Elizabeth by Hans Erik Soonike [Undated, Human Sciences Research Council Library
The Development of the Port and Harbour of Table Bay with special reference to the period 1825 – 60 by H.E. Soonike, 1974, Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Cape Town

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