Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Inhabitants of Uitenhage

At the risk of stating the obvious, most residents of Port Elizabeth regard Uitenhage as a dirty unpleasant industrial town, the like of which one never needs to visit unless it is on official company business.  Yet 200 years ago, when the hamlet of Port Elizabeth was established, Uitenhage was the district administration centre with Port Elizabeth forming part of Uitenhage. Today the converse is true. In short order, Port Elizabeth surpassed Uitenhage and is now the driving force in the region.

In Port Elizabeth’s hubris, it should never dismiss Uitenhage out of hand but should rather acknowledge it as having an equally interesting history and that it now boasts the largest industrial plant in the Eastern Cape in the form of VW.

Main picture: Trekboers in the Karroo

Two dates were most prominent in the establishment of Uitenhage viz 1770s when the first white settlers trekked through the Langkloof to settle in the eastern part of the Colony, and then to the year 1804 when the town Uitenhage was established on the banks of the Zwartkops River.

Free Burghers

Technically the Dutch inhabitants of the Cape at this time were no longer servants of the VOC but rather they were deemed to be “free burghers” having been granted that title more as a “sinecure” than a meaningful change in their status. Insofar as the grant of this title was concerned, it did include a grant of land, yet they were still servants with but one exception, namely, that they acted as soldiers they were paid for their labour.

In addition, they were compelled to provide cereals, fruits and vegetables at fixed prices to the VOC in perpetuity.  Generally speaking, these prices were so meagre that, after the fruits of a year’s unremitting toil had been disposed of, the unfortunate burgher found himself deeply in debt. Not only was he bound to sell to the Company all that he raised, but he was also bound to purchase from them all that he needed for his household. Small indeed was the return that he received for his work, but even then he was liable to be mulct – money extracted from (someone) by fine or taxation – by the very men who should have acted as his protectors. Aside with these inequities, without exception every official with whom he came into commercial contact, invariably endeavoured to make something out of him. Ultimately due to the multiple of mendacious acts, corruption, debt, and profitless toil, the luckless Boer began to look about for some means of escaping from the slavery into which he had gradually degenerated.

The Trekboere

As can be imagined, this treatment was resented and the fig leaf of the nomenclature “free burghers” wore thin. Their only solution was to trek into the interior of South Africa. Thus was born the itinerant trekboere.

The Trekboere were technically still Dutch yet it is now patently obvious that these peripatetic peoples were in fact proto-Afrikaners. Forged in the crucible of resentment, these semi-nomadic pastoralists and subsistence farmers began to trek both every northwards and eastwards into the interior to find better pastures and farmlands for their livestock to graze. Besides that, their desire was to escape the autocratic rule of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), which administered the Cape, in the belief that the VOC was tainted with corruption and not concerned with the interests and welfare of the free burghers, the social class of most of the Trekboers.

The Trekboere also traded with the indigenous people. This meant their herds were of hardy local stock. They formed a vital link between the pool of animals in the interior and the providers of shipping provisions at the Cape. Trekboere were nomadic, living in their wagons and rarely remaining in one location for an extended period of time. A number of Trekboere settled in the eastern Cape, where their descendants became known as Grensboere (Border Farmers).

Grant of land

In his book Uitenhage Past & Present 1804-1904, W Sellick describes in 1904 the first unwitting inhabitants of Uitenhage in the 1790s as follows: In the year 1790 Governor Van der Graaff [1785-1791] [Harradine states that it was circa 1765 which is more plausible] received a petition signed by Gert Scheepers, Gert Van Rooyen, Christoffel Kock, Janse Van Vuuren, Solomon Vermaak, and J. Boyce, requesting that they be allowed to proceed on a hunting expedition as far as the eastern border. This innocent request was readily granted by the Governor, and the adventurers set out upon their travels. Although the pursuit of game was nominally the object of the expedition, their real aim was to spy out the land and to settle down in peace. They journeyed onwards for many weeks, and, although their hardships could not be compared with those of the trekkers who had been the first to penetrate into the wilds of the east, their progress was nevertheless slow and difficult, notwithstanding the fact that something resembling a road had gradually been created. This became worse and worse the further it proceeded, and when the last farmhouse was ultimately passed somewhere in what is now known as the Humansdorp district—the track came to an end, and from that moment our five travellers became the pioneers of Uitenhage. They patiently cut their way through the bush, and at length found themselves on the summit of Red Hill, which stretches along the bank of the Zwartkops. The scene which opens out before the spectator as he stands upon this rise is one of placid beauty, and one can easily imagine how the eyes of the travellers glistened when it suddenly burst upon their view. The sparkling river, unpolluted in those days by the wool-washeries which were destined to be erected on its western banks, was carefully explored for miles in either direction, and the valley was discovered to be fertile, and possessed of great possibilities both for stock and cereals. The adventurers decided to obtain the Governor’s sanction to settle here, and with this object they returned to Cape Town.

They had previously parcelled out large tracts of land between themselves, and when they reached the capital [Cape Town] they sought His Excellency’s permission to take up their abode in the Zwartkops Valley. Van der Graaff [Should read Ryk Tulbagh] granted his sanction, but only did so conditionally. The Sundays River was then the boundary of the Colony, and the Xhosa Chief, Conga, was established on the further side of it. He was a most undesirable neighbour, but if people cared to settle down in the vicinity of his kraal they were welcome to do so. The land was at their disposal, so far as the Government was concerned, but if the savages disputed their right to it they must make the best of it, for, in short, they could expect no protection, and must take all risks. This must have been rather disappointing, but perhaps it was expected. At all events it neither dampened the ardour of the adventurers nor cooled their resolution. They made the necessary preparations, and in a few weeks’ time everything was ready for the long journey eastward.

The wagons are loaded and inspanned. the women are bidding their friends a last farewell, the men are similarly occupied, while the natives who are to accompany the expedition have gathered together in animated little groups, chattering, gesticulating, and talking with their fellows as only a native can. At last the signal is given. The women mount the wagons and take their places, the road is clear, everything is ready. The whip cracks, the oxen swerve unsteadily, and then strain forward together; the wagon creaks and jars and moves off amid cheering and hand-waving. The other vehicles follow in close order, and yet another trek has started for the mysterious regions of the east.

A Final Trek to a Settled Life

{The] stoutly built and carefully loaded wagons would have to be unpacked and taken to pieces time and again, lowered down precipices in fragments, transported across the bases of dozens of kloofs, laboriously dragged up the steepest ascents, and put together again on the opposite summits. At other times, too, they would be drawn up in laager, the wheels and interstices would be filled with formidable thorn bushes, the women and children would be ensconced in comparative safety in the hastily formed square, while the men would take up their positions and face the savages with their deadly muskets. In what stirring scenes would those wagons take part! In short, they would speedily become to their occupants not only vehicles, but homes and fortresses as well.

As may be imagined, one trek was much the same as another in those times, just as there is but little variation in the railway journeys of today. Certainly there was more incident, and each company would meet with its own adventures. But these were mostly all of the same character, and were chiefly made up of troubles caused by natives, wild animals, flooded rivers, and dangerous roads.

But at last, after weeks of weary travelling, the Gamtoos river was crossed, and the track, which had been roughly cut through the bush by the pioneers, was entered upon once more. As the little body of adventurers neared the site of their future homes one can picture their eagerness to see it. And when at last a halt was called on the brow of Red Hill, it does not require much imagination to conjure up the spectacle of the group that would gather round the leader of his expedition and gaze in silence upon the pleasant valley of the Zwartkops, which, to them, was indeed the Promised Land. Here they were to live, to work and, in all probability, to die.

From the pamphlet by the Uitenhage Museum, it is probable that the young burger by the name of Gerrit Scheepers, had only been issued with a grazing permit. Nevertheless this was an historic moment personally and for the trekboers as well , as in the year 1772 the Government laws having been relaxed a little, and the first grazing permits were issued for this area. His application had been for the farm “Riet Vallei”, so named because of the abundance of reeds growing along the banks of the river. Although land was inexpensive and plentiful it was not possible to purchase it as it had to be loaned from the Government for an annual rental.

The site where they had chosen by Gerrit Scheepers to build their new home is the place where the Drostdy is located today.  In choosing this site one feels that he made a wise choice. It was a short distance from the river on a slight rise, and flowing through the lands, was a constant stream of pure clear water which came from the Artesian springs six miles away, which today is one of the town’s tourist attractions. In spite of many severe droughts over the past 220 years, this water has never been known to fail. With recent number of bore holes in the surrounding areas, the daily output has fallen. Furthermore, within a few years the main road to the north was to pass this farm, making it a convenient calling place for travellers. Little did Gerrit Scheepers realize in those early days the important part his farm was to play in the future history of South Africa.

Anders Sparrman

In December 1775, the Swedish physician, traveller and author, Anders Sparrman, visited the Zwartkops River and the salt pan during which he observed quagga, hartebeest and buffalo.  Whilst there he stayed on the Scheepers’ farm and made unfavourably comments about Scheepers’ indolence stating that “There was no bread available and Scheepers himself had to go without because he was too lazy to grind corn in his hand mill.

The Grosvenor

In the year I783 a British ship, The Grosvenor was wrecked off the Natal coast, and Gerrit Scheepers and his son were among those who went in search of the survivors. Two of these survivors, Lewis and Hubberley, stayed for some months at Riet Vallei before continuing to the Cape. Records left by them and others tell us of a beautiful and well-established farm. Hubberley described the house as “being on the side of a hill with a river running into the valley below; the garden watered by a small stream which turned a little flour mill. [Note the contradiction with the comment made by Sparrman above which referred to a hand mill.] There were fruit trees and 100 cattle. The ‘Skyppers’ family consisted of two parents and seven children.”

This was quite a feat to achieve in less than eleven years, when one remembers that everything from the making of your own bricks and building your own house, to the tiling of the ground for growing food had to be the result of your own labours with the help of your slaves. 

Many follow the Scheepers

Other farmers gradually followed, the second one receiving his permit in September of the same year, also for a farm named “Riet Vallei”. On September 27th 1773 a third farm was granted to  Christoffel  Viljoen, named “Ongegund” meaning envied or begrudged; probably so named because of the ill-feeling that it must have caused between Gerrit Scheepers and his new neighbour for this was the farm where the Artesian springs came to the surface and Viljoen now had first use of the lovely spring water. Perhaps because of his ill-feeling, we are informed that, about a year later, Christoffel Viljoen relinquished the farm Ongegund, having acquired two other farms in the area.

Difficult times

Many years later when the town of Uitenhage was established, he acquired plots in the new village. Viljoen’s home and beautiful gardens with their quince hedges at the bottom of Baird street were spoken of for many years, even after he had long since passed away. He was also one of the early pioneers in growing vines in the Swartkops valley. In 1810 along with four other farmers, together they had over 3200 vines.

Towards the end of the 18th century these early colonists passed through very difficult times, chiefly caused by the constant invasions of native tribes from the north. During March 1799, General Vandeleur marching from the Cape, a journey of 18 days, arrived at Widow Scheepers’ farm, her husband having died in the first Frontier War of 1779-1781, and made it a halting place for men under his command, while he went on to Algoa Bay to meet the infantry force which had come round by sea. This force formed a camp on Ferreira’s farm, Papenkuilsfontein, where they built “Star Fort”, the first defence in the eastern part of the Colony. According to a later map, the fort was close to the sea and in fact the fort encircled Ferreira’s Farm. This farm was later made famous by Korsten with his whaling and sheep farming industries and was renamed “Cradock Place”. The Fort was built, the two detachments joined forces at “Riet Vallei” and continued their march to Graaff­Reinet to quell the disturbances among the dissatisfied farmers.

On their return from Graaff-Reinet General Vandeleur and his men found serious trouble had once again broken out nearer the coast, the land lay devastated and deserted, the inhabitants including Widow Scheepers after being besieged for three days and nights had taken refuge at “Star Fort”. Commencing in 1799, a stronger and larger fort known as Fort Frederick was built overlooking the bay. It became operational in February 1800.

In 1802 after the Treaty of Amiens had been signed and the Colony restored to the Batavian Government, General De Mist was honoured with the task of coming to South Africa to take transfer of the Colony and install the new Governor, General Janssens. An entourage of about 40 persons accompanied the General, including his only unmarried daughter, Julia Augusta who did not wish to be parted from her farther for such a long period, about three years in all, after oft repeated requests and promises not to be a hinderance in any way, at last he consented.

On the 23rd of December, after six months at sea the Batavia anchored in Table Bay. With formalities at the Cape completed, General J.A. Uitenhage De Mist, anxious to see for himself the conditions of the interior, prepared for a six months’ journey through the wild and often times dangerous country still sparsely populated by Europeans. Five wagons each drawn by 12 to 16 oxen and attended by slaves and Hottentots accompanied the party which rode on horseback. At times they stayed in the homes of the more prominent colonists, but when such hospitality was not available, they would sleep in tents. At each stop the people would come to discuss their differences over boundaries or other problems with the General, finding him at all times both courteous and helpful” At times they had to stop for days while their wagons were being repaired, for such roads as there were, were often mere tracks made by wagons travelling to and from the Cape, and it was not uncommon for a wagon to capsize and often fall down one of the deep ravines.

On the 6th of January 1804 they reached the Military Post at Algoa Bay where they were met by their friends, Captain Alberti. Here they remained for a week visiting the surrounding country and colonists, many of whom had left their farms during the recent disturbances. From this journey the General saw for himself the impossibility of an efficient administration for so large a district as the one covered by Graaff-Reinet and decided to establish a new and additional Landdrost in the area nearer the coast. On the 7th of February 1804 he made his intention public.

The new District thus formed was called Uitenhage in 1804 to honour to General De Mist, it being the title of his Baronetcy. Previous history having shown that peace and order could only be maintained by arms, it was thought advisable that the Landdrost should be a military man. Captain Alberti, commanding at Fort Frederick was appointed Acting Landdrost.

On the 25th April, Captain Alberti along with a commission well acquainted with the district was ordered to look for a suitable place for the Residency of the Landdrost. In his reply to the Governor, he wrote: “The place of the Widow Betje Scheepers has appeared to us to be the most suitable in every way. This place lies in a healthy and pleasant locality and is richly provided with always flowing water. The soil is particularly fruitful, and fit to produce, beside grain, all kinds of fruit and vegetables. Timber is found in the neighbourhood, and on the place itself. Stone and clay are also easily obtainable, and lastly, the site being only six hours walking distant from Fort Frederick”.

Cameo role by a shrewd Mrs Scheepers

Owing to the buildings having been burnt down in the last Xhosa invasion and the land not cultivated since, its estimated value was six thousand guilders, but prior to its destruction, he stated it would have been worth ten thousand guilders.

The house of the by now widowed Mrs Scheepers would play a prominent role in the founding of Uitenhage. De Mist had set his heart upon acquiring her farm as a site for the new township but the shrewd Mrs Scheepers imposed certain unusual conditions on its sale. In order to obtain the object of his desire, De Mist would have to make £400 down payment.  Furthermore Mrs. Scheepers stipulated that she should be allowed, not only to live in her cottage rent free as long as she lived, but that she should also be permitted to graze her cattle on the commonage, so far as it might extend, for the same period. These terms having at last been agreed upon, the transfer took place, and thus, in November 1804, the town of Uitenhage was founded. Beside this, Widow Scheepers was granted a piece of ground on which to build a cottage for herself. This cottage stood on the ground occupied by the Railway workshops today.


The dates as per the book Uitenhage Past and Present 1804-1904 by WSJ Sellick differ by 20 years from the pamphlet produced by the Uitenhage Museum and Margaret Harradine. As it is inexplicable, I have not utilised the dates as per the Sellick book except in direct quotes but have inserted the alternative day from the other publications.


Uitenhage Past and Present 1804-1904 by WSJ Sellick (Privately published) Pamphlet printed by the Uitenhage Museum in 1964 Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth) Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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  1. I found this article very helpful in the story that I’m writing.
    Thank you for the trouble you have clearly taken on this website.


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