Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Military Fortification

Call it what you like, but this crude fort had the distinction of being not merely the first military fortification in Algoa Bay – as Port Elizabeth was then called – but also the only fort in Port Elizabeth to experience military action. What would the future hold for this extemporised military fortification? Certainly, it should have been recognised much more than the Johnny-come-lately, Fort Frederick, which was unbloodied in war. Star Fort did not survive long which is quite understandable given the fact that it was hastily constructed and just as hastily abandoned.

Main picture:  There are no extant sketches of this fort other than this reference to Star Fort on the map of Cradock Place on which it is situated

Geopolitical events

Events both locally and in Europe were tumultuous during the late 18th century. With the French under Napoleon rampaging across Europe and the ideals of the French Revolution spreading to Holland itself, the Stadtholder, Prince William of Orange, took refuge in England and requested the assistance of the English. This highly unusual request was for the English to take custody of the Cape Colony in order to prevent the French from doing so and thus controlling the sea route to India. This annexation would be predicated on the understanding that it would extend until such time as the Dutch were able to re-assume control. The Cape at this time was still under the control of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC.

Prince William of Orange

To enable a smooth transition of power, the Prince requested the Governor at the Cape and the military authorities to give control to Britain when the Naval contingent arrived in Table Bay, but although this was eventually achieved, the burghers, especially in the interior, wanted independence from authority of any kind, Dutch, English or otherwise. Herein lay a second threat. As the spectre of unilateral declarations of independence amongst the restive local Dutch population became ever more palpable, speed was of the essence.

In September 1795, the British squadron sailed into Table Bay to take control of the Cape. Bearing the Deed of Transfer, the transition was achieved without any hostilities being experienced with the VOC officials. Notwithstanding the relative ease of the handover, the burghers at Swellendam and Graaf-Reinet made thinly veiled threats pointedly warning the English that they were intent on achieving independence from authority of any kind. In truth, a far greater threat lurked in the form of intervention by the French. This could take the form of manpower or weapons or perhaps even both. To stave off disaster, boots on the ground would have to be despatched post haste to the eastern frontier. Even though it was an article of faith amongst the English soldiers regarding their superiority over colonial inhabitants, these colonials were more akin to themselves in their use of firearms and not ineffectual spears and shields.

Graaff Reinet

What led to the redoubt’s establishment?

In truth the real impetus for the establishment of this fortification was an act of expediency driven by the conditions on the ground. This related to the interminable Frontier Wars as well as the well-founded fear that the French would come to the assistance of the rebels at Graaf-Reinet who had declared independence.

With little faith in divine intervention or happenstance to resolve these problems, in early 1799 Major-General Charles Dundas set the wheels in motion by despatching two forces to Algoa Bay. Being a distance of approximately 750kms from Cape Town, Brig-Gen Thomas Pakenham Vandeleur must have picked the short straw as he was commanded to lead one column on this momentous overland journey through the Langkloof. As it is reported to have taken 18 days, this implies that the men, who were on foot, marched over 40 kilometres per day. It is presumed that officers such as Vandeleur rode on horseback.  

Major Thomas Pakenham Vandeleur

Their ultimate destination was a farm, “Riet Vallei” in the Zwartkops Valley close to where Uitenhage would be established some 4 years later in 1804. It was the farm of a widow, Betje Scheepers, whose husband had been killed in a Xhosa raid, which Vandeleur chose as the halting place. While his men rested their blistered feet & weary limbs, Vandeleur went on to Algoa Bay to meet the second contingent of troops whose fortune it was to be ferried by ship, the HMS “Star” and HMS “Hope, to Algoa Bay.

This freshly disembarked force of the 91st Regiment formed a camp on Ferreira’s farm, Papenkuilsfontein, where they built “Star Fort”, an earth redoubt, which became the first defence fortification in the eastern part of the Colony. This farm was later made famous by Korsten with his whaling and sheep farming industries and was renamed “Cradock Place”. After completion of the Fort, the two detachments joined forces at “Riet Vallei” and continued their march to Graaff ­Reinet to quell the disturbances among the dissatisfied farmers. It is interesting to note that this Fort was constructed around the rudimentary house of the farmer, Ferreira, on whose farm they were encamped.

Hoping to restore their independence and territorial rights, during May and June the Khoikhoi, began attacks on Dutch farmers, now short of ammunition, in the area between Graaff-Reinet and the Zwartkops River. The Xhosa under Chungwa also made attacks and farmers began to leave the district. In August the Xhosa invaded along the Fish River.

First military action

It was during one of these periodic forays into the Colony that Star Fort featured prominently in a daring enterprise.On their return from Graaff-Reinet General Vandeleur and his men found that serious trouble had once again broken out nearer the coast; the land lay devastated and deserted, the inhabitants including Widow Scheepers of the farm Riet Vallei, after being besieged for three days and nights, had taken refuge at “Star Fort”.

A huge body of black warriors – Khoikhoi and Xhosa – attacked Star Fort in broad daylight on the 10th August 1799, driving off cattle and sheep pastured outside the fort. The horses of the Dragoons were grazing some distance away. Hence it took a while before a pursuit could be organised once the attackers had herded the defenders’ animals away. It was only when the raiders reached Kleinskool that the incensed Dragoons caught up with them. Accompanying them were two field pieces. Here the attackers had elected to savour some of their spoils of war by having a hearty meal; the ingredients had unwittingly been supplied by the troops’ own livestock. Caught unawares, forty of the attackers lay dead at the conclusion of the clash, while the rest of their erstwhile companions dispersed into the surrounding scrub and bush.

According to Harradine, in order to strengthen this post against further Khoikhoi and Xhosa incursions, a breastwork was added. In addition, it was planned to erect a blockhouse armed with two 3-pounders near the mouth of the Baakens River. On the 19th August the “Camel” left for Algoa Bay with a blockhouse for 50 men and 30 artificers aboard to erect it.

Second action

It was on the 20th September 1799 that this puny earth fort made its greatest contribution to the defence of the hamlet of Algoa Bay. As the blockhouse had not yet been completed and the building of Fort Frederick not yet commenced, it was the insignificant Star Fort which would have to play a leading role in the defence. This action commenced with the French frigate, the Preneuse, entering Algoa Bay under false colours and exchanging fire with the sloop, Rattlesnake, and the storeship, Camel. The masts of the “Camel” were damaged, and the quartermaster and a carpenter were killed. Although having the advan­tage, the French ship left the Bay and was later sunk off Mauritius, when her true identity became known.

Fight between the ship of the line, Jupiter and the French frigate, Preneuse

It was the troops at Star Fort, who saved the day for the English vessels. As the British ships were hopelessly outgunned by the Preneuse, the HMS Rattlesnake and the HMS Camel were at risk of being sunk. By moving their puny guns from the fort to the seashore and engaging the French frigate, the French vessel gained the impression that there was a formidable shore battery. Under this mistaken impression, the Preneuse left the Bay. It needs to be understood that this ruse was only successful because their fire was at night. As the French vessel could only discern the flash as the shot was fired but could not ascertain the fall of the shell, they were unable to determine the effectiveness of the shore battery’s fire. Being in a rolling ship, an artillery duel with a fixed shore based battery would place them at a disadvantage, they elected to retreat instead.

Mark on history

In this regard, Margaret Harradine makes a salient point. This redoubt has subsequently been referred to as “Star Fort” even though this appellation was not used once during its occupation, despite letters being posted from it during this time. Perhaps that is indicative of the lack of significance of this fort to the residents of the future town. Nonetheless, there is somebody who recognised its existence and noted the fact that it was not a chimera; the artist who drew the map of Cradock Place.

How long was this fort in existence for? No records are extant to determine this but given the fact that a stone fort formally known as Fort Frederick overlooking the Baakens’ lagoon had become operational during February 1800, the importance of this earth redoubt was probably called into question. A best guess as to its fate is that it was carried away in the winds unnoticed and unmourned by any of the troops that were stationed there.

Sources

Pamphlet produced by the Uitenhage Museum dated 1960 Old Times and Odd Corners by John Centlivres Chase (1975, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth) Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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