Port Elizabeth of Yore: The German Community

Of all the nationalities in the world, I can count the Germans as being an integral part of all aspects of my life from my father-in-law being German, my best hiking buddies, my best running friends et al. Notwithstanding their integrity and hardworking character, they were cast for many years as bogeymen due to the World Wars and the policies and practices of the Nazi Regime.

Main picture: The Liedertafel after it was set ablaze by an enraged mob

German merchants and businessmen began to arrive in P.E. during the middle of the 19th century and rapidly became prosperous and respected citizens. By 1874 the community had grown to such an extent that they were able to set up their own society or club. At first they met in an hotel, probably the Britannia which, in spite of its name, was run by a German. In the early 1880s they built a commodious clubhouse on Western Road, about where Park Gate Mansions now stands.

The proclaimed purpose as set out in their “Statuten” was “the social intercourse of the members, as also the propagation of German customs and music”. They organised concerts – Roger Ascham was a favourite performer – theatrical entertainments, dances, billiards and bowls. They also accumulated a fine library of books in German as the catalogue of 1900 indicates.

The Club flourished mightily until the coming of the First World Was when there occurred a not very creditable episode in the history of Port Elizabeth. In South Africa, Germans, even if not naturalised, were allowed to continue their ordinary lives in spite of growing resentment of the acts of “frightfulness” of the German armies. While attacking Belgium, the German soldiers never took into account the fact that their rifles’ bullets had a range of 2000 metres. When their fellow soldiers were shot in the confused front line, the German troops attributed the fire of Belgian citizens. In retribution, they slaughtered innocent civilians. The Rape of Belgium is a name given to the pillage of Belgian towns and systematic murder and mistreatment of Belgian civilians by German troops during the invasion and occupation of Belgium in World War I. It should be noted that the neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed by the Treaty of London, which had been signed by Prussia but, nevertheless, the Germans invaded this non-belligerent. 

However it was the sinking of the Lusitania Liner on the 7th May, 1915 that was the final straw. Resentment and anger had been boiling for some time but now it overflowed. The spark had been lit. On the evening of May 14th a crowd gathered in the Market Square and in spite of appeals by the Mayor, Mr. J.C. Kemsley, and other leaders, the irrational mob became excited and rushed off to attack any establishment connected with Germans, sometimes taking as evidence the mere name although the firm might have changed hands. In this mayhem, The German Club, the Liedertafel building was wrecked and burnt, while police looked on helplessly. The same thing occurred on the following evening in spite of the Mayor’s announcement that the government had decided to intern all Germans not naturalised. The only aspect to be stated in mitigation of this action is that the mob confined themselves to the destruction of property. No violence was committed to any person, although the arrest of one of the mob created an ugly situation until he was released.

Petrified Frielinghaus clan

During anti-German protests, the incensed crowd ascribed guilt based upon whether the person had a German surname or they spoke English with a German accent. Anybody meeting this criterion was targeted. One of the most prominent families of the time was the Frielinghaus clan who were second generation South Africans. After torching the Liedertafel, a portion of the crowd broke away and advanced along Park Drive. Their target was No 68. Their grounds for assuming that Heinrich was German were based upon the fact that he spoke English with a heavy German accent and his German surname. This small but rowdy crowd soon attracted the intention of the police who on enquiring what all the fuss was about, started to laugh. They informed the agitated crowd that the man living in 68 Park Drive had two sons fighting for England in France. But for the assurances of the police, the irate crowd might have beaten Heinrich up or done worse.

HO Frieilinghaus

In addition to the Club, there was a German Sick Benefit Society which flourished in the 1890s, and a Deutsche Schule. This was probably for German children in addition to normal schooling. A school report by a certain Walter Waldeck shows that the three Rs in German and singing were taught. The report is dated 1905.

Sources

Germans in P.E. by Khitab (Looking Back, Volume VI No 1, 1966)

Derek Frielinghaus

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