Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Story of the amaMfengu

In unravelling the history of Port Elizabeth, very little is revealed about the history of black inhabitants of the area, with most problematic being that of the origins of the amaMfengu. For this purpose,  it is assumed that the amaMfengu were those who had broken their allegiance with the amaXhosa chiefly families and decided to enter the Cape Colony and accept the laws and governance of the colonists.

Main picture:   Beach labourers loading a surfboat with wool bales for onward transport to a ship at anchor in the roadstead

Unlikely origin
Mfengu is a collective term for previously distinct nations or Isizwe which lived north of the Thukela, around present-day Bergville and Winterton. The most numerous amongst them were the amaBhele, the amaHlubi and the amaZizi, amongst others. It should be noted that Kwa-Zulu Natal was not exclusively occupied by the Zulu as a significant portion of the southern part of the province was inhabited by the Xhosa. It was consequence of the Mfecane wars that the Mfengu were scattered southwards and dispersed through the Transkei.

Mfengu village by Thomas Baines

Oath of allegiance
It was during the time of the Sixth Frontier War of 1834-35 that the Mfengu were living under the control and governance of the amaXhosa king, Hintsa near Butterworth in the so-called Fingoland. After being resettled at Peddie, they swore an oath of allegiance to the British Army under a milkwood tree in the town where they had been resettled.  In broad terms this oath comprised three sections viz to obey the king, accept Christianity and to educate their children. It was this oath which set them apart from the amaXhosa as they were still resisting colonialism.      

Translocation to Tsitsikamma
Perhaps in contrition or maybe in hindsight, shortly after the amaMfengu arrived in Peddie the policy of the British government changed. An unlikely event occurred in that the government admitted that the war had been unjust. Furthermore, they conceded that their troops had murdered King Hintsa and decapitated him. Being an embarrassment to the British government and an obstacle to peace with the amaXhosa, Andries Stockenstrom, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Eastern Cape, an ardent supporter of the amended policy, translocated as many as possible to the Tsitsikamma, the western boundary of his authority.

Departure of the Mfengu from Tsitsikamma by Charles Michell

This translocation proved to be an unmitigated disaster as the Tsitsikamma area was unhealthy for cattle and as a consequence most of the amaMfengu cattle died.

Beach labourers
At that time, Port Elizabeth was in the throes of unprecedented growth especially in the export of wool. As it did not possess a harbour, it required the extensive use of surfboats to transport the wool bales out to the ships lying at anchor on the roadstead. The converse would happen when unloading ships on the roadstead.

The arrival of the Mfengu coincided with the end of the Sixth Frontier War in 1835. Prior to that the Khoikhoi had been utilised as Beach Labourers. Generally they were not well regarded being considered as indolent, unreliable and often drunk. In stark contrast, the Mfengu were conscientious, teetotallers and hard working. The reason for their parsimonious behaviour was their desire to acquire cattle. Once they had sufficient money for their cattle, they would retire to the rural areas.

The laws of supply and demand soon raised its head with the wages of the productive Mfengu soon outstripping those of the Khoikhoi and other menial jobs. This ultimately brought them into conflict with their employers, the Boat Companies. Willingly and unwillingly they acceded to the Mfengu’s wage demands. For the boat owners, as they were called, were confronted with a stark reality; the inflated wages of the Mfengu were more than compensated for by their elevated output levels but the employers soon demanded that a proper harbour be built in order to reduce the excessive handling requirements due to their manual modus operandi. In his excellent thesis on the development of the Port Elizabeth harbour, Jon Inggs deals extensively with the wage rates and the productivity/wage levels conundrum. Ultimately this culminated in the first strike in the Cape Colony. On the 9th November 1846, the first recorded strike in the Cape took place when the Mfengu beach labourers demanded higher pay. During June 1852 another strike followed but this time not concerning wages but as a result of a new Town Regulation required them to wear clothing while working.

Native Strangers’ Location
In his excellent article entitled The Control and administration of Port Elizabeth’s African Population, Gary Baines explains where these workers resided. Probably initially they lived as close to their place of work as possible. This would either have been on the Hill or on the landing beaches between the Baakens River  and what later would become Jetty Street. This was clearly unsuitable. On the 27th June 1855 by an Act of Parliament the Native Strangers Location was proclaimed at the top of Russell Road on Richmond Hill in which they “may temporarily reside” as they were regarded as migrant workers.

In due course, the Stranger’s Location community became a settled one and permanent buildings including a school and churches were erected when the London Missionary Society  brought out William Passmore to establish a school for Mfengu children.

Mfengu families lived in these beehive huts in the Strangers’ Location at the top of Russell Road

The name Mfengu is derived from the words meaning “hungry people in search of work”  This was as a consequence of thousands of people made homeless and landless by upheavals including the Mfecane. Many moved south to the Xhosa occupied areas and Hintsa of the Gcaleka accepted a large number. These were the people who were later resettled in Fingoland beyond the Great Kei River around Butterworth. There were also people known as Mfengu residing at Peddie, Alice and Grahamstown.   

The Mfengu Milkwood Tree by Levey

Movement westward
Being no more than several town blocks in extent, the Stranger’s Location was soon overcrowded resulting in the establishment of Locations further to the west such as Gubbs Location in Mill Park on TW Gubb’s property, Cooper’s Kloof Location at the top of Albany and Eastbourne Roads, the Reservoir Locations and even further westwards, the Racecourse Location. As the white population of the town expanded and the demand for additional white residential land grew on the Hill, so the pressure to relocate the black population ever westward grew culminating in their forced relocation to New Brighton from 1901 onwards. Those not wanting to reside in locations controlled by the municipality, elected to squat on private land at Korsten.

The Clarkson Mission Station

Main settlements of Mfengus
Today the Mfengu are found in great numbers throughout the Eastern Cape. Peddie is generally recognised as the Mfengu capital. Another capital or main settlement area is Butterworth in the former Fingoland which later formed part of Transkei. Apart from this area, there are many other largely Mfengu districts including Keiskammahoek, Alice and Henschel.

With the greater mobility of the population from 1900 onwards, the cultural differences between the Mfengu and the Xhosas, which were insignificant ab initio, have subsequently disappeared in their entirety.     

Memory and Location by the South End Museum [NMBM 23 March 2018]
The Control and administration of Port Elizabeth’s African Population by Gary Baines [Contree, No 26, 1989]
Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70 by Jon Inggs, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986
Just Imagine by John Young – The story of Mike Msizi, the Tsitsikamma Mfengu and the Tsitsikamma Community Wind Farm

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1 Comment

    • Hi Bernard,
      It will probably be one of my least read blogs but I found it interesting as I knewn othing about about their history. Before the MFengus moved to PE, the haarbour used Khoikhoi labours but they were indolent and oftern drunkThe Mfengu on the other hand were regarded as conscientious employees with high levels of productivity



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