Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Unexpected Consequences of the Bubonic Plague of 1901

The meeting of the Khoikhoi – locally known as the Hottentots – and the white settlers in 1820 occurred on the day of their arrival as they were used to carry the settlers on their shoulders from their surfboats to the shore. How communication was possible is unknown but for good measure the Dutch farmers who were contracted to transport the settlers to Albany spoke neither Khoi nor English. Given the fact that the settlers arrived at the destination confirms that communication did occur, all be it, by means of gestures.

Of greater importance was the concept of housing. Simply put where did the Khoi stay? Being a nomadic people, the Khoikhoi would not have settled in one place but relocated as soon as the resources such as reeds or other resources were depleted in an area.

What has the discussion about housing have to do with a plague?

It will be made abundantly clear in a moment.

Main picture: The top of Hyman’s Kloof with Strangers’ Location in the background

Factors influencing settlement patterns and shapes
The shape and location of the settlement in Algoa Bay was largely initially dictated by topography and the availability of water. Both factors determined the directions of development and hence settlement. In the majority of town developments, the pattern of development given that all 360 degrees around a point is reasonably flat, dictates that development occurs in a pebble-in-the-pond manner whereby the ripples expand equally in all directions. In Port Elizabeth’s case, development southwards and westward over the hill was stalled and thwarted as the gradient of the Hill was too steep for ox-wagons. Instead expansion occurred linearly northwards along the coast to North End and southward to South End.

Strangers’ Location relative to the present day Port Elizabeth’s Town Plan with border by J. Nel “Port Elizabeth – die Apartheidstad” M.A., UPE,1986.

The only road whose gradient was sufficiently gentle to allow wagons to use it was Military Road. Moreover it was more the fact that the gradient over the whole climb was gentle for the beasts of burden and not the average gradient. Even a short stretch of steep climb would have precluded that road’s use. In this regard, it should be noted that the “national” road from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town initially went via South End. Once again the gradient was the determining factor in its use.

1810 Map of Port Elizabeth

Initial black living areas
Prior to the Sixth Frontier War of 1834-35, the only  indigenous people residing in Port Elizabeth were the Khoi. But where did the Hottentots live? As no contemporary map indicates a Hottentot residential area due to their nomadic lifestyle but from reports on where the initial influx of Mfengus resided, one can presume that they lived in the town area just beyond the perimeter of the town on the Hill as well as on the landing beaches orr in the bush behind it. It would only be 14 years [1834] after the arrival of the Chapman that a more formal area was designated and this coincided with the arrival of the Mfengu after the Sixth Frontier War of 1834-25 when both Khoi and Mfengu resided in the mixed Fingo City area at the top of Hyman’s Kloof. This Xhosa tribe arrived in considerable numbers, rapidly supplanting the Hottentots in the workplace due to their greater reliability and sobriety.  

By 1840, the Weslyn Mission Report states that there were 600 Mfengu residents in Port Elizabeth. Unlike the Hottentots they lived in beehive huts situated in four areas all being in close proximity to water sources – the hillside where a stream in Donkin Street  was the water source and the vlei at Trinder Square provided water, the landing beach where the Baakens was their water source and two encampments at the top of Hyman’s Kloof, now Russell Road, known as the Fingo Village and the Hottentot Location. In both these latter two Locations, the water was drawn from a vlei where the Westbourne Oval is now situated.              

Commercial interests versus social considerations
The institution of local government in Port Elizabeth was occasioned by the establishment of a Board of Municipal Commissioners in 1847. It was only after the first municipal election of 1848 that the tension between commercial interests and social considerations came to the fore. This divergence arose due to the fact that the mercantile elite required their labour to reside in close proximity to their place of work being mainly on the landing beaches and the Main Street area.

Mfengu village by Thomas Baines

By the 1860s the interests of the white ratepayers and property developers came to the fore. This monied class lobbied the town council periodically for the removal of Africans from the path of westward expansion of the middle-class suburbs. After the initial town growth parallel to the coast towards North End, the first houses of the owners and bosses were constructed on the Hill by the 1840s. Instead of a rectangular block of land along the bight of the Bay, maps now reflected a bulge on the hill. If that had been a town on an open plain, many businesses would have been relocated to cheaper property further from the centre of town. Instead houses were built in Donkin Street. If Port Elizabeth had conformed to the accepted growth path, these cottages would swiftly have been replaced with business premises.    

Port Elizabeth’s Urban Population in 1865

Amongst the first set of municipal regulations promulgated by the newly elected Board of Municipal Commissioners in 1848 included the stipulations that native huts not erected “in such places as shall be appointed by the commissioners” were liable to be removed and destroyed. In addition, the Board availed themselves of the provisions of the Colonial Government’s proclamation allowing for the establishment of “native” locations “within one or two miles of the centre of towns or villages.” In terms of this proclamation, they availed themselves of an area on Richmond Hill adjacent to the Hottentot Location at the top of Richmond Hill.

As property development proceeded apace, so the pressure was dialled up to relocate these inhabitants. In short order, locations further to the west were established – Cooper’s Kloof, Reservoir and Race Course. The municipality’s attempt to evict the tenants were futile. The authorities were keenly aware of the surge of overcrowding as the influx of Mfengu and Xhosas to Port Elizabeth did not abate. Squatting on private property was also problematical. Demand by the Mfengu for accommodation close to their place of work also exacerbated the problem.

Bubonic plague transforms the town’s contours
A case of bubonic plague in Gubb’s Location in April 1901 was to change the development trajectory of the town fundamentally. It aroused fears in the white community that the Locations were a breeding ground for the disease. Notwithstanding the fact that the victim had contracted the disease while working at the harbour, the subsequent spread of the disease generated the popular view that the eradication of the disease would require the removal of the locations.  


Mfengu families lived in these beehive huts in the Strangers Location at the top of Hyman’s Kloof [later renamed Russell Road]

In his book, The Communities of the Northern Areas of Port Elizabeth,  Abrahams provides the following insight into the authorities reaction. “From time to time the authorities would use a health reason to forcibly remove people to other areas. ……. One theory at the time was that the disease was spread through the air and contracted by people breathing the infected air. Another that it would be contracted via contact with infected people or with their belongings. In this way, there existed the belief that clothing and buildings had to be burnt and destroyed” to prevent the spread of the disease.

George John Blackmore, the Plague Officer, believed that the disease was spread by fleas that lived on infected rats. Consequently he instituted a a vigorous crusade against rats  which came into town aboard the ships carrying grain from other countries. In his crusade against the pesky rats, he used disinfectant and appointed rat catchers He emphasised the control of rats as the most effective way of preventing the plague from spreading. Moreover, he did not view the quarantining the victims as preventing the spread of the disease. In all probability this view was based upon his experiences in India and China.

In his book, Abraham states that “Infected ats were found in four parts of Port Elizabeth viz the extreme north end  (Vlei Post), the extreme southern end, Strangers Location near the middle of the town and the remount area (the Agricultural Showground where the military had a camp during the Boer War)  The town authorities differed from the views of Blackmore  Instead they decided that the destruction of these areas would resolve the problem. The Strangers’ and Reservoir locations were destroyed and the residents forced to relocated to the outskirts of the town. As Blackmore disputed these views, he promptly resigned and emigrated to New Zealand.

Top of Russell Road with the Location in the distance

Per the schedule produced by D.A. Campbell analysing the location of possible infection, residence and work, as well as whether infected rats were the culprit of the infection indicates that people from all communities were affected but it was only the indigenous people  who were forcibly removed from their place of residence under the mistaken belief that their removal would safeguard the people of European descent from contracting the disease.

Abraham concludes that “Misguided beliefs fostered wrong decisions.” In this manner it was concluded that Stranger’s Location and Reservoir Locations were the origins of the disease and had to be destroyed. In summation, Abrahams states that “In this way, people of colour were depicted as unsavoury and unhygienic and not fit to live on an equal basis with people of European descent.

The effect of the removal of the Black residents from Stranger’s Location would be replayed some half century later under the Group Areas Act when whole settled and contented communities would be displaced and dislocated in a similar fashion.

But the destruction of Stranger’s Location had another profound impact. It channelled the town ‘sdevelopment into two directions, viz, White suburbs westward and non-white suburbs northward.

In the case of Port Elizabeth, topography did have a profound influence on its physical development but the spatial development was fundamentally affected by the racial component.    

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]
The Communities of the Northern Areas of Port Elizabeth by Cecil Colin Abrahams (2021, Port Elizabeth, Cadar Printers)

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