Port Elizabeth of Yore: Thomas Pringle’s Sojourn at Algoa Bay

At the start of Thomas Pringle’s stay in Port Elizabeth in 1820, while awaiting transport to the interior, this unremarkable hamlet, comprising no more than a dozen dwellings, was still identified on all the maps and maritime charts of the period as being Algoa Bay. Before his departure to the designated Scottish area, Sir Rufane Donkin, the acting governor of the Cape, had christened the hamlet Port Elizabeth on the 6th June. Being of independent mind and inquisitive to boot, prior to his departure he made two forays into the immediate interior, first to Bethelsdorp and later to Uitenhage.

This blog focuses on those four weeks in Port Elizabeth. Not only was he acutely observant with an eye for detail but in recording his trip, he casts his intellect not only on the minutiae but also the broad picture.

Main picture: 1820 Settlers congregating on the Beach on the corner of Russell Road and Strand Street


Pringle’s life-long lameness was not a birth defect but rather man made. At only several months’ old, he suffered this injury when his nurse accidently dropped him dislocating his hip joint. Not willing to incur the wrath of his parents, she concealed the injury. By such time as his parents became aware of the grievous trauma, it was no longer practicable, given the state of the medical knowledge in the 1790s, to repair the dislocation and thus Thomas was rendered lame for life.

Not that Thomas was given to bouts of self-pity or complaints as all manner of appliances were tested on him as the guinea pig. He bore these tests with equanimity and without complaint. Amongst these contrivances were red Morocco boots, steel bandages and rods but none proved to be of any use. On superseding these with a common pair of crutches as a last resort, Thomas showed an agility and adroitness which cast his lameness in an inconsequential light. Nanny Potts, the unintentional cause of his misfortune, never forgave herself. To make amends, she would indulge Thomas’ every wish and command. Taking advantage of Nanny’s guilt, Thomas now ruled the roost in a headstrong manner. Only discipline on the part of his parents prevented him from becoming maladjusted and a bully.

Pringle’s lameness determined both his education and choice of career. Not for him the family tradition of becoming a farmer. After completing his education at Edinburgh University in 1808 he commenced employment at the Edinburgh Public Records Office as a clerk transcribing historical documents.

Into the literary world

While still an undergraduate, Pringle formed a literary club that held regular weekly meetings. Nonetheless it was only when he became a civil service clerk that Thomas had time to devote to writing, soon becoming a familiar figure in Edinburgh’s literary circles. The two traits that best exemplified Thomas and soon became his defining attributes were an independence of mind and a hatred of any threat to literary expression.

The first time that Thomas was aroused to action in defence of the freedom of expression arose when a rumour that a demonstration was planned for the opening night of the play, The Family Legend, by Joanna Baillie. The raison d’etre for this protest was to object to a female author having the temerity to espouse that she was a “playwright”.

Pringle would now hone his skill by writing several poems, the most noteworthy of which was The Autumnal Excursion inspired by a walking tour of the Scottish border. For Thomas, 1817 was a year of firsts, first with his marriage to Margaret Brown, then to resign from the Records Office and then to open the next door of his life when he ventured into journalism. Editorships of various newspapers and magazines followed but they brought in little in the way of income forcing a sober reflection of his financial situation. In January 1819, Thomas resigned from these editorships and accepted the inevitable, his re-employment by the Public Records Office. The publication of his volume of poems The Autumnal Excursion did little to improve his financial situation. Even though they had been well received, they brought in little by way of sales and hence income.

Vicissitudes abound

As if transfixed like an animal trapped in a light’s beam, Thomas was riven with doubt and fears that ineluctable cloying debt which would overwhelm him and ultimately negatively impact upon his family. Following hard on the heels of Wellington’s comprehensive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the tentacles of the depression which ensued, commenced with agriculture but soon encompassed trade as well. One of Pringle’s brothers had already escaped from the mire which constricted, like a snake, the lifeblood of England, by emigrating to the United States.

Hardly had the House of Commons voted the sum of £50,000 in July 1819 to assist persons wishing to emigrate to the Cape of Good Hope than Thomas caucused with his family and relatives to avail themselves of this offer. With their concurrence Thomas was empowered to act of their behalf. What these emigrants were not aware of was the government’s perfidy in not revealing the underlying reason for this Emigration Scheme in that they were to serve as a bulwark against rebellious black tribesmen. Neither were they told that the frontier was quite unsuitable for intensive agriculture. Once ashore, the settlers choices were quite stark. As Henry Dugmore would state: “Take root and grow or die where they stood.”

Upon arrival in the Cape, it soon became readily apparent to these aspirant settlers that they had been misled, perhaps wilfully so, but given the fact that they had liquidated their farms, homes and businesses in the home country, combined with poor or scant prospects back home, they endured the hardships presented to them with sangfroid imperturbability.

Pringle in Port Elizabeth

This portion of the blog is largely a redacted version of Chapter 1 of the book Thomas Pringle in South Africa 1820-1826 by John Robert Wahl.

On the 30th of April 1820, I arrived in Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope, in the brig Brilliant, accompanied by a party of Scottish emigrants, of whom I was, pro tempore, the head or leader. We formed part of a body of about five thousand British settlers, who, in pursuance of a plan to colonise the unoccupied territory near the frontier of Kaffirland, had entered into engagements to proceed thither under the patronage of Government; £50,000 having been voted by Parliament to defray the expense of our conveyance to the new settlement. The first of the Government transports, with its complement of emigrants, sailed from the Downs on the 10th of December 1819; and the others, to the number of about twenty sails, followed as fast as they could get the people and stores embarked. Several of these vessels had reached the Cape before us and had proceeded to Algoa Bay. Seven sails, besides the Brilliant, anchored in Simon’s Bay on the 30th of April and the 1st of May, some of which had left England nearly a month before us. We had sailed from Gravesend on the 15th of February, and had had, on the whole, a pleasant and prosperous voyage. But there being two other parties of emi­ grants besides ourselves on board the vessel (a brig of 330 tons), amounting to a hundred and fifty-seven souls, with their goods and furniture, we were necessarily a good deal crowded; and during the latter part of the voyage all of us longed for port, with an intense eagerness which only those who have been in similar circumstances can perfectly understand.

Thomas Pringle

The evening had closed in before we reached the anchorage in Simon’s Bay, so that our anxiety to survey the features of the country had been but imperfectly gratified. So eager was this desire, that some of my young friends did not sleep that night; and the following morning at daybreak I found all our party assembled on the poop, gazing on the bleak hills and sterile sands that surround False Bay, with very grave faces. ‘Hegh, sirs!’ said one of them, ‘but this is an ill-favoured and outlandish-looking country. I wad fain hope, that thae hieland hills and muirs are no a fair sample o’ our African location?’ – ‘Quite as fair a sample,’ I replied, ‘as Culloden Muir is of the Curse of Gowrie. But these rugged hills are not the sort of soil you will have to cultivate. Keep up your hearts, my friends, till you see the green savannahs of Albany.’

Colonel Christopher Chapman Bird

While our vessel lay here at anchor for a few days, to take in a supply of fresh provisions before proceeding round to Algoa Bay, I paid a visit to the capital of the colony, which is situate on the western side of the isthmus, about twenty-five miles from the small port of Simon’s Town. Cape Town, with its fine bay, and the magnificent mountain scenery which half environs it, are so well known from the descriptions of numerous travelers, that I shall content myself with remarking, that it is a regularly built and handsome looking town, containing about 20,000 inhabitants, of whom 6,000 are slaves, and probably about half that number free coloured persons. The whites are a mixed population of Dutch and English. Table Mountain, a stupendous mass of rock, rises almost immediately behind to the perpendicular height of 3,582 feet; its two wings, the Lion’s Rump and Devil’s Hill, embracing the town and part of the bay in a sort of crescent.

The day after my arrival in Cape Town, I had an interview with Colonel Bird, the chief secretary of Government, respecting the settlement of my party, and also on the subject of my own personal views in the colony.

It may be proper here to notice that I had two special objects in view in emigrating to the Cape. One of these was to collect again into one social circle, and establish in rural independence, my father’s family, which untoward circumstances had broken up and begun to scatter over the world. To accomplish this, emigration to a new colony was indispensable. My father had been a Roxburghshire farmer of the most respectable class; and all his sons (five in number) had been bred to the same profession, except myself. The change of times, however, and the loss of capital, had completely overclouded their prospects in our native country; and, therefore, when the Government scheme of colonising the unoccupied territory at the Cape was promulgated, I called their attention to that colony, and offered to accompany them, should they determine to proceed thither as settlers. After maturely weighing the advantages of the Cape, as compared with other British colonies, they made their election, and empowered me to apply on their behalf to the Colonial Department. As it was required by the Government plan that every party should comprise at least ten adult males, one family, related to my wife, and two or three other respectable individuals, were associated with us. And thus our little band of twenty-four souls was made up, consisting of twelve men (including three farm servants), six women and six children.

My personal views were different from those of my relatives. I had received a collegiate education; and had been employed for about a dozen years in the service of his Majesty’s Commissioners on the Ancient Records of the Kingdom, in the office of my esteemed friend Mr. Thomson, Deputy Clerk-Register of Scotland. I had also been recently engaged to a certain extent in literary concerns; having been one of the original projectors and editors of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (then a liberal, though not a party journal), and afterwards of Constable’s Magazine. My connection with these journals, however, had rather been pre­ judicial than otherwise to my views in life, and had given me, moreover, a decided aversion to literature (or, at least, to Periodical Literature) as a profession. Under these circumstances, I determined to embark my own fortunes with those of my relatives, in the Government scheme of South African colonisation. But as neither my pecuniary circumstances nor my previous habits rendered it advisable for me to locate myself as an agricultural settler, I trusted to obtain, through the recommendation of powerful friends, some moderate appointment, suitable to my qualifications, in the civil service of the colony, and probably in the newly settled district.

Having explained these views to my respected friend, Sir Walter Scott, in the autumn of 1819, that illustrious and benevolent man entered into them with his characteristic cordiality and promptitude. He immediately wrote to some of his ministerial friends in London, on behalf of myself and my party of emigrants, and obtained our ready admission among those selected by Government for the new settlement from the vast multitude of applicants. He also exerted himself with the utmost zeal to obtain an appointment for myself in the colony; and when I came up to London in November 1819, to make arrangements for our embarkation, he furnished me with strong letters of recommendation to persons of influence, whose intervention in my behalf he hoped to render effectual. These exertions procured me a letter of recommendation from Mr. Goulburn, then Colonial Secretary, to the Governor of the colony, Lord Charles Somerset; with an assurance that his Excellency, to whose disposal all appointments; except a very few of the highest grade, were entrusted, would be prepared to give the most favourable attention to my wishes. It appeared to me necessary for the elucidation of the following narrative to state briefly these preliminary circumstances – though at the risk, I fear, of appearing somewhat egotistical.

Having learned, on my arrival at the Cape, that Lord Charles Somerset had sailed for England a few weeks previously, on leave of absence, I now placed in the hands of the Secretary to the colonial government Mr. Goulburn’s letter to his Excellency. Colonel Bird expressed his regret that the letter, being marked ‘private’, could not be opened, either by himself, or by the acting governor, Sir Rufane Donkin; but said that he would transmit it by the earliest conveyance to Lord Charles Somerset in England, where my interests would be best recommended to his attention; and that meanwhile I would find an opportunity of stating my views to Sir Rufane Donkin when I reached the eastern frontier.

I spent about a week in Cape Town on this occasion; during which time I formed an acquaintance with two or three persons of worth and talent. Among these were the Rev. Dr. Philip, superintendent of the missions of the London Missionary Society, (to whom I carried letters of introduction from Scotland), and Mr. H. E. Rutherfoord, an English merchant of that order of character which is now (unfortunately for us as a nation) becoming, I fear, far rarer than it was in former days. I met also, almost by accident, with my maternal relative, Mr. T. Haitlie, a native of Tweedside, who, after roaming over many lands, had at last settled himself in the vicinity of Cape Town as an African agriculturist. On finding that our family, and my brothers his early playmates, were at Simon’s Bay, he galloped off instantly to visit them, leaving me a horse to follow at my leisure; and, before we sailed, besides giving us much useful information on the subject of locating ourselves in the wilderness, the kindhearted fellow had our cabin crammed with a load of Cape refreshments and country stores.

We sailed out of Simon’s Bay on the 10th of May, with a brisk gale from the N.W., which carried us round the Cape Agulhas, at the rate of nearly ten knots an hour. On the 12th, at daybreak, however, we found ourselves almost becalmed, nearly opposite the entrance to the Knysna, a fine lagoon, or saltwater lake, which forms a beautiful and spacious haven (though unfortunately rather of difficult access), winding up, as we were informed by our captain, who had twice entered it with the Brilliant, into the very bosom of the magnificent forests which cover this part of the coast. During this and the two following days, having scarcely any wind, and the little we had been adverse, we kept tacking off and on within a few miles of the shore, This gave us an excellent opportunity of surveying the coast scenery of Outeniqualand and Tsitsikamma, which is of a very striking character. The land rises abruptly from the shore in massive mountain ridges, clothed with forests of large timber, and swelling in the background into lofty serrated peaks of naked rock. As we passed headland after headland, the sylvan recesses of the bays and mountains opened successively to our gaze, like a magnificent panorama, continually unfolding new features, or exhibiting new combinations of scenery, in which the soft and the stupendous, the monotonous and the picturesque, were strangely blended. The aspect of the whole was impressive, but sombre; beautiful, but somewhat savage. There was the grandeur and the grace of nature, majestic and untamed; and there was likewise that air of lonesomeness and dreary wildness, which a country unmarked by the traces of human industry or of human residence seldom fails to exhibit to the view of civilised man. Seated on the poop of the vessel, I gazed alternately on that solitary shore, and on the bands of emigrants who now crowded the deck or leaned along the gangway; some silently musing, like myself, on the scene before us; others conversing in separate groups and pointing with eager gestures to the country they had come so far to inhabit. Sick of the wearisome monotony of a long sea voyage (for only a few had been permitted by the Cape authorities to land at Simon’s Bay), all were highly exhilarated by the prospect of speedily disembarking; but the sublimely stern aspect of the country, so different from the rich tameness of ordinary English scenery, seemed to strike many of the Southron with a degree of awe approaching to consternation. The Scotch, on the contrary, as the stirring recollections of their native land were vividly called up by the rugged peaks and shaggy declivities of this wild coast, were strongly affected, like all true mountaineers on such occasions. Some were excited to extravagant spirits; others silently shed tears.

Coasting in this manner, we at length doubled Cape Recife (renowned for its shipwrecks) on the 15th, and late in the afternoon came to an anchor in Algoa Bay, in the midst of a little fleet of vessels, which had just landed, or were engaged in landing, their respective bands of settlers. The Menai sloop of war and the Weymouth storeship were moored beside the transports; and their crews, together with a party of military on shore, were employed in assisting the debarkation.

It was an animated and interesting scene. Around us in the west corner of the spacious bay, were anchored ten or twelve large vessels, which had recently arrived with emigrants, of whom a great proportion were still on board. Directly in front, on a rising ground a few hundred yards from the beach, stood the little fortified barrack or block house, called Fort Frederick, occupied by a division of the 72nd regiment, with the tents and pavilions of the officers pitched on the heights around it. At the foot of those heights, nearer the beach, stood three thatched cottages, and one or two wooden houses brought out from England, which now formed the offices of the commissaries and other civil functionaries appointed to transact the business of the emigration, and to provide the settlers with provisions and other stores, and with carriages for their conveyance up the country. Interspersed among these offices, and among the pavilions of the government functionaries and naval officers employed on shore, were scattered large depots of agricultural implements, carpenters’ and blacksmiths’ tools, and iron ware of all descriptions, sent out by the home government to be furnished to the settlers at prime cost. About two furlongs to the eastward, on a level spot between the sand hills on the beach and the stony heights beyond, lay the camp of the emigrants. Nearly a thousand souls, on an average, were at present lodged there in military tents; but parties were daily moving off in long trains of bullock wagons, to proceed to their appointed places of location in the interior, while their place was immediately occupied by fresh bands, hourly disembarking from the vessels in the bay. A suitable background to this animated picture, as viewed by us from the anchorage, was supplied by the heights over the Zwartkops River, covered with a dense jungle, and by the picturesque peaks of the Winterhoek and the dark masses of the Zuurberg ridge far to the northward, distinctly outlined in the clear blue sky.

Main picture: Military Post – Algoa Bay by Samuel Daniell

The whole scene was such as could not fail to impress deeply the most unconcerned spectator. To us – who had embarked all our worldly property and earthly prospects, our own future fortunes and the fate of our posterity, in this enterprise – it was interesting and exciting to an intense degree.

It being too late to get ashore that evening, we continued gazing on this scene till long after sunset, – till twilight had darkened into night, and the constellations of the southern hemisphere, revolving in cloudless brilliancy above, reminded us that nearly half the globe’s expanse intervened between us and our native land – the homes of our youth, and the friends we had parted from forever; and that here, in this farthest nook of Southern Africa, we were now about to receive the portion of our inheritance, and to draw an irrevocable lot for ourselves and for our children’s children. Solemn reflections will press themselves at such a time on the most thoughtless; and this night, as we swung at anchor in Algoa Bay, so long the bourne of all our wishes, many a wakeful brain among us was doubtless expatiating, each according to the prevailing current of thought, in serious meditation on the future or the past. A long sea voyage, and, far more, one with such an object as we had before us, totally disconnecting us for a time from the bustling world behind and before, and from the great political and social interests of humanity, appears, as it were, like a pause or interlude between the acts of the busy drama of human life, and deepens the interest both of the past and the future, by affording a convenient space for reflection. This quiet interval was about to close with us; and we now waited with anxiety for the curtain to draw up, and unfold, in all the distinctness of reality, the scenes of novelty and adventure to which we had so long looked forward.

Early next morning, in order to make arrangements for the disembarkation of our party, I went ashore with Lieutenant Pritchard, the government agent who had accompanied us from London. There is no landing-place at this bay, except on the open beach; and when the wind blows strong from the south-east, there is a tremendous surf, which totally precludes all communication between the shore and the vessels at anchor, and even renders the roadstead extremely hazardous. At this time, however, the weather was favourable, and we dashed boldly through the breakers in the captain’s gig.

Lord Charles Henry Somerset

The disembarkation of the emigrants from the other transports was proceeding with alacrity. Party after party were conveyed safely and rapidly through the breakers by the surf boats (managed by seamen from the sloop of war), and then borne ashore ‘high and dry’ on the shoulders of fatigue parties of the military. The beach was all alive with bustle and confusion, and the boisterous hilarity of people who felt their feet on firm ground for the first time after a wearisome voyage. Bands of men and women were walking up and down, conversing and laughing; their children gambolling around them, and raising ever and anon their shrill voices in exclamations of pleasure and surprise, as some novel object excited their attention. Other groups were watching their luggage, as it was carried from the boats and piled in heaps upon the sand; or were helping to load the wagons appointed to convey it to the settlers’ camp. Bargemen and soldiers were shouting to each other across the surf. Tall Dutch-African Boers, with broad­ brimmed white hats, and huge tobacco pipes in their mouths, were shouting in Colonial-Dutch. Whips were smacking, bullocks bellowing, wagons creaking; and the half-naked Hottentots, who led the long teams of draught oxen, were running and hallooing, and waving their long lank swarthy arms in front of their horned followers, like so many mad dervishes.

Leaving the landing-place, we passed some sand-hills covered with beautiful shrubs, such as are found among the rare exotics of our European greenhouses; and aloes and other strange plants scattered about and trodden underfoot as carelessly as thistles and burdock in an English barn-yard. As we proceeded, I observed the large depots of stores and implements provided for the emigrants – some of them but imperfectly protected from the weather by coverings of canvas or tarpaulins and fenced in from intruders by chevaux de frise of ploughs and harrows, ramparts of packing cases and grindstones, and bastions of frying pans and camp kettles. They were secure enough from depredation under the protection of sentinels; but I regretted to perceive that quantities of the smaller articles of iron ware were going rapidly to destruction, for want of sufficient shelter from the moist sea air.

Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin

After some little search we found the deputy quarter-master­ general, to whom the chief management of the disembarkation had been entrusted; and I readily obtained his consent to have my party instantly landed. While orders were despatched to the surfboats to expedite their disembarkation, I proceeded to the commissariat department to commission tents, provisions, and other things necessary for their proper accommodation. These stores were furnished to us upon the credit of a sum of £150, which had, agreeably to the general regulations, been deposited on behalf of the party in the hands of the home government.

I then returned to the beach to receive my friends, and to guide them to the spot selected, with the consent of the commandant, for our little encampment, apart from the populous and somewhat noisy parallelogram of Settlers’ Town. The whole party, I found, had just arrived outside the breakers in the ship’s barge and were then stepping into the surfboats. Approaching the Highland soldiers who were employed in pulling these boats with ropes through the surf, I spoke to them in broad Scotch, and entreated them to be careful of their country folks, especially the women and children. It was delightful to witness the hearty outburst of nationality and kindly feeling among these poor fellows when I thus addressed them. ‘Scotch folk! are they?’ said a weather­beaten stalwart corporal, with a strong northern brogue – ‘never fear, sir, but we sal be carefu’ o’ them;’ and dashing through the water as he spoke, he and his comrades hauled the boats rapidly yet cautiously through the breakers; and then surrounding the party, and shaking them cordially by the hands, they carried them, old and young, ashore on their shoulders, without allowing one of them to wet the sole of his shoe in the spray. Being Highlanders, these men had no connection with our native districts; but the name of ‘Auld Scotland’ was a sufficient password to their national sympathies.

In the midst of our colloquy with the soldiers, an officer came hastily down to the beach, and informed me, with many apologies and expressions of regret, that an unlucky mistake had been made in authorising the disembarkation of our party that day, as it was found that a party from another vessel had a prior claim to be provided for; and, in order to avoid disputes and any appearance of partiality, it was earnestly requested that we would consent to return on board for a few days longer, and resign the tents and other accommodations to the rival claimants. This was an unpleasant predicament; but as it would have been ungracious to have refused compliance with a request which seemed in itself reasonable, my friends submitted with as much cheerfulness as could be expected from persons heartily sick of a sea-life, and only a minute before almost wild with joy to find themselves once more on dry land. The whole party, therefore, with the exception of another gentleman and myself, were immediately re-embarked, under the care, and accompanied by the friendly condolements, of their Highland countrymen.

I then strolled along the beach to survey more closely the camp of the settlers, which had looked so picturesque from the sea. On my way I passed two or three pavilion-tents pitched apart from the evergreen bushes which were scattered between the sand-hills and the heights behind. These were the encampments of some of the higher class of settlers and evinced the taste of the occupants by the pleasant situations in which they were placed, and by the neatness and order of everything about them. Ladies and gentlemen, elegantly dressed, were seated in some of them with books in their hands; others were rambling among the shrubbery and over the little eminences, looking down upon the bustling beach and bay. One or two handsome carriages were standing in the open air, exhibiting some tokens of aristocratic rank or pretension in the proprietors. It was obvious that several of these families had been accustomed to enjoy the luxurious accommodations of refined society in England. How far they had acted wisely in embarking their property and the happiness of their families in an enterprise like the present, and in leading their respective bands of adventurers to colonise the wilds of Southern Africa, were questions yet to be determined. Foreseeing, as I did in some degree, (although certainly by no means to the full extent), the difficulties and privations inevitable in such circumstances, I could not view this class of emigrants, with their elegant arrangements and appliances, without some melancholy misgivings as to their future fate; for they appeared utterly unfitted by former habits, especially the females, for roughing it (to use the expressive phraseology of the camp) through the first trying period of the settlement.

A little way beyond, I entered the Settlers’ Camp. It consisted of several hundred tents, pitched in regular rows or streets, and occupied by the middling and lower classes of emigrants. These consisted of various descriptions of people; and the air, aspect, and array of their persons and temporary residences, were equally various. There were respectable tradesmen and jolly farmers, with every appearance of substance and snug English comfort about them. There were watermen, fishermen, and sailors, from the Thames and English seaports, with the reckless and weather­ beaten look usual in persons of their perilous and precarious professions. There were numerous groups of pale-visaged artisans and operative manufacturers, from London and other large towns. Lastly, there were parties of pauper agricultural labourers, sent out by the aid of their respective parishes.

Having cursorily surveyed all that seemed worthy of immediate attention at the Bay, I procured a horse, and set out on an excursion to Bethelsdorp, the well-known Hottentot village, about nine miles from the coast. A Hottentot boy, whose only dress consisted of a pair of leather trousers and a loose mantle of sheepskin with the wool upon it, acted as my guide, and trotted along at a goodly pace by the side of my pony.

The country in the vicinity of Algoa Bay, though far superior to the environs of Simon’s Town, has not, on the whole, a very inviting aspect. Extensive undulating plains, scantily covered with herbage, stretch into the interior, unenlivened (at least such was then the case, after passing the little hamlet of Cradockstown [later known as Cradock Place]) with a single farmhouse, or any manifestation of being occupied by human inhabitants, except such as was afforded by a few herds of cattle and straggling flocks of sheep, tended by Hottentot herdsmen. These downs were bounded on the west by a range of low sterile-looking hills, and on the east by the banks of the Zwartkops River, covered with jungle. The lofty and picturesque mountains, however, already mentioned, which bound the view to the northward, somewhat relieved the otherwise monotonous landscape; and, as I proceeded, the strange aspect of one or two small lakes of salt, and the exotic appearance of many of the plants, agreeably occupied my attention. On approaching Bethelsdorp, the downs were in many places embellished with patches of natural shrubbery, consisting chiefly of various species of ever­ greens. Among the shrubs, I noticed two elegant species of protea, and a variety of other plants equally rare in Europe. The aloe, in several varieties, and in great profusion, embellished even the most sterile tracts of the wilderness.

I came in sight of the village just as the sun was setting. The shadows of the barren hills which rise above it to the westward were falling quietly over the plain. The smoke of the foes just lighted to cook the evening meal of the home-coming herdsmen, was curling calmly in the serene evening air. The bleating of flocks returning to the fold, the lowing of the kine to meet their young, and other pleasant rural sounds, recalling to my recollection all the pastoral associations of a Scottish glen, gave a very agreeable effect to my first view of this missionary village. When I entered the place, however, all associations connected with the rural scenery of Europe were at once dispelled. The groups of woolly-haired, swarthy-complexioned natives, many of them still dressed in the old sheep-skin mantle or kaross; the swarms of naked or half-naked children; the wigwam hovels of mud or reeds; the queer-shaped, low thatched church, erected by old Vanderkemp; the long-legged, large-horned cattle; the broad­tailed African sheep, with hair instead of wool; the strange words of the evening salutation (goeden avond – ‘good evening’), courteously given, as I passed, by old and young; the uncouth clucking sounds of the Hottentot language, spoken by some of them to each other; these, and a hundred other traits of wild and foreign character, made me feel that I was indeed far from the glens of Cheviot, or the pastoral groups of a Scottish hamlet – that I was at length in the Land of the Hottentot.

The missionary, who had been informed of my approach, now came forth from his decent brick-built dwelling, and welcomed me in. I had a letter of introduction to him, which, though it was not requisite to ensure me a hospitable reception, did not fail, of course, to increase his cordiality and frankness of communication.

While tea was preparing, and before the twilight had yet closed in, my host was called out to speak to another stranger. This was a Kafir woman, accompanied by a little girl of eight or ten years of age, and having an infant strapped on her back, above her mantle of tanned bullock’s hide. She had come from the drostdy, or district town, of Uitenhage, under the custody of a black constable, who stated that she was one of a number of Kafir females who had been made prisoners by order of the Commandant on the frontier, for crossing the line of prescribed demarcation without permission; and that they were now to be given out in servitude among the white inhabitants of this district. The woman before us, he added, was to be forwarded by the missionary, under the charge of one of his people, to the residence of a certain colonist, about twenty miles to the westward. Such were the orders of the landdrost, or district magistrate.

After our interview with the Kafir woman, I attended the evening service of the missionary, in the rustic chapel of Bethelsdorp. The place was occupied by a very considerable number of the inhabitants of the village, a large proportion being females. The demeanour of the audience was attentive and devout, and their singing of the missionary hymns was singularly pleasing and harmonious.

Next day I returned to Algoa Bay and rejoined my friends on board the Brilliant. Here, from a variety of tantalising circumstances, not worth recounting to the reader, though they tried our patience to the uttermost at the time, we were detained, swinging at anchor, till the 25th, when at length our party were enabled finally to disembark. We pitched our little camp, consisting of seven or eight tents, on a verdant spot surrounded by evergreen bushes, about halfway between Settlers’ Town and the Government offices; and having brought all our property from on board, including a suitable assortment of Scotch ploughs, cartwheels, and other implements of husbandry, ironware, tools, fire-arms, cooking utensils, and similar essentials, we made our arrangements to wait the arrival of the Acting Governor.

Meanwhile, on purpose to occupy the time as pleasantly and profitably as circumstances would permit, I made an excursion to the district town of Uitenhage, about sixteen miles from the port, and to one or two other places in the vicinity; but the details of these little journeys, though I thought them at the time sufficiently interesting to be recorded in my MS. journal, may be here omitted.

While we remained encamped at Algoa Bay, I became acquainted with some of the heads of emigrant parties, by meeting them at the tables of the naval and military officers, to which we were hospitably invited; and I soon found that several even of the most intelligent men, were carried away by anticipations of the capabilities of the country scarcely less extravagant than the expectations of some of our female friends, who fancied they would find oranges and apricots growing wild among the thorny jungles of the Zwartkops. But perhaps a portion of this sanguine spirit, however liable to disappointment, is requisite, after all, to tear men from the ties of kindred and country, and from old habits harder to break in many cases than even those ties; and to bear them forward with courageous hearts, to encounter the toils and perils and privations of a new settlement, in a strange and distant clime. There is a certain charm in adventurous enterprise that few are so apathetical as to be utter strangers to, but which to bold and buoyant spirits is altogether irresistible, and which never fails to array in the most fascinating colours whatever is connected with the undertaking they happen to have embarked in.

An 1820 Settler Camp by F.I. I’Ons

A rather remarkable occurrence, which happened during our sojourn here, suggested some reflections of another cast. Of the two parties of emigrants who had sailed with us from England in the Brilliant, by far the most numerous was composed entirely of English Methodists and dissenters, who had associated themselves, like the early American colonists, on principles of religious as well as civil communion. Unhappily, however, their opinions on this important topic proved anything but harmonious. During the voyage, having little else to occupy their attention, they engaged keenly in polemical discussions; and under the guidance of two local preachers – a tall grave Wesleyan coachmaker, and a little dogmatic Anabaptist surgeon, – they soon split in two discordant factions. Heated by incessant controversy for three months, many of them, who had been wont formerly to associate on friendly terms, ceased to regard each other with sentiments of Christian forbearance; and the two rival leaders, after many obstinate disputations, which became more intricate and intemperate every time they were renewed, had at length finally parted in flaming wrath, and for several weeks past had paced the quarter-deck together without speaking, or exchanging salutations. After our arrival at Algoa Bay, these two men were both seized, though not simultaneously, with fatal distempers. The Wesleyan died on board, without even having an opportunity of setting his foot on that land which he had longed so ardently to reach. His body was brought ashore and interred in the soldiersdesolate burial ground near the beach; his former antagonist assisting with tearful eyes at the funeral. A few days afterwards the Anabaptist also was taken ill. I saw him in his tent, on the sick bed from which he never again rose. He told me, with suppressed emotion, that he knew he was dying, and was quite resigned to die; but expressed anxiety for his destitute family – and appeared as if there were something else pressing on his mind which he wished to unburden. We were interrupted, however, and I saw him no more. I supposed it might be some feeling of regret, in relation to the unhappy disputes of which I had been a witness. Both, however, I have every reason to believe, died forgiving each other their trespasses, as they hoped to be forgiven; and with a well-grounded hope (for, in spite of their intolerance, I believe they were both persons of genuine piety,) of receiving a more blessed inheritance than the earthly one from which Providence had so suddenly debarred them. Being the only individuals who died at Algoa Bay, out of more than one hundred and fifty conveyed hither by the Brilliant, the event seemed to be viewed by their surviving associates as a solemn rebuke for the indulgence of that human pride and wrath ‘which worketh not the righteousness of God. At all events, the moral lesson was a striking one, and it apparently produced a deep effect on the hot controversialists of both parties. They subsequently founded together a village in Albany, called Salem, and lived together, so far as I could learn, in Christian forbearance and good fellowship with each other. As a pleasing conclusion to the little story, I may mention, that about five years afterwards, the eldest son of the Anabaptist and the daughter of the Wesleyan, who were mere children at the death of their parents, became husband and wife.

On the 6th of June, the acting governor, Sir Rufane Donkin, arrived at Algoa Bay on his return from Albany, whither he had gone to make arrangements for locating the settlers already arrived there, and for the reception of those proceeding thither. I had an interview with him on the following morning. He informed me that it was proposed by Government to locate the whole of the Scotch emigrants in the mountainous country watered by some of the eastern branches of the Great Fish River and lying adjacent to the Kafir frontier. The upper part of the valley formed by the Baviaan’s River had been surveyed for the reception of my party; while the unoccupied territory to the eastward was destined for five hundred Highlanders, who were expected out under a Captain Grant, and for a smaller party from the west of Scotland, who were understood to be also on their voyage out. A district town to be called New Edinburgh, he added, was intended to be founded in a convenient situation, where a resident magistrate and a clergyman of the Scottish church would be placed for the civil and religious benefit of the settlers. The Highlanders, moreover, were to be formed into a body of local militia, for the defence of that part of the frontier. Such was the plan proposed by the colonial authorities. It was now for me, he said, to decide whether I would accede on behalf of my party to that plan or avail myself of the option allowed by the original scheme of the home government, to select a location among the English emigrants in some other part of the disposable territory nearer the coast. Having communicated this proposal to the several heads of families of our party, I was empowered, after a brief consultation, to inform the acting governor that we preferred the mountain settlement adjoining the proposed location of our countrymen; and thus, the destination of the party was fixed.

Mr. William Elliott, a gentleman who had joined us in London, on finding we were destined to a location farther in the interior than suited his views, now left us to return to Cape Town. He was a well-educated and well principled young man. He afterwards became a missionary under the auspices of the London Society; and is now very beneficially engaged in the instruction of the coloured population at the Paarl, in the district of Stellenbosch.

On the 6th of June, we assisted at laying the foundation of the first house of a new town at Algoa Bay, designated by Sir Rufane ‘Port Elizabeth’, after the name of his deceased lady, to whose memory, also, he afterwards erected an obelisk on one of the adjoining heights. In the course of fourteen years this place has grown up to be the second town in the colony, both for population and for commerce; and it is still rapidly increasing. Captain Moresby, of the navy, was the proprietor of the house then founded with much ceremony, and of which our party assisted to dig the foundation. The only other house then commenced, excepting the temporary offices and cabins already mentioned, was one erecting by a Malay named Fortuin, now, I understand, one of the wealthiest and most respectable inhabitants of the place.

05 Jan 1789Birth of Thomas Pringle in Kelso, Roxburghshire
            1808Clerk at the Edinburgh Public Records Office
            1810Actions in support of female playwright Joanna Baillie
     Jan 1819Resigns from editorships & re-employed at the Records Office
            1819Publishes volume of poems: The Autumnal Excursion
     Jul  1819House of Commons votes for Emigration Bill
15 Feb 1820Brilliant sailed from Gravesend
30 Apr 1819Arrival of Brilliant in Simon’s Bay
10 May 1820Sailed from Simon’s Bay
15 May 1820Arrival of Brilliant in Algoa Bay
 17 May 1820Visited Bethelsdorp
 06 Jun 1820Hamlet christened Port Elizabeth by Sir Rufane Donkin
 13 Jun 1820Commenced journey to Baviaan’s Poort

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