Regardless of the reason why Captain Evatt was stationed in Port Elizabeth, his civic minded mien ensured that he would forever be feted with the sobriquet as the “Father of Port Elizabeth.”
For that reason, he deserves to be recalled and commemorated.
Main picture: Captain Francis Evatt
Pre Port Elizabeth days
Francis was of Irish descent having been born at Carlow, Ireland in 1770. As his father – Captain Henry Evatt – had a military background, being a member of the Monaghan Militia, perhaps Francis was predestined to himself join the military. Francis’ father was fatally wounded in the Battle of Ballinahinch in County Antrim, Ireland, during the rebellion of 1798.
Not that his father’s death in battle would have persuaded Francis to abandon his chosen career, as by then he was a committed soldier. Even though no record exists of when Francis joined the 21st Light Dragoons, it is probably in the early 1792 at the age of 22 as his military service was recorded as being for 56 years. It was as a Lieutenant in this Regiment that Evatt arrived at the Cape in 1806 and would be dispatched, together with his brother, to the frontier for several years.
Arrival in Port Elizabeth
The first reference to Francis being in Port Elizabeth was his arrival on the 20th January 1810 aboard the Oxford, together with a company of his Regiment, the 21st Light Dragoons. The troops had been sent in response to an urgent appeal by the Landdrost Major Cuyler to Lord Caledon. He requested assistance on account of the increasing depredations of the Xhosa tribes.
The greatest part of this force was dispatched to Bruintjieshoogte. It is a mountain pass situated in the Eastern Cape, on the Regional road R63, between Somerset East and Pearson. Meanwhile Captain Evatt and thirty-five men of a Cape Regiment made a tour through the Coega and Zandfontein districts. Afterwards he proceeded to Bruintjieshoogte in order to rejoin his own Regiment. In order to obtain an understanding of the surrounding countryside, he later journeyed along the Fish River to the Zuurveld.
Between 1810 and 1817, Evatt was posted to various remote parts of the Colony. Evatt’s promotion to Captain occurred on the 25th March 1813 when he accepted a transfer to the Royal Garrison Company as Captain, the rank at which he would remain until his retirement. Finally Evatt’s stay in the loneliest parts of the hinterland came to an end when he was appointed as Commandant at Fort Frederick in 1817. With this appointment came a meagre salary of £60 per annum. He held this post until 1848, two years before his death.
Aside from his formal military responsibilities, Evatt saw fit to get involved in numerous civic duties, the first of which was with the landing of the 1820 Settlers. He directed their disembarkation through the dangerous surf by personally wading into the breakers to pick up passengers being ferried to the shore.
Amongst the initial band of settlers, was John Centlivres Chase, who recalled at a commemorative function some 24 years later about having his first meal in African gratis, courtesy of Francis Evatt’s generosity. This display of hospitality was not an isolated occurrence. Rather it was the nature of the man; the very embodiment of graciousness.
In his excellent book, “Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail (1488 to 1917) – A Maritime History, Colin Urquhart records that “in 1823, Captain Francis Evatt, decided to take action under the Act against a ship’s captain whom he suspected of clandestinely importing two child slaves into the colony. He had noticed the captain of the Cape-owned schooner Stedcombe boarding the vessel in Algoa Bay accompanied by a small black boy. On further investigation, he learnt that the boy belonged to a Mr. Chabaud and that there was also a nine year old girl aboard whom the captain had reportedly purchased in Mozambique. Captain Evatt, tried in vain, at his own expense to have those involved prosecuted, going so far as to declare the schooner a ‘prize of war’ and sent her to Cape Town where he hoped the Admiralty Court would take action. Amid some embarrassment the court declined, and the two children were duly handed over to the vessel’s owner, Nesbit & Co, for whom they became ‘domestic servants in a state of freedom.’
It is believed that Evatt’s actions and efforts over the next four years through the Royal Commission of Enquiry to establish why no action was taken and to recover his expenses (all £135s worth), went some way to ending the illegal importation of slaves to the Colony. It most certainly marked Port Elizabeth as a port which slave traders would want to avoid.”
Proposals regarding a school & a church
To Evatt’s abiding credit, he prominently identified with the development of civic and religious life in Port Elizabeth. At a meeting on the 20th April, 1824, Evatt chaired a meeting held in the Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street. Under consideration was the proposal to lobby the Cape Government to fund the establishment of a school and a church in Port Elizabeth.
One of the resolutions of this meeting conveyed its thanks to Francis Evatt for his “zeal and perseverance in promoting an object so greatly to be desired by the inhabitants of the village and the neighbourhood.”
In reply, the Governor promised a school but resisted committing to the building of a church as he claimed that no funds were available.
A further meeting held on the 26th April resolved that a subscription be entered into immediately to fund the construction of a church. Evatt concluded the meeting by heading the list of subscribers with a donation of RXD100, an amount equivalent to his monthly salary. In total, money and materials to the value of RXD 2052 were donated.
Appointment as the “Government Resident”
By 1825, the Cape Government did not make a misguided assessment of Port Elizabeth’s surging importance vis-à-vis Uitenhage. Up until this time, Port Elizabeth fell under the magistracy of Uitenhage which was initially the main town in the area. It dawned on the Colonial government that some higher official power than a field cornet was absolutely essential for Port Elizabeth due to its rapid expansion.
A field cornet was a term formerly used in South Africa for either a local government official or a military officer. Originally, the term was used for a civilian official in a local government district (drostdy) of the Cape Colony, acting as and invested with the authority of a military officer and empowered to act as a magistrate. The field cornet was subject to the landdrost of the district and acted as his representative. As such, a field cornet performed important functions in administrative, judicial and police matters. In addition, in peacetime the field cornet was the head of the militia and was responsible for maintaining law and order in his area.
In a proclamation dated 8th April 1825, Port Elizabeth became a seat of magistracy and Captain Evatt was awarded the title of “Government Resident of Port Elizabeth.” In effect, Evatt had been appointed as a Magistrate with Montagu Augustine Armstrong as Secretary. In the case of civil matters, the Magistrate could try cases under the value of £7 10s and in criminal cases his authority only extended to sentences of six month’s imprisonment or to the issuing of a fine limited to £7 10s. The jurisdiction of the Magistrate was limited to townships.
At swords drawn
This incident in mid 1826, arose between the recently appointed clergyman of St Mary’s Church, Rev Francis McCleland and Captain Francis Evatt. By way of background, the Rev Francis McCleland had not endeared him to the settlers at the Cape due to his being quick to take umbrage. Possibly also contributing to this altercation, was his dyspeptic nature. As regards Evatt’s culpability, one must bear in mind that it was his [Evatt’s] fund raising efforts that had culminated in the erection of St Mary’s Church. As such, he obviously felt a parental bond to the project. Even though it was due to his singular efforts that McCleland was appointed, this appointee was one so unlike himself in demeanour. Even though it is not recorded anywhere, the incident narrated below is indicative that his arrival was not well received by the Church Committee.
In this incident, the issues arose from a complaint by Capt. Evatt during April and May 1826. At issue was an allegation by Evatt that McCleland had travelled to Grahamstown without leave and hence neglected his Church Services. On the 16th May 1826, letters of outrage passed between them.
In response, Mr John Anthony Chabaud, the Secretary of the Church Committee – either having read or heard about the letter that Capt. Evatt had written – wrote to the Government stating: “[I] do declare [that] the subject matter of that complaint or charge to be without foundation”. The Church Committee also passed a resolution requesting Rev. McCleland to accept the thanks of the Committee for general good conduct and usefulness as Chaplain. Copies of these resolutions were then forwarded to the Government with a letter from Chabaud.
Evatt retaliated by claiming that the Church Meetings are called “whenever they see fit without reference to him and he is met with marked disrespect”.
Bickering and misunderstanding continued from both sides – the Church Council and Mr Evatt – with Mr Chabaud being the intermediary, attempting to pacify all parties. However, later on, he and McCleland then quarrelled. Chabaud responded by stating, “I hope that you are not in any way interested or connected with him or his descendents for he [McCleland] is a most unamicable character”. Chabaud then continued to sully McCleland’s character even further. “Even on the voyage out he evinced a most quarrelsome, mischief-making disposition and is in constant hot water with one and another in Port Elizabeth after settling here”.
Remember that these gripes are being made about McCleland’s character flaws barely six months after he arrived in Port Elizabeth.
At this point Chabaud gets to the nub of one of his criticisms of McCleland’s character. “There is barely a door open to him in the village [Port Elizabeth] through his having quarrelled with everyone but the malicious and scandalous reports [that] he sets in motion regarding a young married lady (who had visited Chabaud)”. McCleland “makes an attempt to blast the character and prospects of a beautiful but unfortunate young female and says some terrible things, which are worse, coming from a clergyman”.
In order to smooth things over, Capt. Evatt decided to host a dinner party to which the most prominent people of the village were invited. The morning before this function took place, Rev. McCleland and his wife Elizabeth invited Mrs Chabaud – who is now hauled into the fray – to No. 7 Castle Hill. During this meeting, they say the most insulting things about her guest, the young lady. They refuse to go to the dinner if “that lady is to be there”. They “suggest [that] Mr Chabaud inspan his cart and send her home immediately or their house would get a bad name, and many worse things”.
The poor woman returned home very agitated and informed her husband, Mr Chabaud, what had transpired. Incensed, Mr Chabaud wrote to Francis for an explanation. Nothing is recorded whether a reply is forthcoming.
According to Chabaud, when McCleland is confronted, he “hedges and prevaricates and even, in a terrible fright, says he is happy to see her at his house (No. 7)”. This did not prevent him from continuing the slander causing tensions escalate until Mr Chabaud deliberately decided to insult Francis in the expectation that McCleland would either prove his statements or retract them.
Then on 12th August 1826, McCleland drafted a letter to the District Secretary, Roselt, in which he details a confrontation between Chabaud and himself, during which he is called a slanderer and a pest of society.
Furthermore, he also requested him to intervene.
As can be imagined, the quarrel caused a great sensation in the small community for most of the leading members were involved, either directly or as witnesses. Mr Chabaud’s witnesses are Capt. Evatt, Mr. Dawson, Capt. Sheaffe and Mrs. Chabaud. Roselt, the District Secretary, was undecided who should hear this case. Ultimately, it was heard before the Court of the Landdrost and Heemraden on the 3rd November 1826. After lengthy evidence from both sides, Mr Chabaud is fined RxD300 and costs. Furthermore in the verdict Mr Chabaud was considered a “peaceably disposed person and not a quarrelsome character”.
It was then admitted that “since Mr McCleland had taken up his residence in Port Elizabeth, broils and dissensions have become common”. Mr Chabaud in evidence stated at length that “this Revd. Divine sent by our Maternal Government to preach in this remote corner of her dominion Peace and Goodwill to all men” and continued by mentioning his own upright character in contrast to the irreligious behaviour of McCleland.
Evatt’s protests about revenues
In 1826, Evatt was in full flight again. On this occasion he was protesting against the revenues of Port Elizabeth being used by Uitenhage for their benefit rather than for the legitimate development of the port.
According to his Death Notice, Francis Evatt married Elisabeth Frederica Petronella Kirsten on 2nd September 1794 but got divorced during September 1823 whilst living in Port Elizabeth.
On 2nd December 1831, Evatt married to a widow, Anna de la Harpe, of Uitenhage. The ceremony was performed by the Colonial Chaplain, Rev. Francis McCleland at the Residency.
In his book, Excursions in Southern Africa, Lieut.-Colonel Napier mentions his visit to a clearly ailing Evatt as follows: “I went to pay my respects to the Commandant at Port Elizabeth, and a more extraordinary-looking old gentleman you scarcely ever beheld.
He was seated on an open terrace overlooking the Bay. His dress consisted of a shocking bad old straw hat, an old blue frock coat with large scales, a shooting waistcoat, corduroy trousers, and a pair of shoes well down at the heel.
He appeared upwards of seventy years of age, was very corpulent and apologised for not rising to receive me owing to his infirmities, which apology was, of course, readily accepted. This old veteran has filled the post he now occupies for thirty-three years.”
Captain Francis Evatt died on 21st March 1850 aged 77. He was buried with full military honours due to his rank by the Rev. A. Robson in the Russell Road Cemetery. Evatt owned various farms and lots of land during his life including Draaifontein from 1815 to 1819 and a Lot at the top of Prospect Hill from 1835 to 1849. Yet when he died, he owned no land and was living in a cottage at the bottom of Military Road.
When he died, it was said that “if not the founder of the town, at least present at its origin, and for some time so important a personage in it, that the history of his doings was the history of Port Elizabeth – it had no separate existence apart from him.”
Even though Francis was originally buried in the Congregational Cemetery in Russell Road but due to the disreputable condition and vandalism of the cemetery, his remains was later exhumed and re-interred at the present spot next to the Fort’s north wall. In front of Fort Frederick, Port Elizabeth’s oldest building, visitors will find the grave of Captain Francis Evatt. This is a fitting tribute to Captain Evatt as he commanded Fort Frederick from 1817 to 1848. The original slate tombstone is on the porch of St Mary’s Church.
The local newspaper at the time published the following obituary:
“Commandant Evatt is no more. He departed this life on the afternoon of Thursday last, after a brief illness or rather the decay of nature, which had long been protracted in his case, at last seemed, as his days were nearly numbered, to hurry through the different stages to final dissolution.
The late Commandant was, if not the founder of the town, at least present at its origin, and for some time so important a personage in it, that he embodied in himself for a considerable period all its consequence – the history of his doings was the history of Port Elizabeth – it had no separate entity from him.
When a British population saw fit to make a home, it was not to be expected that his dominion was for a lifetime to be exerted; but long after the authority had passed from the grasp of the deceased, he was regarded with a feeling near akin to that of reverence for a founder. This feeling will follow deceased to the tomb. It will betake itself there as a visitor to his mortal remains, that once more it may hold a kind of converse with the memory of deceased. And in this exercise, it will be altogether charitable in its disposition……………………………………
His tombstone on St. Mary’s porch, bears the following epitaph:
His wife, Anna Evatt, died in 1881 in Graaff-Reinet, aged 87 years.
The term later came to denote a military rank equivalent to that of a lieutenant in the Boer armies as well as in the South African Army between 1960 and 1968. A second lieutenant was referred to as an assistant field cornet. The term field cornet replaced the word adjutant in the commando organisation in 1968.
Henry Evatt was the only son of Francis. He died in Port Elizabeth aged 32 on the 2nd January 1826. He was a clerk to the Government Resident and owned farm Klaa Niemand’s River and prior to that Kentish Plain.
Evatt’s other child was a daughter, Margaret who died in England two years after her father.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)