Port Elizabeth of Yore: Early Black Settlements Part 1

These settlements were never called suburbs or townships but colloquially these residential areas were known as locations ab initio. What is less well known is that there were various black settlements in Port Elizabeth from its earliest days. Their inhabitants were generally Khoi but later came the amaMfengu after the British authorities granted them rights to live here in 1851.

Conspicuously absent from central Port Elizabeth is even fragmentary evidence of their location dwellings or artefacts. All that remains of these settlements are some footnotes to history. Ultimately these residents were relocated to Red Location and New Brighton in the early part of the 20th century.

This blog attempts to set that right.

Main picture: Part of Stranger’s Location at the top of the hill next to Russell Road with its beehive style huts

The Earliest Inhabitants of iBhayi

The exact date when the San and Khoikhoi first settled in this part of the Southern Africa will never be established with any form of exactitude. Suffice to say that it predates the arrival of the Boers and then the English Settlers. In all likelihood it could be literally thousands of years. Even Batholomeu Diaz, the first white person to sail into Algoa Bay could attest to the fact that the area was inhabited by Khoisan. With such as little footprint and non-settled nature, their numbers will never be determined.

Early informal settlement at Kragga Kamma

The first black settlement in the Port Elizabeth area was established by the London Missionary Society in 1802 when Dr Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp, James Read and a large number of Khoikhoi from Graaff-Reinet settled on a farm in the Kragga Kamma area called “Botha’s Place.” This settlement was attacked by the Xhosas and Khoi after the British had vacated Fort Frederick and the inhabitants fled there for safety. 

The original land grant for the Strangers Location in 1855

Apparently the only blacks present in Port Elizabeth on the arrival of the 1820 Settlers were Khoikhoi wagon drivers. The Reverend John Aycliff specifically mentions that there was only one Black at Algoa Bay at the time of the landing, namely a prisoner in transit to Robben Island.

In May 1828, Shaka’s ambassadors together with their guides and translators, James Saunders King and Francis George Farewell, engaged in trade and visited Cradock Place, the homestead of Frederick Korsten. The men had been sent on a mission to the Cape but were turned back at Algoa Bay.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place, homestead of Frederick Korsten

Why the term Location?

The term Location has a peculiarly South African connotation. Even though the word is synonymous with the word township, the term Location implies that the area is reserved for the use of black people. This term only gained currency after the British annexation of the Cape Colony and marked the inception of the fledging policy of formal separation. Unlike the Boers, they were more class conscious and felt more ill-at-ease amongst the black inhabitants. Arguably, the first use of this term to refer to a black settlement was in Port Elizabeth itself. Hence it bears the dubious distinction of articulating the concept of separate living areas.

Hottentot Location

May of the same year – 1828 – witnessed the completion and opening of the Union Chapel near Main Street for worship. James Read of the London Missionary Society purchased the land in 1825 for the Khoi who were living here. To service the congregants, Rev. Theophilus Atkinson rode on horseback from Bethelsdorp every Sunday to take the services until such time as he was appointed resident minister in 1830. The chapel was located on the corner of Victoria and Chapel streets and the congregation comprised an admixture of White and Khoi nonconformists. A school was also later operated from the premises.

Khoikhoi

Khoikhoi

Next to nothing is recorded about the initial black settlements in Port Elizabeth itself especially in the early years except that these peripatetic bands of Khoi – previously referred to as Hottentots – were roaming in the area. None of the early explorers record fixed settlements. The arrival of the first settlers was to change that as they required workers specially to unload and reload ships.

Initially the Hill was an impediment to the establishment of a white residential area south of the ridge. Beyond the perimeter of this residential area, a separate settlement for the Khoikhoi, known as the Hottentot Location was established. In 1834, the Colonial Government made a grant of land to the London Missionary Society [LMS] at the top of which would ultimately become Russell Road. It was large enough to provide for a “burial ground” and a residential area for “Hottentots and other coloured people who were members of the LMS Church.”

With the establishment of this, the first formal black residential area in Port Elizabeth, the principal of Locations for the indigenous people was established in Port Elizabeth. The only matter for dispute would be the site of the Location.

The amaMfengu arrive

After their defeat by Shaka, the Zulu king, the amaMfengu moved southwards. Due to their lack of integration into the Xhosa, they eventually ingratiated themselves to the British during the Sixth Frontier War of 1834-1835. It was only now that the non-Khoisan amaMfengu entered the Cape Colony in large numbers. As the Khoi were found to be indolent and unreliable, they were rapidly supplanted by the Mfengu who had been granted the right to reside south of the Fish River. The Mfengu were the opposite of the Khoi in every way – industrious and reliable – and without the Khoi’s penchant for imbibing excessive amounts of liquor. As Jon Inggs highlights in his revelatory thesis on the development of the Port Elizabeth harbour, the Mfengu’s productivity not only precluded the use of other black tribes but he illustrates that instead of their rate of pay declining with the influx of black workers into the area, it rose steadily, far exceeding that of the general labourers. In a separate blog, this issue is addressed. The resultant wages were usually set aside for the purchase of cattle.

The Patchwork Shawl by Dorothy Kay (South African 1886–1964)

 

Distribution of non-whites in Port Elizabeth in 1884. Source: G.J. Nel, M.A. Dissertation, UPE, 1987

Stranger’s Location
Source: G.J. Nel, M.A. Dissertation, UPE, 1987

The initial non-Khoi black settlement was established at the top of Hyman’s Kloof, today’s Russell Road, and would initially only have comprised amaMfengu as no Xhosas were permitted to reside south of the Fish River at that stage. A Wesleyan Mission Report of 1840 provides an estimate that there were over 600 amaMfengu resident in Port Elizabeth, most of whom were beach labourers. According to Gary Baines, a report in an 1840 edition of the Graham’s Town Journal, it mentions that these amaMfengu resided in four separate areas viz on the hillside above the town, near the landing beach and in two villages in opposite directions from the centre of town. It is interesting to note that GJ Nel in his dissertation fails to mention the latter three localities and only alludes to a “Fingo Village” at the top of Hyman’s Kloof. This area was ideal from a settlement perspective as it was in close proximity to a permanent water source as there was ready access to the springs at Cooper’s Kloof. As the amaMfengus’ beehive huts lacked gutters and tanks, they were unable to harvest water in the same manner as the Settlers.

Richmond Park was the burial ground for the residents of Strangers’ Location

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

Local government

Finally local government in Port Elizabeth was occasioned by the establishment of a Board of Municipal Commissioners in 1847. After the first municipal election in 1848, six of the eight members elected to the board had commercial interests. Between the initial establishment of the Board and 1860, there was unprecedented expansion in commercial wool farming in Port Elizabeth’s hinterland. It was only by the 1860s that the interests of white ratepayers and property developers came to be more strongly represented in the town council. It was now that a conflict of interest arose between these competing interests and hence their views with regard to the residence of Africans in the town. Those with mercantile or shipping interests were heavily dependent upon the availability of their Mfengu beach labourers at short notice whereas, on the other hand, the expanding propertied class applied pressure on Council for the regulation and control of informal African settlements and locations. In addition, they periodically lobbied for the removal of Africans from the path of the westward expansion of the middle-class suburbs.

In terms of Section 27 of the Municipal Regulations of Port Elizabeth, it stipulated that native huts not erected “in such places as shall be appointed by the commissioners” were liable to be removed and destroyed. Furthermore, the proclamation allowed for the establishment of native locations “within one or two miles of the centre of towns or villages.” It was in terms of this Proclamation that the Commissioners chose a site on Richmond Hill adjacent to the “Hottentot Location.” Moreover, it would not have necessitated relocating the residents of “Fingo Village” any considerable distance.

Baines states that “Accordingly, the Board surveyed 144 plots and permitted the erection of “Fingo Style” huts on these sites. Regulations were drawn up for the administration of the Location by a specially appointed municipal committee and submitted to the Cape Government for approval. However the Board was unable to institute its plans for seven years because the central government refused to give its consent to the establishment of the location.”

Strangers’ Location Established

On the 27th June 1855, Governor Sir George Gray formally granted land at the top of Hyman’s Kloof abutting the cemetery for the establishment of a “Stranger’s Location where Hottentots (Khoi), Fingos, (Mfengus) and other strangers visiting Port Elizabeth may temporarily reside.” The origin of its Xhosa name, Emaxambeni, meaning “houses constructed with sugar pockets filled with sand”, is obscure.

In order to reinforce the precondition that this land was designated only for short-term usage, even though the grant made provision for leasing sites, such leases were restricted to twenty-one years.

 

The original land grant for the Strangers Location in 1855

According to Gary Baines, “The Board of Commissioners appointed a Native Strangers’ Location Committee to expedite arrangements for the establishment of the location. The construction of a “model cottage” by the municipality was supposed to provide an inducement to those faced with prospect of removal to utilise the opportunity to improve their living conditions.  Furthermore, Baines noted that “the Mfengu made no attempt to comply with the terms of the removal notice. After the deadline had expired, the Board of Commissioners served further notice that any huts not removed forthwith would be destroyed. But further delay ensued when it was realised that inadequate provision had been made for the relocation of the Mfengu’s huts in the new location. Baines does not state what this “inadequate provision” related to, so one can only speculate that it concerned the Mfengus’ reluctance to relocate to the new Location albeit that it was nearby. Baines does note that “the removal of Port Elizabeth’s African population to the site of the Native Strangers’ Location was eventually achieved with a measure of coercion.”

According to Msila in his book, A Place to Live, contrary to the expectation of the authorities, Stranger’s Location became the permanent home to many blacks. By 1884, there were 1,700 people living in this Location, occupying 177 cottages and 37 huts. If these figures are accurate, that implies that each dwelling was occupied by just under 8 people. On each of these 214 dwellings, a site rent of 30s or 30/- was charged. Unlike the initially segregated accommodation, Stranger’s Location housed as array of different tribes, from Mfengu, Xhosa, Basotho, Zulu to Khoi. Notwithstanding this, one section was referred to as Fingo City due to the number of Mfengus who resided there. For many years, the Mfengus were in the majority in Port Elizabeth but after the ill-advised cattle killing episode, Port Elizabeth witnessed an influx of other tribes but mainly Xhosas. As these tribes became accustomed to one another, much inter-racial mixing naturally occurred.

The Control & Administration of Port Elizabeth’s African Population c1843-1923 by Gary Baines

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)

South End – As We Knew it by Yusaf Agherdien, Ambrose C. George and Shaheed Hendriks (1997, Kohler Carton and Print, Port Elizabeth)

New Brighton, Port Elizabeth c 1903-1953: A History of an Urban Community by Gary Fred Baines [1994, Thesis presented for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of History at the University of Cape Town]

The Control and Administration of Port Elizabeth’s African Population c 1834-1923 by Gary Baines, Department of History, Vista University, Port Elizabeth Campus

A Place to Live: Red Location and its History 1903 to 2013 by Vuyisile Msila (2014, Sun Media, Stellenbosch)

 


3 Comments

  1. Dean this is a wonderful blog and I thank you for uncovering the info. Can’t wait until the book is on the shelves.

    Reply
  2. Very interesting. I am desperately looking for information on the establishment of Walmer township (Gqebera) and when the first houses were built there and why.

    Reply

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