Port Elizabeth of Yore: Early Black Settlements

These settlements were never called suburbs or townships but colloquially they 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 Mfengu 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

Early informal settlements

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. 

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 men had been sent on a mission to the Cape but were turned back at Algoa Bay.

Cradock Place

Cradock Place

May of the same year 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

Very little is recorded about the initial black settlements in Port Elizabeth itself especially in the early years except that that peripatetic bands of Khoi 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 especially to unload and reload ships. As the Khoi were found to be indolent and unreliable, they were replaced by the Mfengu who had been granted 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 due course, a blog will address this issue.

Localities where settlements established

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 black settlement probably arose at the top of Hyman’s Kloof, today’s Russell Road, and would only have comprised Khoi as no Xhosas would permitted to reside south of the Fish River at that stage. This situation was about to rapidly change following the Sixth Frontier War of 1851. In recognition for their services to the British, the Mfengu were allowed to settle in the Colony and therefore did not require passes. A number of these moved to Port Elizabeth where they found work on the beach landing loading cargo onto and from surf boats, work which had previously been performed by Khoi. The resultant wages were usually set aside for the purchase of cattle.

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.

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

At some stage, further black settlements were created in Port Elizabeth. These Locations were Cooper’s Kloof, at the top of Albany Road, Gubb’s Location on Gubb’s property in Mill Park and the Reservoir Location at the top of Mount Road.

Cooper’s Kloof Location was created during the 1860s by the spill over from the Stranger’s Location and ultimately was recognised as a separate municipal location in 1877. The Reservoir Location off Mount Road was established by the municipality in 1883 with its vernacular name being KwaNtamobomvu, literally “place of the rooinek”, possibly denoting that an Englishman may have previously owned the land.

On the 4th February 1863, Thomas Witheridge Gubb, owner at the time of the Mill Property, was granted permission to have Xhosas build huts on his land. Ultimately it would become the largest privately owned location in Port Elizabeth. It was known by its predominately “blanket” population by the far more descriptive name of KwaMpundu, literally “place of nakedness.” Though Gubb sold the land in 1867, the appellation, “Gubb’s Location” stuck. The land was later owned by the Mill Park Estate and Loan Company.

Russell Road-Stranger's Location

At Stranger’s Location, the LMS – the London Missionary Society – established a church for the residents. Prior to this, the spiritual needs of the Congregationalists were met by the Union Chapel in town. This was to change. First it was the Congregationalists who would create a church in Stranger’s Location. On 13th February 1875, the foundation stone  of the Edwards Memorial Church was laid. Situated on the corner of Edwards and Campbell Streets, the church was designed by George Dix-Peek and built by the Congregationalists as a mission church for Xhosas, Mfengus and Basutos.

Congregationalist chapel erected in Stranger's Location

Congregationalist chapel erected in Stranger’s Location

The initial chaplain was Roger Edwards who arrived in 1823 but died a year after the church opened. He was replaced by Henry Kaiser. With the relocation of the inhabitants of Stranger’s Location to New Brighton in 1903, this church was largely unused. In order to accommodate the former congregants of this church, a new church, the Edwards Memorial Church, was constructed in New Brighton. In 1921, the Dutch Reformed Church purchased the building and in 1948 a new tower was built and extensive alterations were carried out to plans by Jones and McWilliams.

Union Chapel in Chapel Street. Completed in May 1828. Rev Adam Robson in charge from 1832 to August 1870

Union Chapel in Chapel Street. Completed in May 1828. Rev Adam Robson in charge from 1832 to August 1870

To accommodate the spiritual needs of the other denominations, on the 9th April 1881, the foundation stone of a new Wesleyan Chapel for Black residents was laid in Edward Street. It was opened on 19 February 1882.

In the meantime, on the 2nd October 1881, faction fights had erupted between the Mfengu residing in Stranger’s Location and the Xhosas living on the Mill Property owned by Gubb with the Zulus from Stranger’s partially involved. As news of the fighting spread through the surrounding towns, reinforcements for the various antagonists was expected from Uitenhage and Humansdorp. A small force of mounted Volunteers was called up to separate the groups while the Prince Alfred’s Guard was put on standby. Calm was restored without the need to involve the troops.

Race Course Location

The possible relocation of the residents of these four Locations was mooted prior to the turn of the century when the PETC discussed the whole scale removal to a new combined Location – The Race Course Location. At these meetings, the PETC acceded to a number of requests by the location dwellers. Amongst these was that even though the existing site holders or occupiers in the municipal locations did not hold title to their lots, they would be granted title in their new Location. Moreover the PETC even agreed to compensate the residents for their old dwellings.

Progress on this proposal was stalled on account of the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War.

Russell Road in 1867

Russell Road in 1867

Plague as pretext for Relocation

The ostensible reason that set in motion a train of events resulting in the relocation of the black residents from their traditional locations, was bubonic plague at Gubb’s Location. On 13th April 1901, rats infected with bubonic plague were found in mielie [corn] sacks on Harbour Board property. Immediate steps were taken to rectify the situation which resulted in the appointment of a Plague Board on the 23rd of the same month. Various members were appointed and these included the Colonial Secretary who came to Port Elizabeth to discuss the situation with the Council.

Despite free inoculations being provided, Sergeant Pegg, would had been working on the Military Stores depositing grounds, died at the Base Hospital on the 20th May, becoming the first victim. By the 1st June, there had been five fatal cases. Dr David Rees of London, on expert on tropical diseases was brought out, first to Cape Town and then to Port Elizabeth to spearhead the fight against the disease.

Russell Road with the cemetery on the right

Russell Road with the cemetery on the right

Whatever the actual reason, the decision had been taken to relocated the residents of all four locations. What followed was duplicity and deceit on a grand scale. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Port Elizabeth recorded 105 cases of bubonic plague in 1901 with 21 being of whites and 84 blacks. The disease was more prevalent in certain wards of the town than in the locations. When the first case was reported, the Colonial Secretary mooted the possibility of a single location being established outside the town under government supervision. Location residents endorsed the proposal at a public meeting.

Apart from having greater faith in the bona fides of the Colonial Government, the central state had greater resources at its disposal. Needless to say but when the plague never reached epidemic proportions, the Colonial Government prevaricated whether to assist the Town Council in resettling the location residents. Evidently the Mayor sardonically quipped that they should cultivate the plague to prevent government procrastination. Rather, this is evidence of the forerunner in municipal complicity in underhand moves to forcibly remove blacks from white Port Elizabeth.

Russell Road 1902-Jacob Kohler's factory on the right

Meanwhile the Plague Board embarked on a campaign to eradicate the disease. Conflicts of interest arose where Councillors who were themselves “slumlords,” hindered the demolition of dwellings declared unfit for human habitation and even though merchant stores infested with rats were the probable breeding ground for the disease, there were no municipal regulations to enforce fumigation of these premises.

What became evident, was the disproportionate actions by the Plague Board against White and Black dwellings. Few White dwellings were condemned or expropriated by the Council. In contrast, location residents complained of personal harassment, arbitrary inspections and the destruction of homes without prior warning. In the end, demolished houses numbered over 325 were in the town proper and over 950 in the locations.

Population from 1855 to 1911

The clamour to remove the existing locations in the towns was fuelled by unreasonable white fears that they posed a threat to public health. In this they were thwarted due to the Plague Boards not being empowered to evict people from properties not condemned as insanitary nor could they order the wholesale destruction of Locations. The removals are contemplated by the authorities was enabled by the passage of the Native Reserves Location Act of 1901 which permitted mass evictions and slum clearance.

Establishment of New Brighton

The establishment of New Brighton was facilitated by the Colonial Government’s purchase of the farms known as Cradock Place and Deal Party for the sum of £20,000. The choice of these areas was based partly upon the fact that the land was deemed to be unsuitable for industrial purposes or for white residential development. The factor that they did not weigh in the decision making process were the fact that as this Location was eight kilometres north of the town, it would negatively impact upon travelling time which was largely by foot. Equally important for the Council were the unstated issues of residential segregation and social control of the town’s African population. However the decision was partially informed by public health care concerns as New Brighton was outside the municipal boundaries.

Original Huts in the Red Location circa 1990

Original Huts in the Red Location circa 1990

On the basis that the principle of freehold title to the property had already been agreed in the case of the Race Course Location, the residents expected an undertaking that this condition would apply equally to that of New Brighton.

What is illuminating for me, is that the black residents of Port Elizabeth had demanded title to their property over a century ago, a right that the white residents were automatically granted. In this quest, they would be sorely disappointed being frustrated at every turn.

Suffice to say, that ultimately, the relocated residents were treated as tenants of their new property. Rather than paying off a loan, they paid a rental. Furthermore as New Brighton was outside the municipal boundary, the residents were not subsided in any way as regards services.

Burning of huts in Stranger's Location in 1903

Burning of huts in Stranger’s Location in 1903

Eviction

Eviction notices were served on location residents by the Police. Stranger’s Location, which was situated on prime real estate, was earmarked as the first site to be cleared of its residents. A number of these residents moved to New Brighton before the deadline had expired on the 1st June 1903. Most residents remained until evicted and all the huts in Stranger’s Location were cleared and razed to the ground during June. Cooper’s Kloof suffered a similar fate three months later. The Expulsion Notice issued to residents of both locations stipulated that they should proceed to New Brighton. As the Native Reserves Location Act applied to the municipality itself, the authorities did not have the means to force those Blacks, who relocated to Korsten and other areas on the periphery of the town, into New Brighton itself.

Relocation from original locations

Relocation from original locations

Private locations within the PE Municipality were also subject to the provisions of the NRL Act. The syndicate which owned Gubb’s Location sought to exact compensation from the Government for the loss of income. This was dismissed on the basis that they had already made enormous profits from their tenants and on account of the fact that additional amounts would be secured on the sale of the site. The authorities commenced relocation in June 1903. As with the municipal locations, few of the residents of Gubb’s Location moved to New Brighton. Many owners of huts chose to dismantle and re-erect them either in Korsten or even in the Reservoir Location.

Red Location-British soldiers unloading building material

Red Location-British soldiers unloading building material

Ultimately, most residents “voted with their feet” by moving to Korsten instead of New Brighton. By the end of 1903, the population of New Brighton was 2,125 which fell far short of the projected figure of 6,000, whereas more than twice that number had relocated to Korsten.

The shameful saga was behind them. The residents might forgive but they would never forget. Those flames would surge yet again many times over the succeeding ninety years. They might well have received political freedom in 1995 but they did not receive one thing more precious.

Freehold title to their property which their forefathers held so dear.

Red Location today

Red Location today

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]


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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