Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fort Frederick

It is fair to say that the origin of Fort Frederick was more a response to political tensions in Europe rather than to local enmity between the Dutch frontiersmen and the Xhosa tribesmen. While the latter upheavals arose as the vanguard of the Dutch boeren [Afrikaans boere] approached the advancing Xhosa tribesmen, the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 had plunged the western world into a protracted period of war. 

This blog traces the fascinating history of Fort Frederick from its inception until the present time. 

Main picture: Fort Frederick dated 12 March 1905

Historical background

The whole Napoleonic era was fraught with danger for both the Dutch and the English. Owing to the fact that the French had a presence in the Indian Ocean in the form of two island colonies – Bourbon and L’lle de France, latter day Reunion and Mauritius, both the Dutch and the English East India companies were apprehensive about the French would take control of the Cape Colony. This cause for concern arose due their anxiety regarding the potential loss of their sea routes to the east.

When the revolution itself spread to Holland, the Stadtholder, Prince William of Orange and his family took refuge in England. The Prince requested that the Governor and the military authorities in the Cape must surrender control to Britain when the naval contingent arrived in Table Bay. Even though this was ultimately achieved, the burghers, especially in the interior, wanted independence from authority of any kind.

Prince William of Orange

Prince William of Orange

During September 1795, formal transfer of control to the British was effected.

In order to improve control over the eastern part of the Colony and to prevent any French interference in the region by supporting the restless burghers of Graaff-Reinet, on 2nd March 1799, the British government landed troops in Algoa Bay from the HMS Star and HMS Hope. In addition, Brigadier General Thomas Pakenham Vandeleur came overland from Cape Town with more troops. In order to create some fortifications against a possible landing, the troops built an extemporised fort in the form of an earth redoubt. The location of this fortification was on Ferreira’s Farm at Papenkuilsfontein, latter day Cradock Place. Quite obviously this fort must have been given a name even if it was an informal one, Ferreira’s. Much later, it was accorded the name “Star Fort” by which it is now known, but this name was definitely not used during this period.

With the Eastern Cape in turmoil, in May 1799 the Khoikhoi utilised the opportunity to restore their independence and territorial rights. It has been a long time coming but the Khoikhoi attacked the Dutch farmers in the area between Graaff-Reinet and the Zwartkops River. The Xhosas under Chungwa also took advantage of the situation by launching attacks against the Dutch boeren who began to flee the district. Finally, in August the Xhosas invaded along the Fish River.

Sensing the tensions along the eastern border, on 19th August 1799, the HMS Camel set sail for Algoa Bay. On board was a wooden blockhouse which could accommodate 50 men while 30 artificers were on board to erect it. On 10th August both Khoi and Xhosas attacked the Star Fort and captured livestock which was subsequently recaptured. The Fort was strengthened with a breastwork. The blockhouse was erected near the mouth of the Baakens River and was armed with two 3-pounders.

HMS Rattlesnake (1822)

HMS Rattlesnake (1822)

Before the erection of the blockhouse was complete, a French frigate, the “Preneuse” entered the Bay under Danish colours and exchanged fire with the sloop HMS Rattlesnake and the storeship HMS Camel. The masts of the Camel were damaged and the quartermaster and the carpenter were killed. It was the troops at Star Fort which saved the day for the English vessels. As the British ships were hopelessly outgunned by the Preneuse, the HMS Rattlesnake and the HMS Camel were at risk of being sunk. By moving their puny guns from the Fort to the seashore and engaging the French frigate, the French vessel gained the impression that there was a formidable shore battery. Under this mistaken impression, the Preneuse left the Bay. Later, it was sunk off Mauritius when her true identity became known.

Taken into use

On 6th January 1800, Major General Dundas, Commander of the troops in the Cape, reported in a letter to the Governor, Sir George Yonge, that peace had been restored and that in light of the unsettled nature of the frontier, he would be establishing a permanent military post there. Taken into consideration was the fact that anchorage was excellent, water was available and there was shelter from the prevailing westerlies, though not from the south easters. These however were not prevalent except for three months of the year.

View of Fort Frederick, Algoa Bay, 1803 by Willem Bartolome Eduard Paravicin

Major General Dundas

Major General Dundas

The stone fort which Dundas had constructed was completed in February 1800. Perhaps to curry favour with his superiors, Dundas sycophantically named it Fort Frederick after the Commander of the British Army, Frederick, the Duke of York. It was overlooking the best landing place on this stretch of beach and was armed with two 8-pounders. On the 20th February, now back at the Cape, he reported further to the Governor. He described the new Post as a “Block House and Stone Redoubt furnished with Canon and a Garrison consisting at present of 300 men under the command of a Field Officer”.

Major Edward Lemoyne, Vandeleur’s successor, of the Royal Artillery was the first Commander. A 5.5 inch howitzer which is mentioned as being landed there is probably the “old gun” shown on a map of 1844 on the hill behind the Fort. Regiments stationed at the Cape at this time, and from which troops were sent to this area, were the 61st, 81st, 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) and the 8th Light Dragoons. The Dragoons, stationed everywhere, were Dundas’ main aid in holding the Colony together and assisted the farmers as well.

Monument in St. Paul's cathedral to Major General Dundas

Monument in St. Paul’s cathedral to Major General Dundas

A few days later Dundas replied in writing to a number of questions posed by Yonge. Regarding the Fort, he wrote, “the utmost that has ever been expected is that the Troops left there may be able to preserve themselves against any internal Foe, and against any external one, so far at least as to oblige him to come in force as nothing like a coup de main can carry the works erected or erecting there, and to be able to carry this Post, an Enemy must land some heavy guns; a matter of difficulty in face of our troops upon (the best of times ) a beach  where there is always a pretty considerable surf.”

Furthermore he added that it was intended to stockade the Fort and dig a fortified ditch around it. Because the work had not been finished yet, the final costs could not be given, but as all the final materials had been “procured for nothing on the spot,” there would only be the cost of labour and tools.

It is not possible to state precisely which men built the Fort as the garrison stationed at the blockhouse comprised men from multiple Regiments. Besides the 8th Dragoons, the 61st, 91st & 81st Regiments were there, as well as two other Regiments and Artillery.

With the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, the Cape was handed over once again to the Batavian government. Included in that hand over was the Fort. Dundas removed the garrison at the Fort on the 19th September 1802.

Before the arrival of the Batavian troops at Fort Frederick, the missionaries DR van der Kemp, Read and the Khoi who had been on Botha’s Farm, were attacked. They were forced to take refuge in the Fort. The new Batavian Governor and Military Commander, Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens, granted them the farm “Roodepan” which was renamed “Bethelsdorp.”

Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens

Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens

During this brief respite and peace, the Fort was visited firstly by Janssens and his party in 1803 and then in 1804 it was visited by Commissary-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist and his party, which included his daughter, Augusta,  and Dr Heinrich Liechtenstein. The new District of Uitenhage was proclaimed by Janssens and named by him on 25th April 1804.

The succeeding troops to be based at the Fort, was the Waldeck Regiment on 18th April 1803 under Major Carl von Gilten. They relieved Thomas Ignatius Ferreira who had put in charge in the interim. Von Gilten’s successor at the Fort was Captain Ludwig Alberti also of the Waldeck Regiment, a unit of German mercenaries. Its Commander wrote two books about his experiences, one about the trip aboard a Dutch troopship which has only recently been translated into English and the other, according to Margaret Harradine, containing a panoramic view of the settlement and a plan of it.

Amongst Captain Alberti’s other responsibilities was being appointed the first Landdrost of Uitenhage. Prior to this Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth fell under the District of Swellendam. An Aide de Camp to Governor Janssens, Captain WBE Paravicini di Capelli, painted a view of the Fort and the moth of the Baakens River which depicts the stockade, the barracks, the storehouses and the Commander’s house.

Commissary-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist

Commissary-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist

War broke out again. In March 1806, the British retook the Cape replacing the Fort’s Commander with Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler, an American of Dutch extraction on 14th February 1806. In addition,  he was also appointed the provisional Landdrost of Uitenhage. He held this position until April 1817, when he was appointed Landdrost and Captain Francis Evatt assumed command of the Fort.

On 6th October 1812, Sir John Cradock, Governor of the Cape Colony, wrote to Colonel Torrens, military secretary to the Duke of York, Commander in Chief of the British Army, requesting him to put in a word about the establishment of a permanent force in Algoa Bay. He suggested that a garrison be formed for the “exclusive use of this settlement” to be composed of old soldiers already at the Cape, who would be stationed at Fort Frederick. The cost of the establishment of such a garrison would be partly offset by not having to provide the men with passage home. According to JB Scott, this proposal was never adopted.

In fact, on 15th February 1813, Torrens replied that the Duke of York was in favour of the formation of a Garrison Company of the “invalid soldiers belonging to the Regiment stationed there” and added that aside from “the military benefits arising from the formation of a stationary corps, considerable advantage may attend the measure, as an introduction to British settlers.” It was recommended that a complement of 150 men commanded by a Captain, two Lieutenants and an Ensign be stationed at Algoa Bay.

During 1813, the Royal Garrison Company, formed specifically for Fort Frederick from soldiers already in the Cape, was established. There new officers were commissioned: Captain Francis Evatt, Lieutenants William Slater and Martin Fleischer and Ensign William Gardner. Returns of troops serving at the Cape were compiled regularly. An entry dated 25th August 1813 lists the 113 men of the Royal Garrison Company as being stationed at Wynberg. They must have been transferred to the Eastern Cape shortly thereafter as the entry of 25th April 1814 states that there were 140 men stationed at Algoa Bay. Four months later, the Company of 141 men included 10 sergeants, four trumpeters and drummers. The Cape Almanac of 1814 lists the officers of the Royal Garrison Company, along with those of other regiments.

General Sir John Cradock, K.B. & K.C.

General Sir John Cradock, K.B. & K.C.

The estate Chelsea was granted for the use of the officers stationed at the Fort on the 8th February 1815. A piece of land next to the vlei on the hill – present day Trinder Square – was also granted to them for use as a garden. This land was later ceded to the Rev Francis McCleland who, in turn, sold it to Alfred Jarvis.

Up to 141 men formed the company until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

The existence of the Royal Garrison Company at Port Elizabeth was short-lived. By 1815, the Napoleonic Wars were over, and the British Government was anxious to reduce the cost of maintaining a large military contingent which was by then stationed at the Cape. There was no longer a need for a strong military presence at Algoa Bay as men could be seconded from those doing their tour of duty at the Cape.

The Return of Troops in the Cape Almanac for the subsequent year shows that as at the 25th December 1816 that only 135 members of the Company are based at Algoa Bay. By April 1817, the contingent is listed for the first time amongst the frontier posts, which would seem to suggest that the attention of the colonial government was now no longer focused upon foreign invasion but rather on the possibility of further incursions by the Xhosas along the unsettled frontier.

The Fort Frederick gateway and ramparts with a British soldier in uniform standing at the gateway

The Fort Frederick gateway and ramparts with a British soldier in uniform standing at the gateway

The Fort Frederick gateway and ramparts with a British soldier in uniform standing at the gateway

As the Return of 25th June 1817 makes no mention of the Royal Garrison Company, it must be assumed that it has been disbanded in the interim.

Captain Francis Evatt

Captain Francis Evatt was born in Ireland in 1770; his father who had been a Captain in the Monaghan militia was killed at the Battle of Ballinahinch in County Antrim, Ireland, during the rebellion of 1798. Francis as mentioned earlier arrived in the Cape Colony in 1806 with the 21st Dragoon Guards and served together with his brother for a number of years on the frontier. In 1817 he was appointed as Commandant of Fort Frederick at a salary of 90 pounds a year a post he occupied until his death.

What is probably best remembered about Captain Evatt is the assistance and concern he showed towards the 4000 British settlers that arrived in 1820 some 24 years later at a public dinner to commemorate the landing of the settlers, one of the first settlers to arrive a Mr. John Centlivres Chase paid a moving tribute to his kindness. By 1825 Port Elizabeth was fast becoming an area of increasing importance and the Governor decided that a higher official power to be resident was necessary. Captain Evatt was appointed “Government Resident” whose function was to preside over court proceedings.

John Centlivres Chase

John Centlivres Chase

Captain Evatt was proud of the growing town and guarded its best interests as best he could and was very prominent in its development. In the census of 1823 records show that Port Elizabeth had a population of 73 men, 30 women, 44 boys, 33 girls, 75 employed Hottentots, 64 slaves owned and 9 Prize Negroes in service under Captain Evatt. The Captain was also instrumental in ensuring a place of worship was built in the town and he headed a list of subscribers with a donation of 100 Rix dollars (in those days equal to his monthly salary). It was Capt Evatt that laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Church on behalf of Governor Lord Charles Somerset in 1825. In 1926 he was protesting against revenues collected in Port Elizabeth being used in Uitenhage for the benefit of those residents, rather than for the development of the port.

Captain Evatt for many years lived in a house near to the army commissary post and was only to marry late in life, to a widow, Anne de la Harpe from Uitenhage, the wedding took place on December 2 1831. Captain Evatt died on the 21st March 1850 after a brief illness and was given a military funeral that was conducted by the Rev A Robson in the Congregational Cemetery in Russell Road.

Tombstone of Francis Evatt now in the porch of St Mary’s Church

Tombstone of Francis Evatt now in the porch of St Mary’s Church

His tombstone now in the porch of St Mary’s Church bears the following epitaph

Sacred to the Memory Of
Captain Francis Evatt
Late 21st Light Dragoons

34 years Commandant at Fort Frederick, Algoa Bay. He died on the 21st march 1850 aged 80 years, having served his country upwards of half a century, 38 years of which he was resident in this town. The British settlers were landed under his superintendence and treated by him with every kindness and hospitality, he found this port a military outpost and lived to see it become the second commercial town of the Cape of Good Hope
This tomb was erected by his friends

Francis left behind a wife, two children, son and daughter, named Henry and Margaret, of his son there are no records but Margaret died in England a mere two years after her father. Mrs Evatt died aged 87 in Graaff – Reniet

Capt Evatt is considered by many to be a founding father of Port Elizabeth; “If not the founder of the town at least present at its origin”, In 1956 his remains were moved to a grave just outside the Fort, a Street in Richmond Hill was also named after him.

Biographies of the four officers

All four of the officers – Evatt, Slater, Fleischer and Gardner – were numbered among the sixty six men of the Royal Garrison Company who remained in the Cape after the dissolution thereof.

Captain Francis Evatt

Captain Francis Evatt

On 4th April 1817, Colonel Cuyler was succeeded as Fort Commander by the well-known Francis Evatt who was now appointed Captain but on half pay. He was described as being from “the late Garrison Company.” Evatt came to the Cape in 1806 with the 21st Light Dragoons, having previously served in Ireland. Upon the dissolution of the Royal Garrison Company, Evatt remained as resident Commandant of the Fort, a post which he held until a few years before his death in 1850. According to Margaret Harradine, “it is probable that with the dissolution of the Company, Evatt was granted sole use of Chelsea estate. He was buried in the Congregational Cemetery in Russell Road. When he died, it was said that Francis 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 the history of his doings were the history of Port Elizabeth. It had no separate existence from him.”

Of the other three officers of the Royal Garrison Company, very little is known. William Slater had been a quartermaster with the 83rd Foot Brigade and served in the Cape from 1806. From a family perspective, he was married and his two daughters were baptised in Cape Town. In 1815, he applied for a large grant of land in the Baakens Valley. This was the same lot known as Rufane Vale that was later granted to Captain Moresby. Home for these officers was probably Uitenhage in which Slater purchased a house in 1818. One of his daughters, Mary Anne, married Hermanus Johannes Berry, son of an early settler, John James. They had a son, born in 1836, who was christened William Slater in memory of his grandfather. Slater, like Evatt and Gardner, were each granted an erf in Main Street, but this lot and that of Gardner, was allocated to others in 1820.

Fort Frederick in early 1900s

Fort Frederick in early 1900s

The other officer, Martin Fleischer, like William Slater had also been a quartermaster but in the 21st Light Dragoons prior to be commissioned in the Royal Garrison Company. Ironically, his wife was also named Mary and their son was baptised in Cape Town in 1807. According to Margaret Harradine, Martin Fleischer was a founder member of the Uitenhage Turf Club in 1815. Sophia Pigot records in her diary that she met a Miss Fleischer from Uitenhage in 1820. Thomas Phillips also records that he met the family when he visited the town. Phillips describes Fleischer as a widower retired from the army with five children, of whom the eldest, John, had been made an Ensign in the Cape Corps. A daughter, Margaret, married the then young teacher, James Rose-Innes, in 1823 and both are buried in St. George’s Park Cemetery.


William Gardner, Ensign in the Royal Garrison Company, and later Lieutenant, married Johanna Magdalena Oosthuizen, widow of Jacobus Andreas Rudolph. She married Gardner, himself a widower with children, in Uitenhage on 24th February 1817. The marriage could not have been successful because in November 1818, Gardner advertised that he was not responsible for his wife’s debts. Five years later, William Gardner was given permission to leave the Colony on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. The innumerable land transactions relating to South End and Humewood which mention the “widow Gardner”, thus refer to the former Miss Oosthuizen/Mrs Rudolph.

Later years of Fort Frederick

As a possession of the British Army, the Fort was examined and reported upon. It is evident from the reports that once the Bay was no longer part of the frontier of the Colony that the Fort had been allowed to decay.

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The report of 1827 showed that the Blockhouse by the river was being used by the authorities as a prison. The supports for the two eight-pounders had rotted and the guns themselves were sent back to England in 1873. Furthermore, the upper floor of the blockhouse had gone. The stout little powder magazine, capable of holding about 2,000 pounds of powder, was still in use. The blockhouse was being used as a prison with constables housed in the guardhouse. The ancillary buildings were also in dreadful disrepair and most were uninhabitable and irreparable.

Amongst the final Fort Commanders were Captain James Elphinston Robertson of the 6th Royal Regiment and Captain Richard Hill Rocke of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, were family men whose wives and children lived with them.

Until 1862, the Commandant of Fort Frederick at the time was listed in the annual directories, the last mentioned being Captain Charles P Cobbe of the 13th Regiment. After 1862, there were no further Commanders. The Cape Blue Book for 1868 lists the military buildings as unoccupied.

Fort Frederick

Finally, on 7th November 1889 the Fort and part of the Military Reserve was transferred to the Municipality. Notwithstanding this, when the need has arisen – as during the two world wars and the Anglo Boer war – it has once again seen military service.

In March 1931, representatives of the Historical Monuments Commission, the forerunner of the National Monuments Council, visited Port Elizabeth and saw the fort and other buildings. later the City Council discussed repairs to the Fort and the cleaning and better laying out of the grounds. It was handed over to the Parks Department, who laid out paths. Seven old ship’s cannons were collected from various street corners and mounted on the walls of the Fort. In 1936 it was proclaimed a National Monument.

In 1956, the remains of Captains Francis Evatt were reinterred at a spot outside the Fort and the original slate tombstone was place on the porch of St Mary’s church.

Much has changed since those halcyon days. The Military Reserve has been built over, the Baakens River is now only a narrow channel without a lagoon, the sand dunes below the Fort have been replaced with buildings and roads and the waves no longer break close to the Fort.

Commanders of Fort Frederick


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

The Royal Garrison Company by Margaret Harradine in Looking Back March 1989

Fort Frederick 1799-1999 by Margaret Harradine in Looking Back October 1999




  1. Dean lovely article and photographs. Have you heard the story about the Royal Engineers production of Hamlet that if proven be the first Shakespearian production in the Southern Hemisphere? Also the relocation of Francis Evatt’s remains to the fort.Did you know the barracks of the Fort was next to the Baakens River?

    • Hi Alan, Thanks a million for the kind comments. The short answers are no, yes and no. Just a comment as regards the photographs. While there are hundreds of photos of the Town Hall going back to the 1850s, the oldest photos that I can find were taken in 1895. Secondly, I wonder why the barracks were next to the Baakens River as the troops would not available at a moment’s notice

  2. Thank you Dean. I thoroughly enjoy reading all your posts. Most interesting.
    Do you perhaps remember or know what was the name of the British destroyer or aircraft carrier that entered Algoa Bay around 1958? I recall watching Naval Maneuvers from the sand dune at Millers! My dad was ex Royal Navy. The guns near ‘Barnies’ (that were there) and on Brookes Hill were used (I think). I have never been able to find any reference to this! Thank you again xx

    • Hi, Sorry. I am unable to assist you as it is too recent! Ironic isn’t it. Anyway in 1958 I was only 5 years old & I certainly did not read newspapers at that stage


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