It is fair to say that the establishment of Fort Frederick was more a response to political tensions in Europe than to local enmity between Dutch frontiersmen and 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
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 to 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 surrender control to Britain when its 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.
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 had 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.
Due to 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. Meanwhile the blockhouse was erected near the mouth of the Baakens River and was armed with two 3-pounders.
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 carpenter were killed. It was the troops at Star Fort who 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. (This battle in Algoa Bay is covered in detail in a separate chapter.)
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.
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 overlooked 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, Dundas 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.
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 back 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.”
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, were the Waldeck Regiment on 18th April 1803 under Major Carl von Gilten. They relieved Thomas Ignatius Ferreira who had been 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 mouth of the Baakens River which depicts the stockade, the barracks, the storehouses and the commander’s house.
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.
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, with the Napoleonic Wars over, 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 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 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 had been disbanded in the interim.
Biographies of the 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. Evatt’s biographyis available on a separate blog)
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.
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, Evatt and Gardner, were each granted an erf in Main Street, but this lot and that of Gardner, were allocated to others in 1820.
The other officer, Martin Fleischer, like William Slater had also been a quartermaster but in the 21st Light Dragoons prior to being 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, the fort had been allowed to decay.
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 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.
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 placed 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.
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