Port Elizabeth of Yore: Harbour Operations before Jetties

Landing through the surf in 1866

Until the 1870s, PE harbour possessed no jetties. By implication, the passengers and cargo had to be transhipped onto tiny surf boats for onward transport to the landing beaches. At the shore, the people were carried ashore on the shoulders of the Mfengus much to the distress of the females. In spite of this clumsy and archaic method of operation, Port Elizabeth rapidly processed more exports than its sister port, Cape Town.

 This blog is a verbatim extract from the unpublished notes of Mr. C.G.H. Skead written in 1939

Main picture: Surf boats in Algoa Bay in the 1860s

Apart from minor changes, thisblog is faithful to Skead’s original notes. It provides a vivid description of the process by which cargo and passengers were ferried from vessels in the roadstead to the landing beach between the present day Jetty Street and the Baaken’s River.

The landing beach circa 1867

The landing beach circa 1867

Cargo was discharged into flat bottomed lighters carrying about 40 tons, which sailed to buoys floating beyond the breaking surf. They would pick up the buoy which was fastened to an anchor further out to sea. From the anchor, a warp was fixed well up the beach, somewhere between the site of the North Jetty and the Baakens River mouth. The lighter picked up the warp, which was then slung fore and aft on rollers, and the lighter then gradually worked shorewards with the scend of the sea. [The scend is the push or surge created by a wave]. From there the natives carried the cargo on their heads to the stores built above the high water mark. This process was reversed when shipping cargo.

 

The surf boats

The surf boats

The falling tide would often cause complications in the course of discharge, leaving the lighter almost high and dry before unloading was completed. Then pulley blocks were fixed to the boat and the warp, with a long rope wove through, and a large number of Mfengu were set to haul it in. As a wave came in and lifted the lighter slightly, the natives would put all their weight on, and usually the boat floated off by degrees. Sometimes the rope broke and the natives all dropped off into the sea, and then the band played! The overseer, (particularly one, a big man, an ex-sailor with a large golden beard), would swear at the boys with all the language he could muster, knocking them about with lumps of coal or a billet of wood, if handy, and finishing up by cursing those of us who were looking on and enjoying his discomfiture.

This method of shipping and discharge was interesting and ingenuous and the speed, with which the cargo was handled both then and later, when jetties were available, was astonishing.

Mfengu offloading imported goods

Mfengu offloading imported goods

 

As surf boats were necessary to take crews to the lighters at anchor in the bay, a fine type of oarsman was developed, able to handle the boats in all weathers. It was magnificent to watch a boat in a S.E. gale or south westerly swell, with a strong tide running. The crew would lie on their oars just outside the breakers, waiting word from the coxswain who would be using a long oar for steering. They would give way together on getting word, bringing the boat in on the crest of the wave, right up to the beach, where men would be waiting to assist. The boatman would then tumble out smartly, sling the boat on long spars, fore and aft, and carry her bodily out of reach of the waves.

 

Mfengu offloading British soldiers

Mfengu offloading British soldiers

The reverse process to get the boat off the beach was equally interesting, and very difficult in bad weather. The boats might then drift down with the current and have to be hauled back southwards repeatedly until a chance lull enabled one to get through the heavy surf. Capsizes happened at times. 

Algoa Bay in 1883 from a watercolour painting by Whately Eliot

Algoa Bay in 1883 from a watercolour painting by Whately Eliot

Until the jetty at the foot of Jetty Street was extended sufficiently to allow passengers and ships’ crews to be landed there, they had to be brought ashore in surf boats and carried to the beach on the backs of natives but that was long before my time. Even when the jetty was available, it was sometimes dangerous. Once my father, mother and brother, Cuthbert, were capsized and thrown into the water. Cuthbert was missing for a time until a sailor saw a foot sticking up and pulled him out. 

The passenger service, afterwards carried out by launches under the control of Schello, and more especially the Messinas, was very efficiently run, and, to their credit, not a single life was lost, notwithstanding that, the trips to and fro were often run at some peril.

Source

Early Days at the Harbour by C.G.H. Skead (Looking Back, March 1864, Vol IV, No 1)


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