Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Harbour prior to the Charl Malan Quay

With the expansion of industry in Port Elizabeth, the need to enlarge the port had by the 1920s become pressing and urgent. Up until then, goods and passengers had  to be loaded onto lighters at sea which then conveyed them to a tiny jetty known as North Jetty. What was proposed was to convert this jetty into a quay able to accommodate large ships alongside it. 

Main picture: Landing through the surf

A Mutiny and a Memorial

In the slow unfolding of history during the course of four centuries, everybody should pay tribute to those great Portuguese sea captains, Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama. For these men did infinitely more, the one by accident and the other by intent, than casually sail into the Bay. They set the pace for an age. Above all, they inspired the Age of Discovery.

Vasco Da Gama

It was Diaz who first tempted fate when in August 1486, he set sail for India via Africa. Diaz’s bold adventure was terminated in Algoa Bay when the spirits of his crew – the lesser men – failed them. They mutinied and numbers prevailed. Diaz was forced to retreat back to Portugal but not before he had planted the sixth Cross on a puny islet not far off the coast in Algoa Bay. This island still bears the name of St. Croix, Portuguese for Cross.

St Croix Island is the largest of 3 islands located in Algoa Bay

St Croix Island is the largest of 3 islands located in Algoa Bay

Ten years thereafter, Vasco da Gama would decisively shift the fulcrum of sea power from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic seaboard. Da Gama would use the island of St. Croix to rest his men and to refill his water beakers en route to India.

From now onwards, the chronicles of the adventurers and sea farers would frequently make mention of Penedo das Fontes, an alternative name for St. Croix which was frequently used by the galleons as a resupply point for water. Not all of these stop-overs were incident free. On the 24th March 1594, the galleon Santo Alberto met its fate when it was driven ashore with great loss of life.

A Spanish Galleon

A Spanish Galleon

Before the turn of the 16th century, the Portuguese had already reached the zenith of her sea-power. Her flags were being steadily but ineluctably being supplanted by those of the Dutch, the English and the French.

In his circumnavigation of the globe in 1577, Drake placed the English at the forefront of this emerging era of English dominance.

English troops and ships

After the waning of Portuguese sea-power, Algoa Bay was largely forgotten. Yet other eyes were fixed on it. Not the sea this time, but the land. With the trekking of the Dutch pastoralists ever inland and eastward, clashes with the black tribes north of Algoa Bay became inevitable. Britain had also staked its claim to the Cape Colony. in 1789, British General Vanderleur was already ensconced in a make-shift fort built on the heights overlooking the most advantageous landing place on the yellow sandy coast: the mouth of the Baakens River.

Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur by William Salter

Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur by William Salter

Vanderleur required reinforcements. To this end, two ships, “Hope” and “Star” were to convey these troops to Algoa Bay. On 8th March 1798, the troops were landed. A month later, the H.M.S. Rattlesnake  also entered the Bay and offloaded a landing party.

Naval Battle

A year later the Rattlesnake was again in the roadstead with her consort, H.M.S. Camel when a strange flag appeared on the horizon. She flew the Danish flag but to the British captain it looked suspiciously like a French frigate. Indeed it was the La Preneuse intent on planting the tricolour on this sandy and desolate coast, Commander imbued with “l’audace toujour l’audace” [Audacity always the audacity]

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HMS Rattlesnake (1822)

HMS Rattlesnake (1822)

The only recorded naval battle in Algoa Bay was now about to commence. The English ships were at action stations before sunset with their muzzle-loaders primed and hempen hawsers – a thick rope or cable for mooring or towing a ship – from their quarters onto their anchor cables. Broadsides from the Rattlesnake and the Camel rained down on the La Preneuse. After making a spirited reply and intent only on survival, the French frigate slipped its anchor to escape to sea before daybreak. Seen hull down heading fir Bird Island the next morning. The English had been victorious but it had not been an exciting fight.

Bored with the inactivity in the blockhouse of Fort Frederick, in 1810 its commander, Captain Evatt reshuffled his priorities from waiting for war to the advocating and coaxing trade. Chiefly the traders sought the Mauritius market whence in 1812, 230 sheep and 32,000 lbs of butter were shipped by the Pohl family of traders. In addition barrels of salted beef  and whale oil are also exported. On the strength of this trade, a petition for the establishment of a Customs House was sent to Cape Town.

Captain Francis Evatt

Captain Francis Evatt

The era of the Settlers   

In 1820, the first of the Settlers were to land on the shore close to the mouth of the Baakens River. Landing from The Chapman, the only civilisation visible was a dozen dwellings and a few mud huts around the Residency.

For the following twenty years, the history of the port was inextricably linked to Captain Evatt who became a jack-of-all-trades.

In 1826, Port Elizabeth was proclaimed a free port. It was now open to foreign trade and the required dues were paid to the Customs Officer.

The surf boats

The surf boats

Without a jetty of any description, for the first twenty years subsequent to the Settlers’ arrival, Port Elizabeth did not possess a harbour of any description. The method used to offload goods and passengers on the shore was the crude method of using surf boats. Instead of using this primitive method, the need for some form of jetty was paramount in order to cater for the increasing trade. Finally on the twentieth anniversary of the arrival, William Lloyd laid the foundation stone for the first jetty. The Port Elizabeth Jetty Company with John Thornhill as engineer commenced the building of this jetty at the bottom of what became known eponymously as Jetty Street. The reason for this precise location had nothing to do with the fact that the first settlers from the Chapman had landed there, but rather due to the more mundane reason that a wrecked ship, Feejee was used as the base of the jetty.

The breakwater circa 1866

The breakwater circa 1855

It was not be in service long. Two years later in August 1843, Port Elizabeth experienced a strong gale. During this squall, no less than four ships broke anchor with two crashing into the Jetty, destroying it.

Using a basket to lift passengers from the surf boat to the quay

Using a basket to lift passengers from the surf boat to the quay

By 1854, no less than 148 vessels had been anchored in the Bay whereas 210 vessels were recorded representing 45,081 tons and £ 80,000Customs Duties. Up until 1854, cargoes had to be landed surf boats either directly onto the beach or on the early wood pile jetties. Then in 1856, the first breakwater was built south of the Baakens River under the supervision of Matthew Woodifield, government engineer and Alfred George Warren, the Harbour Board Resident Engineer. Within less than a year, an unforeseen factor this plan: silt.

The landing beach circa 1867

The landing beach circa 1867

By February 1866 both the breakwater and the “shield” were complete. Silting had been a concern from the outset and after the flooding of the Baakens in 1867, the breakwater became unusable and had to be demolished in 1867.

The failure to establish a smooth water protected harbour at the Baakens River mouth was a crucial event in the history of the port.

19th century photo of a steam locomotives on the jetty

19th century photo of a steam locomotives on the jetty

Notwithstanding the fact that many harbour schemes were being considered at this time, the Consulting Engineer, Sir John Coode and Inspecting Harbour Engineer, Charles Neate, both agreed that the top priority had to be the construction of a Jetty as this was the most pressing need.

sir-john-coode

The wooden structure was completed in April 1872 and widened in 1873 at which stage a report refers to it as Barkly Jetty after Sir Henry Barkly, the British Governor. This name never gained traction. Forever it would be known as the North Jetty.

In 1880, the building of a replacement iron pile jetty was begun and this, with later extensions and another approach, served until the harbour was constructed in the early 1930s.

The North Jetty

The North Jetty

By itself, the North Jetty was insufficient to serve the needs of the expanding trade. This requirement was met in July 1884 with the completion of the South Jetty. The iron pile jetty was recommended in 1879 and construction commenced in 1882 according to a design by Sir John Coode. It was extended in 1894.

The Titan Crane

The Titan Crane

Progress was less than pedestrian in the construction of a new breakwater. After years of procrastination, on 2nd November 1922, the first block of the replacement breakwater was laid by the Minister of Finance, Hon. Henry Burton KC. For this purpose, a 360 ton Titan Crane was shipped to Port Elizabeth for the purpose of lowering the concrete blocks at the Dom Pedro Jetty site. The outer works scheme had been sanctioned 8 years previously in 1914 and, even though the need for a deep water harbour was desperate, progress was painfully slow. There were to be many difficulties before the harbour became a reality.

The South Jetty and the Dom Pedro Jetties circa 1906

The South Jetty and the Dom Pedro Jetties circa 1906

A passenger tender

A passenger tender

Aerial view of the Port Elizabeth harbour immediately prior to the construction of the Charl Malan Quay

Aerial view of the Port Elizabeth harbour immediately prior to the construction of the Charl Malan Quay

 

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Source:

Commemorating the Official Opening of the Charl Malan Quay

Port Elizabeth: The Social History to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave

 


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