Port Elizabeth of Yore: Islands in the Bay

Algoa Bay contains six named islands in two groups of three. These islands are of considerable importance as they are the only islands along a 1,777 km stretch of coastline between Cape Agulhas and Inhaca Island in Mozambique. The combined surface area of these islands is said to be 40 ha ie 99 acres. 

Close inshore, near the new Ngquru harbour development at Coega, on the north-eastern outskirts of Port Elizabeth, is the St Croix group, consisting of a main island of that name and two lesser islets, Jahleel Island just off the Ngquru breakwater and Brenton Island on the seaward side. The second group consists of Bird, Seal and Stag Islands. All six islands and their adjacent waters are declared nature reserves and form part of the Addo Elephant National Park. The islands are closed to the public.

Initial discovery

After the long slumber known as the Dark Ages, Europe started to awake in the fifteenth century. The Age of Discovery was about to commence. This was predicated on the discovery of a passage to India and the Spice Islands in the east. Columbus sailed west and Portuguese explorer, Batholomeu Dias sailed south with his puny fleet of three ships. They departed from the river Tagus in their native Portugal.

As the bearing was ever southward, the hopes of the sailors turned to nightmares. Eventually after sailing in a southerly direction for seven months, they now veered eastward much to Dias’ relief. Dias’ voyage was the culmination of various previous attempts at finding a sea route to the east and its lucrative trade markets. Sailing into the unknown was always treacherous. The sailors’ fears were not restricted to hidden reefs but also to magical demons. Fortunately none of the fleet came to grief on Thunderbolt Reef as they sailed past the Cabo da Roca – Cape of the Rocks – into the Baia de Roca – the Bay of Rocks.

Bartolomeu Dias

The southern littoral was covered with sands dunes. Somewhere along this stretch of coast, Dias briefly unloaded the last of the African women that they had brought with them in order to act as tribal ambassadors, leaving her ashore where two women were collecting shellfish.

Dias’ men were exhausted, disgruntled and in a mutinous mood. No inducement would amend their resolved to return to their far-off homeland. All that Dias could achieve was to agree to return home if after a further few days of sailing without success, they did not reach India.

They forlornly upped anchor and sailed along the coast dominated by huge white sand dunes. Lying at sea opposite a high, wooded sandstone headland, now called Woody Cape, lay a flat, windswept group of islands around which   rough seas broke. Dias christened this group of islands Illhas Chaos – flat or level islands – today’s Bird Islands.

It was at the mouth of the Rio de Infante –  the Great Fish River – , named by Batholomeu Dias in honour of the captain of the second caravel, Infante, that the reluctant decision to perform an about turn was given. Shortly afterwards, in sight of Bird Island, Dias was to plant his final padrão – a stone pillar with a cross at the top – at the easternmost point of their voyage. Dias christened this headland Penedo das Fontes, now known as Kwaaihoek.

Heading south towards the other trio of Islands, they anchored in the lee of the largest. Here a party rowed to shore in order to celebrate mass. Once again, a wooden cross was raised before returning to the caravels. To this tiny island, Dias recorded the name Ilheu da Cruz: St. Croix.

Portuguese caravels

Bird Island

Of these six islands, only one is of any significance: Bird Island. For this reason, a lighthouse was constructed upon it. Sizewise the island is puny measuring some 800 x 630 yards and at its highest point above sea level it is only some 33 feet. To the north lie two small islets, Seal and Stag which are connected at low water to their larger sibling. To the west lies Black Rock, home to thousands of seals while three kilometres to the south west lies Dodington Rock, yet another danger to shipping.

No water is available except that which collects in rock pools or in a large tank found on the island. Of the three types of plant type endemic on this island, only the dune spinach is edible.

This vegetable is grown in the guano, and which covers a part of the island. It is very much like ordinary spinach, and it is eaten by those on the island.

Bird Island is still the resort of thousands of sea-birds, principally penguins, and what they call here the malgass, but which is very much like the gannett, or sea-goose. These birds make their nests in the guano, and sit together in one large flock, covering the greater part of the island. Anyone attempting to go among them, stands a chance of having his legs ripped open or scratched, for while the female bird is sitting on her one egg, she is very vicious. She sits on the nest for the duration which is about five weeks, and her food is brought her by the attentive male bird. When the young chicks are old enough to fly, they are taken away by the old birds in large droves. It is presumed that they go to sea, for they do not return to the island for approximately three months.

Tetragonia tetragonioides – Dune spinach

The penguins are a curiosity to look at, with their little flappers, with which they are very active in the water. It is astonishing how fast they can run. When they are pursued, they always make for the water, because when once they are there, they are safe. One would think at night that there were thousands of donkeys let loose upon the island, for the noise which these birds make is very much like the braying of that animal. The eggs of both these birds were eaten by the light keepers and those who visit the island and are very wholesome, and not unpalatable.

There is a large quantity of guano, which in some parts is as deep as 4.3m. There is an abundance of shells, but not a particle of sand or earth of any kind. There are a large number of seals, on one of the rocks, called the Black Rock. They are seldom disturbed, except by parties who visit occasionally for guano.

The Doddington

It was to be another 67 years in 1755 before these islands were again visited, this time involuntarily. The Doddington was an East Indiaman of the British East India Company (EIC). She made two trips for the EIC to Bombay, China, and Mokha. On her third trip she was sailing to India to be located there permanently. Seven weeks after sailing from Dover on 22nd April 1755 bound for Ford St. George in India, the Doddington rounded Cape Recife. At 1am on the 17th July 1755 she struck the rocks off Bird Island and wrecked. On board was a hoard of gold belonging to Clive of India. These ingots lay there until modern treasure hunters looted them. The resulting controversy over these depredations ignited a campaign to institute changes to international maritime treaties in order to better protect underwater cultural heritage.

The Doddington

According to Wikipedia, “Of the original crew and passengers of 270, only 23 initially survived while the other 247 passengers and crew died with the ship. The castaways subsisted for seven months on fish, birds, and eggs on an adjacent island, which they named Bird Island. One of their number, a carpenter, was able to assist them to build a sloop, The Happy Deliverance, on which they were finally able to get off the island on 16th February 1756. The sloop was seaworthy enough to take the survivors on an eventful journey up the east coast of Africa via St Lucia and Delagoa Bay, where the survivors sold her before travelling on to India. Captain Norton Hutchinson, now captain of the East Indiaman Carnarvon, took them on board and carried them to Madras.

 Exploiting the islands

Another lengthy period of 67 years of peace for the birds and seals of these islands ensued. The arrival of the 1820 settlers would change that situation abruptly and permanently. In 1822, the Deal Party was provided with official permission to exploit the seals on St. Croix Island while Frederick Korsten began exploiting the colony on Bird Island.

A gathering of Jackass penguins on Bird Islands

It was only in the 1840s that the value of the previous valueless guano was realised. These bird droppings were a natural fertiliser and as such fetched up to £28 per ton on the London market. Initial reports on the quality of Bird Island’s guano were favourable. A flurry of applications to harvest this rich resource was made. In May 1844, a local entrepreneur, John Own Smith, was adjudicated as the successful bidder for a lease on the island. This bonanza was shortlived. As future shipments included large quantities of inferior fossil guano, Owen was only able to sell this at £7 per ton in Mauritius. Undeterred by treacherous sea conditions, these guano ships plied their trade. In November 1845, fate had been tempted too often when the schooner Charles came to grief whilst loading.

Workers busy bagging guano for shipping to the mainland circa 1880s

Original lighthouse

After yet another tragedy, this time by the British brigantine, Norfolk, on Seal Island, the provision of a light on the island was hotly debated. After much discussion, the Cape Governor in 1851 agreed to the erection of a wooden lighthouse upon Bird Island, for the benefit of vessels going in and out of Algoa Bay. It was a rather rickety, four-sided square lighthouse was constructed on its highest point being 23 metres above sea level. It was a rather curious-shaped-looking building as seen from the sea. Two fixed white lights were mounted in different positions in the tower whilst the tower was a pyramidal-shaped building, with a projecting landing or platform, upon which each of the lanterns was fixed. It had been noticed for some years past that this building was fast going to decay. It was built of wood, the framing part of which was connected with iron bolts; the iron seemed to be very much affected by the action of two salts, one arising from the water, and the other from the ammonia of the guano.

Bird Island’s original wooden lighthouse that served as home to keeper Isaac Newton’s home for almost two decades

It came into operation on 1st December 1852 under the control of the lightkeeper, William Isaac Newton. Newton, formerly a carpenter, was accompanied by his wife, Louisa, and their two young children, Jessie and Isaac was paid an annual emolument of £80 per annum plus a food allowance of £20.

At best, living conditions could be described as bleak and harsh. The atrocious weather and the lack of drinking water let alone sufficient water for cooking and washing were compounded by the paucity and late delivery of provisions, often crawling with weevils and maggots. Even more depressing was the unbearable loneliness.

The signal lamp was fuelled by either seal or whale oil which was delivered in casks. Often it was rancid even before it reached the island. On other occasions it smoked so badly that “it dimmed them beyond usefulness”. Furthermore, the heat from the flames regularly caused the glass mantles to break, resulting in leaking lamps. Within a week of operation, one lamp was out of order and three mantles had broken. Within short order, Newton was forced to resort to using ordinary household lamps and in desperation even to using candles which must have been less than useless.

This building has been demolished, and close to where it stood, a new and more substantial building has been erected.

A permanent lighthouse is constructed

In 1871 the Colonial Government granted the money for this work. At once drawings were prepared for the permanent lighthouse with the contract being signed in November of the same year. However the work upon the island did not actually commence until March, 1872. The trenches for the foundations had to be blasted out of the hard rock base and the foundations themselves were formed of heavy rough stones, built with mortar made from coarse shells, shell lime and driftsand which was grouted between every large stone and at each course. A guard was fitted to the west side window of the tower to protect it from being damaged by low flying gannets (malgas). (Williams, 1993:27-8)

Bird Island in 1894

The whole of the work would have been completed by the end of that year had it not been for the delay which occurred  in procuring the lighting apparatus and other ironwork done in England. Nonetheless it was so far finished by the 1st of May that the new light was exhibited for the first time on that day. It is a fixed red light, of the Third Dioptric order, the height of which is about 24,3m above the level of the sea and was visible for approximately 19km.

Bird Island

According to an article in Artefacts, the whole of the work has been carried out according to the drawings. The tower is 60 ft. (18,2m) high from the level of the rock to the focal plane, or centre of light. It is a square building, quite perpendicular, showing on its north and south sides four circular apertures, which are connected with each other by a recess formed in the work, and a large moulding forming the whole into a cross, which is intended as a day mark; on the east and west side there is only one aperture. 

Bird Island lighthouse and crew’s quarters in the 1890s

The parapet is finished in the form of battlements, with small coved recesses under the cornices. The outside of the tower is coloured gray or light stone colour. The inside of the watch-room and cleaning-room is fitted with cupboards and other fittings to hold the different articles required for the establishment. The whole of the inside fittings are [constructed] of teak and mahogany, and varnished. 

All the lighting apparatus, as well as the iron watchroom, lanterns, iron floors, girders, and stairs were supplied by Messrs. Chance Bros., of Birmingham. Besides the tower, there are two cottages (which are connected on each side with the lighthouse) for the use of the light-keeper and his assistant. The greater part of the buildings have been constructed with the stone found upon the island, and painted outside and plastered inside. The arches are of brick and cement, which had to be transported to the island.

The roofs of the cottages are covered with slate, and provision has been made for preserving the water, which is a very scarce commodity at times. To each keeper’s quarters an under-ground tank, holding about 2,000 gallons (9,092l), has been constructed, and a 400-gallon (2268l) iron tank has also been supplied to each house.In connection with the establishment, a flag staff and signal-house have been erected, so that the light-keeper can communicate with passing vessels..

The lighthouse on Bird Island in the 1870’s. The foreground shows the rocky nature of the island. In the middle distance a crude stone-built structure, probably a lime-kiln

The works were carried out under the superintendence of Mr. Joseph Flack, of the Colonial Engineering Department. The cost of the work is understood to be about £7,000. Mr. B. Godfrey of Cape Town, was the contractor for the whole of the work, except for the parts supplied by Messrs. Chance Bros.






Lighthouses of South Africa: Pocket Edition by Gerald Hoberman ( 2011, The Gerald & Marc Hoberman Collection; Cape Town – London – New York:. pg 89-91)

Southern Lights: Lighthouses of Southern Africa by Harold Williams (1993, William Waterman Publications, Cape Town: pg 25-31)

Algoa Bay – In the Age of Sail (1488 to 1917) by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)


New Lighthouse, Bird Island, Cape Town by G. Godwin  (1873. The Builder, Vol. 31. London: Publishing Office No. 1. (p702))

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