Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Centlivres Chase – Father of the Eastern Cape

Often spoken of as the “Father of the Eastern Cape,” John Centlivres Chase, friend and son-in-law of Frederik Korsten, one of Baillie’s Party aboard the Chapman, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, he was one of the most prominent and influential settlers of the early town of Port Elizabeth. 

Despite setting foot initially on the sands of Algoa Bay, Chase’s southern African odyssey would not begin in Port Elizabeth. But that is where it would end, after an adventure filled life during which he contributed substantially to the body of knowledge about his adopted homeland.

Main picture: John Centlivres Chase

Early Days

It is foolish to make predictions what may befall one onthe road less travelled, but Chase would never have expected the pain and anguish he experienced on the journey out to Algoa Bay as a married man of twenty-four years. In the Bay of Biscay, when he and his young wife, 20 year old, Arabella Broom Elliott, had to come to terms with the death of their infant daughter, Louisa, their first child.

What conditions were like for the settlers on board ship
What conditions were like for the settlers on board ship

Their voyage had commenced on 3rd December 1819 from Gravesend, Kent and would terminate on the 10th April 1820 when they disembarked from the Chapman which had sailed into Algoa Bay the previous day, the first of the 21 Settler ships to reach its destination. There to greet them was the ship H.M.S. Menai and its captain, Fairfax Moresby. Upon arrival, John Centlivres Chase, who would later become the second husband of Maria Korsten, described the landing in almost apocalyptic terms: “Our first impression of the country at which we had at length arrived, was anything but cheery. From the deck of our vessel, we descried a coast lashed by angry breakers threatening, we feared, death to a large portion of our numbers. The shore was girt with an array of barren sandhills, behind and close to which appeared a series of rugged and stony acclivities, and in the distance behind these, the dark and gloomy range of the Winterhoek mountains frowned upon us.” In spite of Chase’s gloomy prognostications, the settlers were landed without mishap.

John C. Chase was born in 1795, the son of George Chase and his wife, Elizabeth Matilda Centlivres. He became secretary to a British Emigration Society in 1819. Upon his arrival with the 1820 Settlers, he was granted land near Uitenhage and between the two Kleinemonde rivers, east of Port Alfred. But his efforts at farming were unsuccessful. In 1825  he joined the Cape Civil Service as accountant for Albany, stationed at Grahamstown. From December 1826, he was vendue-master for the Albany District until the post was abolished at the end of 1827. A vendue-master is someone who is authorised to sell any property by vendue. In modern-day parlance, he would have been classified as an auctioneer.

Interlude in Cape Town

Tragedy once again struck in the Chase household. This time it was his wife who died at the tender age of 30 while at the Kowie in August 1830. John Chase decided to settle in Cape Town where he was promoted to a senior position in the customs department. In 1834, he was also appointed as a special justice under the Slave Emancipation Act. Chase left the public service in 1835 and became a leading figure at the commercial exchange in Cape Town.

Early view of Port Elizabeth
Early view of Port Elizabeth

Back to the Eastern Cape

In 1837, Chase returned to the Eastern Cape and was admitted as a Notary Public in that same year.

Initially requiring accommodation in Port Elizabeth, in 1837 he was instrumental in building a house in Market Square which was later converted into the Phoenix Hotel by Edwin Henry Salmond.

Here John remarried. His second wife, Maria Johanna Charlotta, was the widow of Commissary-General Damant and the only daughter of Frederik Korsten of Cradock Place. This was probably Chase’s entrée to becoming a partner in the whaling and sheep farming business of Frederik Korsten, near Port Elizabeth. Cradock Place became the Chase family home, probably on Frederik Korsten’s death on 16th June 1839. As a notary and merchant, Chase was a leading citizen of Port Elizabeth for the next ten years.

Cradock Place
Cradock Place

The Chases had four more children, one of whom, George Chase, was the Collector of Customs at Port Elizabeth. His home called “Glamis” was in Western Road. All the Damant and Chase children were brought up at Cradock Place as one family and nobody was allowed to discriminate between them as Chase insisted that they be treated as equals. Frederik Korsten Damant, as the eldest son of Maria and grandson of Frederik Korsten, was heir to Cradock Place, and twelve of his fourteen children were born there.

Cradock Place
Cradock Place

Upon coming of age, George Chase was prevailed upon by his mother and stepfather, John Centlivres Chase, to renounce his right to inherit Cradock Place. Chase’s logic was that the Cradock Place property should be sold, and the proceeds divided equally between the three families as this would be more equitable. George willingly accepted this proposal. Consequently, the beautiful Cradock Place with all its historical associations would pass out of the hands of the Chase family.

Sir Henry Young
Sir Henry Young

In 1847 Sir Henry Young was appointed to the Lieutenant Governorship of Grahams-town.  In that year, Chase would again join the civil service, this time as secretary for the Eastern Province. When his post was abolished the following year, he became civil commissioner and resident magistrate of the new division of Albert, at Burgersdorp. His efforts led to the founding of Aliwal North in May 1849. From that year until his retirement in 1863, he was civil commissioner and resident magistrate at Uitenhage.

Cartography & exploration

In May 1831, Chase became a member of the South African Institution, the first general scientific society in southern Africa. It is fairly common knowledge that John Chase was secretary of the Society for Exploring Central Africa but less well known was his contribution to advancing cartographical knowledge of the region.

In June 1825 Chase and another settler, James Collins, undertook one of the earliest trading expeditions to Klaarwater (Griquatown), the London Missionary Society’s station beyond the Orange River. This journey seems to have given rise to his insatiable curiosity relating to the geography and cartography of southern Africa. From that time he actively collected information from all available sources on the exploration of the subcontinent, though he did not participate in further exploratory travels himself. Thus in 1828 he obtained, via H.F. Fynn, the papers of Dr. Alexander Cowie and the merchant Benjamin Green, who had died during their return from a trading expedition to Delagoa Bay. He also obtained the journal of two traders, Robert Scoon and William McLuckie. They were the first colonists to visit the Matabele Chief Mzilikazi during their journey from Griqualand West to Mozambique from June to August 1829. His paper on their journey was published in the South African Quarterly Journal (Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 402-407) in 1830. At this time, Chase was collecting information on all travels into the interior undertaken from the Cape of Good Hope.

Cradock Place
Cradock Place

A copy of his sketch map for that work was sent to Viscount Goderich in London in February 1831. The information on this map was included, without Chase’s permission, in a map of South Africa published in London in 1834 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and thereafter also used by others. Chase objected strongly to this plagiarism. Meanwhile his notes on these travels were published under the title “An account of the progress of geographical discovery in the African continent made from the Cape of Good Hope” in the South African Quarterly Journal. He also compiled a Map of the eastern frontier of the colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which was published by John Arrowsmith in London in October 1836. It included statistical notes on the colony for 1833. A copy of the second edition (1838) of this rare map was donated to the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, in 1899. He submitted to the government a sketch of the mouth of the Great Fish River in 1844, a sketch of the mouth of the Buffalo River in 1846, and a plan of the harbour of Algoa Bay in 1868.

Cradock Place
Cradock Place

Chase was elected a member of the council of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution in July 1833. He was joint secretary of the Institution from 1835 to 1838, and a member of its Statistical Committee. He was also involved in founding the Cape of Good Hope Association for the Exploration of Central Africa in Cape Town in 1833, by members of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution. The intention was to organise and finance an expedition, led by the zoologist Dr. Andrew Smith, to explore the interior of southern Africa. Chase was a member of the provisional committee charged with establishing the association, and was joint secretary of the Association during its early years. He was also secretary of the committee that drew up the instructions for the expedition in June 1834, and was re-elected as a member of the Association’s new management committee in 1836. He remained a member of the committee until about 1848.

Already in September 1833, he had produced a map of the whole of southern Africa up to the equator, for the use of the expedition. It was up to date and showed the routes of many former travellers. Areas about which nothing was known, including most of present Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho were blacked out.

Plan of Cradock Place

Chase as author

In 1843, Chase published an important historical work in Grahamstown and Cape Town: The Natal papers; a reprint of all notices and public documents connected with that territory, including a description of the country and a history of events from its discovery in 1488…. Another work of his, published in London the same year, was The Cape of Good Hope and the Eastern Province of Algoa Bay…, which was edited in London to support an emigration scheme. The map accompanying this work showed the routes of several explorers, including that of Piet Retief to Dingane’s kraal. Curiously, none of Chase’s maps depicts any of the exploratory travels of Dr. Andrew Smith, and it seems that the two did not see eye to eye.

John Centlivres Chase

In 1869, he contributed an account of the history of the Cape between 1820 and 1868 to a book co-authored with Alexander Wilmot titled, History of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope.

The Final Years

After his retirement, Chase was elected as the member for Port Elizabeth of the Cape Legislative Assembly (1864-1865), and then as a member of the Cape Legislative Council for the Eastern Divisions (1866-1875). He was a leading advocate for a separate government in the Eastern Cape.

Public affairs made insistent calls on Chase and he felt duty bound to respond to them. Together with Paterson, Fleming and Godlonton, they vociferously advocated independence for the Eastern Cape fearing that the interests of the Western Cape would take precedence in any decision-making. Once diamonds were discovered at Kimberley, these fears evaporated, and the movement collapsed.

1885 Cradock Place photo from Panorama of Port Elizabeth by E.K.Lorimer
1885 Cradock Place photo from Panorama of Port Elizabeth by E.K.Lorimer

As a member of the Legislative Assembly, he rendered excellent service to Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Province in general. His volumes of history and occasional articles to the Press from his pen, kept the people informed of the steady progress that the Province was making in spite of initial failures and unsuccesfull experiments.

John Centlivres Chase passed away at Cradock Place on 13th December 1877, his death being hastened by the shock of an accident in which he and his wife, Maria, were thrown out of a carriage. 



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

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

John Centlivres Chase, geographer and cartographer by P.R. Kirby (1968,  Africana Notes and News, 1968, Vol. 18, pp. 135-161)

Mapping South Africa in the mid-nineteenth century: the cartography of James Centlivres Chase by Elri Liebenberg

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