Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Khoi and San – The First Inhabitants

During the mid-1700s, as the Dutch farmers pressed ever eastward, the only other humans they encountered were bands of itinerant Khoikhoi. Even Bartolomeu Diaz in his squat wooden caravels had in 1488 noticed them in spite of their sparse density. The footprint of this nomadic people was light and easily erased. Never settling in a location long enough to leave an imprint, their influence was ephemeral. 

This peripatetic people, who left no trace of their existence, were the first people in what would become Port Elizabeth.

 Main picture: Statue of Dawid Stuurman


According to Wikipedia, the Khoikhoi (updated orthography Khoekhoe, formerly also known as the Hottentots) are the traditionally nomadic pastoralist non-Bantu indigenous population of southwestern Africa. They are grouped with the hunter-gatherer San under the compound term Khoisan.

The Khoikhoi, originally part of a pastoral culture and language group to be found across Southern Africa, originated in the northern area of modern Botswana. This ethnic group steadily migrated southward, eventually reaching the Cape approximately 2,000 years ago. Khoikhoi subgroups include the Namaqua to the west, the Korana of mid-South Africa, and the Khoikhoi in the south. Their husbandry of sheep, goats and cattle grazing in fertile valleys across the region provided a stable, balanced diet, and allowed the Khoikhoi to live in larger groups in a region previously occupied by the San, who were subsistence hunter-gatherers.

Encounter with the Black People

The Khoisan had roamed freely over the southern regions of the African continent millennia before the arrival of either the Bantu advancing from the north or the whites settling in the south. It was during the 3rd century AD that the advancing Bantu encroached on the Khoikhoi territory, pushing them into more arid areas. There was some intermarriage between migratory Khoi bands living around what is today Cape Town and the San. But the two groups remained culturally distinct, as the Khoikhoi continued to graze livestock and the San to subsist on hunting-gathering.

Encounter with Bartolomeu Diaz

The first encounter of this people with the white men from the north was surprisingly in 1488 during Diaz’s attempt by the Portuguese to find a passage to India around the Cape. In his excellent book, “Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail: 1488 to 1917, A Maritime Story,” Colin Urquhart imagines that a wizened 40-year old man whom he names Old Cacadu, with “sun-dried, wrinkled brown skin” bearing “testimony to his great age” watches the arrival of “two strange-looking apparitions with very large, squat brown bodies and great outstretched wings”. Urquhart depicts Old Cacadu wondering “if such things had been known before to his people, surely they would have been spoken of in the stories passed down by his ancestors or depicted in the many paintings left on the walls of caves in the surrounding hills.”


This was a fictitious encounter with the Portuguese conjured up in Urquhart’s fertile imagination, but it might well have been true for these furtive people were the Khoisan, the first inhabitants of what would become Port Elizabeth. What may have confrmed its veracity is the fact that future generations are aware that Bartolomeu Diaz had noticed two females on the shore collecting shellfish. Because of this sighting, he released the last of what he referred to as his “tribal ambassadors”, or African women, close to where the other two women were spotted. These “African women” whom Diaz had abducted on the southern Cape coast, were in all likelihood not black females but in fact Khoikhoi women.

It would be these Khoikhoi people who would have had the first contact with the Dutch settlers and not the Bantu people.

A Khoi leader is born

Left: Dawid Stuurman circa 1773

Chief Dawid Stuurman was born around 1773, near the Gamtoos River outside Port Elizabeth. During this period, the Khoi and the San were dispossessed of their traditional lands. This occurred not in the sense that their land was demarcated into plots and fenced off, but rather in the sense that their mobility was restricted whenever people of European descent obtained land, either through government grants or due to usurping land as they advanced ever eastward and northward. It was in this way that Stuurman found himself working for a farmer, Johannes Vermaak, who subjected him to brutal and unreasonable treatment. On one occasion after a disagreement with Vermaak, he tied Stuurman to a wagon wheel, whipped him with a sjambok – a long, stiff whip, originally made of rhinoceros hide – and then left him in the sun for hours. When Vermaak died, several servants including Stuurman deserted his farm.

Khoi Rebellion

In 1799, the Khoi on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony rebelled. During the ensuing war from 1799 to 1802, hundreds of Khoi left their employers’ farms to rather live amongst the Xhosas. Perhaps due to their exposure to the white farmers, they had become expert shooters and marksmen and it is also claimed by some that they were trained soldiers but how, where and when this occurred cannot be established. It was the Khoi who instructed the Xhosa in the art of marksmanship, but the Xhosas also relied upon the Khoi for the maintenance of their captured weapons. Together with the Xhosas, the Khoi swept from the eastern frontier, through Uitenhage to the Langkloof. In this process they drove many whites from their farms and slaughtered a huge number of their livestock – sheep and cattle – as well as horses. In addition, they captured many guns and destroyed farmsteads and wagons.

During this time, the British were the overlords as Britain had wrestled control of the Cape from the Dutch East India Company in 1795. The British must have rued the day, when they occupied the Cape as their first order of priority was that they had to curtail the rampaging Khoi and Xhosa hordes. In theory, there was nothing to prevent these hordes from extending their reign of terror further westward to the western towns of the Cape Colony. The British solution to this wanton destruction was to lure the Khoi back onto the white farms and servanthood. As a quid pro quo, they pledged protection and better treatment from the Boer farmers. Instead what the Khoi really wanted was their freedom to resume their traditional peripatetic lifestyle.

Map of the areas populated by the Khoi and the San

What worked in the colonials’ favour was that, by this time, the Khoi were weary of war. This attitude was understandable given the fact that numerous of their captains and chiefs had fallen during this invasion. At the forefront of the efforts to pacify the eastern border regions, was the Governor, General Jan Willem Janssens, who exhorted the Khoi to lay down their arms, return to the farms and work as servants to the Boer farmers. For many Khoi, it was unthinkable that they would meekly return to their employers. Instead, like many from the Stuurman group, they adamantly refused to return to the farms. In light of this, some elected to remain with the Xhosas whereas others settled at the Bethelsdorp Mission Station, near Algoa Bay.

Change of leadership

With the death of his brother, Klaas, Dawid Stuurman assumed the mantle of leadership of the Khoi. To claim that the Boers were enamoured with this situation, would be a gross misstatement. This was particularly so when the Boer farmers surrounding the Stuurman clan felt threatened. As a consequence, they vociferously complained that the Khoi in the vicinity were in cahoots with the Xhosas and provided shelter and sustenance to bandits, runaway servants and boosdoenders or literally, evildoers. This situation came to a head when Stuurman refused to hand over two Khoi servants who had deserted Boer farmers and also refused to appear before Landdrost Jacob Glen Cuyler in connection with the issue.

The authorities swiftly adopted the principle of quod erat demonstrandum [meaning “what was to be demonstrated” or “what was to be shown”] in handling this situation. They rapidly bore down on the settlement, compelling many of them to return to service and confiscating land and livestock. More importantly they arrested the main instigator, Dawid Stuurman, and three others, and transported them to Cape Town. Kaptein or Chief Stuurman bore other grievances against the authorities now headed by Lord Caledon.  This related to the impressing of young Khoi men into military service.

This young women is representative of Cape Town’s indigenous community and can probably trace her heritage to the original Khoikhoi inhabitants of the Cape.

Banal offence

In 1808, antagonisms flared at Chief Stuurman’s village, an outstation of Bethelsdorp near the Gamtoos River. This discord arose because the Landdrost, or Magistrate, protested that Stuurman declined to fetch his Staff of Office due to banal differences arising with a recruiting officer. The crime recorded on his return from prison was suspicious conduct and living in a kraal near the boundaries of the colony. Without the benefit of a trial, Stuurman was sent to Robben Island, where he was incarcerated.

In December 1809, Stuurman and others escaped, probably using whaling boats, to reach the mainland. Most of the escapees were recaptured, but possibly due to his innate resourcefulness, Stuurman made his way back to the eastern  border. For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and manifestly wrong. Cuyler’s solution was to entice Stuurman from his alliance with the Xhosas. This offer came in the form of promising him grazing, cattle and a peaceful life near Cape Town. Stuurman refused several offers, instead requesting that his wives and children, who were being held in Cape Town, be sent to live with him amongst the Xhosas.

The final nail

For Stuurman, the life as a bandit would inevitably draw to a close. In 1811, it was reported that Stuurman had been seen participating in a cattle raiding party near the Gamtoos River. From this it was inferred that Stuurman had a hand in other crimes in the district. Prior to an era of DNA testing, metallurgical analysis and cell phone cameras, such inferences were the gold standard for determining guilt in such cases.

Khoi leader Dawid Stuurman was born close to the Gamtoos River. Photo courtesy of Looking NW

Landdrost Andries Stockenström of Graaff-Reinet, described him as being “more dangerous than the Kaffirs”. Indeed, Stuurman had transmogrified into a formidable opponent and despite prodigious military efforts, which dislodged many Xhosas, Stuurman and his troops remained at large until 1819, when he was captured again and re-incarcerated on Robben Island and forced to perform hard labour.

In the early 1820s, a convict named Johan Smit overpowered and disarmed a sentry on Robben Island. On freeing others, their objective was to gain access to the armoury. In the ensuing confusion, several soldiers were injured, and one was killed. Once again whaling boats were used in the escape to the mainland, presumably Bloubergstrand. Whaling boats owned by John Murray were seized and a group of thirty prisoners made their way to freedom. The Xhosa prophet, Makana, was in one boat which capsized in the surf off Blouberg. Many including Makana Nxele were drowned. Of the prisoners, fourteen drowned while twelve were recaptured including Stuurman. In addition two were killed by the Commandos and three made good their escape.

As Stuurman had saved the life of Murray’s overseer, John Bryant, Murray gave instructions that Stuurman not be harmed. As punishment Stuurman was sent back to Robben Island for the third time but this time the Colonial Authorities were taking no chances with such a resourceful foe. Stuurman’s ultimate fate would be to be transported to New South Wales in Australia.

Dawid Stuurman’s Ticket of Leave issued when he was allowed to work for his own account in Australia

In April 1823, the convict ship, Brampton, reached Sydney. Among the convicts on board were Stuurman and eleven other South Africans, including another Khoi, Jantje Piet. Stuurman’s wife drew up a petition to King George IV for his release, but to no avail. After six years in compulsory government employment, Stuurman was given permission to work for wages on his own account. On the 22nd February 1830, Stuurman died in the General Hospital in Sydney.

A new master appears

Very little is known about the fate of the Khoi after Stuurman’s banishment to Australia, apart from the fact that Bethelsdorp housed a large number of Khoi. Having lost a fiery leader, it seems that the remaining Khoi passively accepted their fate as servants of the Boer and English farmers.

The final references found of the Khoi are when they provided their services as surfboat workers, transferring cargoes from vessels at anchor in Algoa Bay to the landing beach adjacent to the Baakens River mouth.  In this occupation, the Khoi were viewed in a poor light as they were regarded as indolent and as wastrels. As soon as the Mfengu became available for employment, the Khoi were rapidly replaced by this industrious tribe.

Legacy of the Khoisan

The earliest visitors to Algoa Bay were groups of nomadic Khoisan peoples. Khoikhoi clans in our area were the Damasqua and Gonaqua and they have left some of their place names behind them. The most important of these is Kragga Kamma, which probably means “fresh” or “sweet” water, comparing this valuable lake with the salt pans not far off. In the 1700s this whole area was known as “Kragga Kamma”. The easily-dismantled Khoikhoi huts were made of reed mats over a framework. It is of interest that so many farm names still in existence refer to this, names that include words such as riet, papenkuil, papkuil, paapenbiesje, matjes. Another early name for part of our area was “The Domrie” or “Gomery”. Prof G.S. Nienaber suggests that this may refer to the sewing together with a bone needle of the reeds to make mats. Other familiar Khoi names are Kabega (abundance of reeds) – the name of the streams that form the Baakens River at Frames’ Drift, Kuyga (many euphorbias), Coega (many hippos). Gamtoos (named after the people called Gamtouers), and Addo (drift with poisonous euphorbias).

Ultimate fate

Being a minority, the Khoi were systematically absorbed into the burgeoning Coloured population of the area. As such, only a residual balance of this once proud population still exists as a genetically distinct race having been largely absorbed into either this community or that of the Xhosas.

As such, despite being the original inhabitants of this area, the Khoi have lost their primacy in southern South Africa as a whole and in the eastern Cape in particular. Having once faced the hegemony of the white colonialists, they now face much more implacable foes such as loss of identity through absorption into the Coloured community and the rising hegemony of the black majority. All that this community can expect in recompense, is some tidbits such as renaming a prominent geographical feature in honour of their last famous leader, Chief Dawid Stuurman.

It would only have been through the intercession of fate that they would have retained their former prominence in this region. As Charles Handy would contend in his book, The Empty Raincoat:





This piece of perspicacity would have informed Stuurman that this struggle for independence would be fanciful and fruitless.

But only if he had read the demographic sign posts correctly.


Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)

Pamphlet by the Amakong on Dawid Stuurman

Pamphlet entitled “Motivation for Renaming of Port Elizabeth Airport the Dawid Stuurman International Airport

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)



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