Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Malay Population of Port Elizabeth

Green or Pier Street Mosque

The one misconception about the Malays in South Africa is derived from the nomenclature “Malay.” In fact they originate from Indonesia. Another erroneous notion is that Malay population only arrived after the British settlers. 

This blog disabuses one of all these fallacies. 

Main picture: Green or Pier Street Mosque

Origin of the Malays in South Africa

The history of the Malays in Port Elizabeth is inextricable linked together with that of the Malays in Cape Town. In fact the story of the Malay population in the Cape goes back at least seven generations and more than 350 years. In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa and the Dutch East India Company brought with them slaves, political exiles and members of the royal family from Malaysia, Indonesia, formerly Java, and other countries. Although the date of his arrival is not known, the Sultan was among them.
Their descendants can still recount how, when the king and his entourage boarded ships to bring them to South Africa, they were forced to leave any personal documentation, religious literature and identification in drums next to the gangplanks.

Oldest Mosque in Long Street Cape Town constructed in 1810

Oldest Mosque in Long Street Cape Town constructed in 1810

Initially the Malays settled in Cape Town, home to the majority of Malays in South Africa, apparently the biggest Malay community outside Indonesia. In 1806, part of this community numbering 89 according to Margaret Harradine left Cape Town to settle in Uitenhage. The pioneer of the Malay community was Imam Jabaarudien, also known as Abdul Maalick or Jan Bardien. Born in 1784, Bardien was the grandson of Sultan Nabier, and he arrived in Uitenhage in 1815 and built the first mosque there, Masjid-Al-Qudama, in the 1840s.

First Malays in Port Elizabeth

From there certain members must have sought better opportunities in Port Elizabeth. Amongst the people living in Port Elizabeth in 1819 is a certain Fortuin (Malay) listed as being a Blacksmith. Even though he probably was only listed due to his prominent status as an energetic and successful entrepreneur, it is possible that other itinerant Malay fishermen were already located in Port Elizabeth.

Surprisingly, Fortuin Weys was so successful that he acquired various properties in the newly established town.

This is what is known about this enterprising person.

Markham's Cove

Markham’s Cove

On page 98 of his thesis on the developed of the harbour in Port Elizabeth, Jon Inggs includes this comment regarding Fortuin:

The only other improvement to port facilities during this period [1820s] was the provision of water to ships by a Malay, Fortuin Weys. He erected a pump and laid pipes from it to the landing beach. Weys by 1834 was described by Thomas Pringle as “one of the wealthiest and most respectable inhabitants of the place”.  He had originally been granted land at Algoa Bay in March 1820. By the time the settlers landed, his house, still under construction, was the second substantial one to be built at what was soon to become Port Elizabeth. He was listed as a blacksmith by Griffin Hawkins in 1822. In time he acquired a number of properties in the town and further afield.

 In January 1839 the executors of the Weys’ estate put up for sale: 29 building lots, 3 other properties, a 6,5 hectare smallholding on the Baakens and a 1013 hectare farm, Doorn Nek, near the Zuurberg – GTJ 3/1/1839 p 1. The Baakens property was known as Fortuins Valley – GTJ 26/3/1840 p 1. As late as 1890 his executors became involved in a legal wrangle over land reclaimed along the Victoria Quay, adjacent to Weys’ land – PEPL Weys’ file.

In his article entitled, “The economic history of the Port Elizabeth-Uitenhage region,” André Müller confirms Jon Inggs assessment of Fortuin as follows:

“But the most famous entrepreneur was a Malay, Fortuin Weys, whose house was among the first to be built in Port Elizabeth, and who became one of the wealthiest residents of the town. 

Pringle recalled in 1834: “On the 6th of June (1820), we assisted at laying the foundation of the first house of a new town at Algoa Bay, designated by Sir Rufane (Donkin) Port Elizabeth, after the name of his deceased lady. In the course of fourteen years this place has grown up to be the second town in the colony, both for population and for commerce; and it is still increasing. Captain Moresby, of the Navy, was the proprietor of the house then founded with much ceremony, and of which our party assisted to dig the foundation. The only other house then commenced, excepting the temporary offices and cabins already mentioned, was one erecting (sic) by a Malay named Fortuin, now, I understand, one of the wealthiest and most respectable inhabitants of the place. As a blacksmith, Fortuin was one of the earliest industrialists in Port Elizabeth. In the 1820s he also improved the provision of water to ships by installing a pump and pipeline which carried water to the beach.”

1841 Distribution of Cape Muslim population in the Cape

Cape Town 6 492
Cape District 400
Stellenbosch 268
Worcester 300
George 100
Uitenhage including PE 150
Albany 50
Swellendam 20
Beaufort West 20
Total 7 800

Early Port Elizabeth was characterized by the settlement of immigrant communities which included European and Cape Malay communities. The diverse community lived together according to economic and social status, rather than on an ethnic basis. However, when the Group Areas Act was legislated in 1960, this resulted in forced relocation under the apartheid law among the non-white population and the townships came into being.

Catering for the Muslim’s spiritual needs

By 1804, the number of the Vryezwarten or Free Blacks, majority of whom were Muslims, had reached such significant proportion that the Dutch rulers changed their policies in order to enlist their support, pending the British invasion of the Cape. They granted religious freedom to the Vryezwarten. Thus on July 25, 1804 the patience and perseverance of the Cape Muslims was rewarded when religious freedom was permitted for the first time at the Cape of Good Hope.


Prior to this, the Cape Muslims, in practising their religion, were severely restricted by the Statutes of India: a set of laws particularly aimed at restricting the religious practices of the Muslims of the Batavian Empire of which the Cape formed a part.

On May 04, 1846 the “Malay Corps” of 250 Cape Muslim volunteers left Cape Town in two boats for the Eastern Frontier because of unrest in that part of the Colony. They remained there until September 16, 1846 when the “Malay Corps” was demobilised after the Battle of Axe in the same year. Those who did not return to Cape Town settled in the Eastern Cape. They were in all probability responsible for the construction of the Uitenhage Masjid together with the initial batch of 89. This was the fourth masjid to be built in the country.


Being highly religious, and Muslim to boot, the nearest mosque and imam for the Muslims residing in Port Elizabeth was in Uitenhage. In accordance with their devout religious beliefs, all the Malays residing in Port Elizabeth were compelled to travel to Uitenhage every Thursday in order to attend the Friday prayers at the mosque. This act illustrated their devotion to their faith which is still prevalent today.

After nearly a decade of trudging from Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage every week, in 1855 the Malay community in Port Elizabeth was eventually able to commence construction of the Grace Street Mosque, the Masijied-ul-Akbar. Furthermore a Malay burial ground was granted adjacent to the St. Mary’s cemetery in the lower Baakens Valley. Illiquidity brought the construction to a halt. The building work was rescued when the Sultan of Turkey donated the money required to complete its erection.

Mosquew in Caledon Street Uitenhage in 1955

Mosque in Caledon Street Uitenhage in 1955

As the majority of Malay community, mainly fishermen, lived in the Strand Street area, yet another Mosque was built within a short distance of the Grace Street Mosque. In those days, prior to the construction of the Victoria Quay, Strand Street abutted the sea shore. The first imam of this mosque was Aboo Rafie and the architect was F.M. Pheil. Again the Sultan of Turkey contributed to the construction of a mosque in the amount of £500. The Strand Street Mosque was officially opened on the 1st June 1866. Thirty four years later in 1900, this narrow site was sold on behalf of the Muslim Community and the mosque was demolished the following year.

Grace Street Mosque

Grace Street Mosque

South End

Originally, the entire area that is now known as South End was once part of a farm called Papenbietjiesfontein. In time, it was given to the municipality and, shortly thereafter, the bulk of it was divided into plots and sold to the Malays. Before long, the flourishing community of South End started to develop. The earliest Cape Malays who had helped to establish the community here were not noteworthy in themselves. However, as a people, their role as pioneers and their devotion to the Islamic faith were of the utmost importance. These early pioneers maintained the religious practices of the Cape and these have passed down over the generations regardless of where their descendants chose to settle.
Again travelling distances to pray at the mosque were problematic. To overcome this hinderance, on the 4th September 1893 plans were put forward to construct a mosque in South End itself. After agreement was reached, a mosque called Masjied-ul-Abraar was built in Rudolph Street. It now faces Walmer Boulevard as all the old South End Streets had been obliterated.

This mosque was in turn unable to handle the number of worshipers in less than a decade, so plans were afoot to construct yet another mosque in South End. On the 27th July 1901, the Pier Street Mosque, Masjied-ul-Aziz, was opened.


On the 10th November 1915, the Humphries Street Mosque, the Masjiedun Nabawi, was opened.

The Rudolph Street Mosque one of the few buildings that were left intact after South End was demolished

The Rudolph Street Mosque one of the few buildings that were left intact after South End was demolished 


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)

Jon Inggs, “Early Port Elizabeth harbour development schemes, 1820-1855”, South African Journal of Economic History, 6(2), 1991, p 41

Thomas Pringle, Narrative of a residence in South Africa, London, 1824, p 21

E.J. Inggs, Liverpool of the Cape, unpublished MA Thesis, Rhodes University, 1986, p 98


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