Port Elizabeth of Yore: Piet Retief as Farmer and Land Speculator

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In all likelihood, school learners who take history as a subject would be aware that Piet Retief, a descendant of French Huguenot extraction, was a renowned Voortrekker Leader who was ultimately killed by the duplicious Dingane. 

What the school history books do not teach the learners in Port Elizabeth, is that he owned substantial land in well-known parts of what was to become the City of Port Elizabeth. 

Main picture: The Piet Retief Monument in Summerstrand

Retief’s background

At the age of 34, in 1814, Pieter Mauritz Retief moved from his birthplace of Wellington to the frontier region of the Cape Colony. Retief’s ostensible reason was to make money. At that stage the Eastern Cape was a veritable tabula rasa, unpopulated apart from the occasional intrepid Dutch / Afrikaans farmer and Xhosa further inland in the frontier regions

Piet Retief

Piet Retief

After moving to the vicinity of Grahamstown, Retief, like other Boers, acquired wealth through livestock, but suffered repeated losses from Xhosa raids in the period. These prompted the Sixth Cape Frontier War.

Even before this relocation, Retief had been plagued with a history of financial trouble. On more than one occasion, he lost money and other possessions, mainly through land speculation. He is reported to have gone bankrupt at least twice, both while at the colony but also while on the frontier. One of the motives for the migration to new lands in the north as Voortrekkers, were the losses incurred by many frontier farmers.

Retief’s financial dealings in Port Elizabeth

Notwithstanding the fact that Retief’s property purchases were not exclusively in Port Elizabeth, but included Grahamstown and Uitenhage, the focus will exclusively be on those relating to Port Elizabeth.

Retief’s earliest transaction related to a farm called Strandfontein in the area now better known as Summerstrand. This farm had previously been occupied by Jacobus Nicolaas Oosthuizen, Theodorus Potgieter, Johannes Knoetze and Casparus Knoetze. In November 1814, Strandfontein was provisionally granted to Piet Retief. The logic for its proposed acquisition was to establish himself as a government contractor for the supply of beef to the troops.

Map showing the earliest subdivisions of farms in Port Elizabeth-J.J. Redgrave

Simultaneously with this transaction, Retief made offers on various other properties within Port Elizabeth as well as Uitenhage and Grahamstown. Letters addressed to him at this stage, indicate that he was living in Uitenhage and not in Port Elizabeth.

It is probably trite to mention that the property in the Strandfontein area is not particularly suitable for farming and especially so in this era when the drift sands covered a large part of this area. It would not be incorrect to state that this was a poor choice of land.

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Even though Piet Retief has been provisionally granted the property Strandfontein, it was only in 1818 that Retief formally applied for the farm and had it surveyed.

During the period from 1815 to 1818 while Retief prevaricated on purchasing the farm, Frederick Korsten paid the rent.  Contrary to some narratives, Retief never took up the option on the farm so it is erroneous to claim that Retief “owned” Summerstrand as that is ahistorical.

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In due course Retief acquired additional land in Port Elizabeth. In 1816, Piet Retief was granted what was termed “garden ground” just beyond the present Albany Road. The epithet garden probably refers to the fact that it was suitable for the planting of vegetables as opposed to Strandfontein which, at best, would only be suitable for grazing by herbivores.

Besides these two huge swathes of land, in 1821 Retief adjusted his focus to include land in the centre of the nascent town. In short, he acquired an erf which in later years would bear the cachet of prime real estate. Retief purchased erf number 1, later to become Union Castle Corner from Captain Evatt, to complement his existing portfolio which included Erf Number 2.

The site in town which many years later would become Union Castle Corner. Obviously in 1821, the site contained a basic one floor building

The site in town which many years later would become Union Castle Corner. Obviously in 1821, the site contained a basic one storey building

The modus operandi of Retief was that of the property speculator or dabbler. If Retief had retained his focus in land speculation instead of embracing the grievances of the Boers, today Retief could possibly be a byword for the quintessential land baron. Whether fortuitous or not, Retief land acquisitions were on land soon to be prime real estate.

Instead of spending the rest of his days as a property speculator, Retief assumed command of punitive expeditions in response to raiding parties from the adjacent Xhosa territory. Furthermore he became a spokesperson for the frontier farmers who voiced their discontent, and he personally scripted the Voortrekkers‘ declaration at their departure from the colony.

Dingaan invited Retief's party to drink beer and witness a special performance by his soldiers. Not long after sitting down, Dingaan ordered his soldiers to capture Retief's party and their coloured servants and to "kill the wizards".

Dingaan invited Retief’s party to drink beer and witness a special performance by his soldiers. Not long after sitting down, Dingaan ordered his soldiers to capture Retief’s party and their coloured servants and to “kill the wizards”.

He was a leading figure during their Great Trek, and, at one stage, their elected governor. He proposed Natal as the final destination of their migration and selected a location for its future capital, later named Pietermaritzburg in his honour. The massacre of Retief and his delegation by the Zulu King Dingane and the extermination of several Voortrekker laager camps led to the Battle of Blood River on the Ncome River. The short-lived Boer republic Natalia suffered from ineffective government and succumbed to British annexation.

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Monument

To commemorate the centenary of the death of Retief in 1837 at the hands of Dingane, a memorial in the form of a monument was erected at Coega in 1939. In 1975, the monument was relocated from Coega to Summerstrand Port Elizabeth. Today it rests a short distance from the Summerstrand Shopping Centre in an open patch of ground.

As we well know, the classroom study of history with its endless procession of dates is dull and boring. It is an indictment on the education system that only in last week whilst researching Port Elizabeth, was this conspicuous piece of history revealed to me.

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First and foremost, the teaching of history should encompass a voyage of discovery, opening young minds to the uncovering of the past with an emphasis on local history. It goes without saying that certain world events such as the discovery of the New World or the Holocaust should still receive the requisite focus. That said an allocation of perhaps 20% for local history would allow the learners to explore their local environment.

 

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Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Elizabeth
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine


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