In all likelihood, school pupils who take history as a subject are made aware that Piet Retief, a descendant of French Huguenot extraction, was a renowned Voortrekker leader who was ultimately killed by the duplicitous Dingane.
What the school history books do not teach is that he owned substantial land in well-known parts of what was to become the city of Port Elizabeth. Furthermore he earned the lasting friendship of the 1820 Settlers for ther kindness that he showed them when acting as their transport contractors entrusted with their conveyance to the wilds in the Albany District.
Main picture: The Piet Retief Monument in Summerstrand
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 tribes further east in the frontier regions
After moving to the vicinity of Grahamstown, Retief, like other Boers, acquired wealth through livestock, but suffered repeated losses from Xhosa raids. These led to the Sixth Frontier War.
Even before this relocation, Retief had 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 in the colony but also while on the frontier. One of the reasons for the Voortrekker migration to new lands in the north was 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 here will be on Port Elizabeth.
Retief’s ties to Port Elizabeth relate primarily to his ownership of three plots in Port Elizabeth: two along Main Street, between Market Square and the present day Rodney Street, a 5 morgen plot in North End known as Lot 5 and finally a farm known as Strandfontein in the area now known as Summerstrand.
Retief’s earliest transaction related to Strandfontein. 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. This meant that he had to pay an annual rent or “rekognisie” to the Cape Government. This he did but only until the end of 1815. Only after a reminder by Landdrost Cuyler of Uitenhage did Retief request the conversion of this loan farm into a quitrent farm. By the end of 1818, that was indeed done. In February 1821, however, Strandfontein was registered in the name of the well-known early entrepreneur of Port Elizabeth, Frederick Korsten, after he had paid the arrear rent for 1816-1818. It is thus possible that Retief had sold the farm to Korsten already in January 1819 or even earlier. Strandfontein was thus registered in Retief’s name for only four years, although he bore the financial responsibility for it for only a single year. The logic for its proposed acquisition was to establish himself as a government contractor for the supply of beef to the troops.
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 back then when the drift sands covered a large part of this area. It would not be erroneous to state that this was a poor choice of land.
Even though Piet Retief had 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 ever “owned” Summerstrand as that is ahistorical.
In due course Retief acquired additional land in Port Elizabeth. On 7th June 1816, he 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. This plot was on Lot 5 along the road to the north.
Besides these two large 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 modus operandi that Retief adopted was that of the property speculator or dabbler. If Retief had retained his focus on 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’s land acquisitions would soon become 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 spokesman for the frontier farmers who voiced their discontent, and he personally scripted the Voortrekkers‘ declaration or manifesto at their departure from the colony.
Retief had been a leading figure during the 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 eventually succumbed to British annexation.
To commemorate the centenary of the death of Retief in 1838 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.
Article in the March 1965 edition of Looking Back entitled “Piet Retief’s Port Elizabeth Erven.”
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Wild Fig Trees in Port Elizabeth
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Saga of the Drift Sands
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Holy Trinity Church in Havelock Street
Port Elizabeth of Yore: St Phillips Church on Richmond Hill
Port Elizabeth of Yore: St. Mary’s Cemetery
Mosenthals: A Metaphor for the Fortunes of Port Elizabeth
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Brickmaker’s Kloof
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Enclosed Harbour Scheme in the 1930s
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Harbour prior to the Charl Malan Quay
Port Elizabeth of Yore: St Mary’s Church
Port Elizabeth of Yore: New Church in Main Street
Rations, Rules and other Regulations aboard the Settler Ships
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Earliest Photographs
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Empire units in P.E. during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Memorials to the Fallen in War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Albany Road
Algoa Bay before the Settlers: Sojourn by Henry Lichtenstein in the Early 1800s
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Growth of the Population
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Murders most Foul
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Echoes of a Far off War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era
Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:
The Shameful Torching of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915
Port Elizabeth of Yore Cora Terrace
Port Elizabeth of Yore The Grand Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore Whaling in Algoa Bay
Port Elizabeth of Yore White’s Road
Port Elizabeth of Yore The Slipway in Humewood
Port Elizabeth of Yore King’s Beach
Port Elizabeth of Yore Russell Road
Port Elizabeth of Yore Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals
Port Elizabeth of Yore The Horse Memorial
Port Elizabeth of Yore Target Kloof
The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth
What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?
Allister Miller A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth
The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour
The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
In the Steps of Piet Retief by Gledhill, Eily and Jack
Retief or “Refiefplein”: A Persistent Myth by Andre Appel Looking Back March 1990