Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Port without a Harbour

Needless to say, but when the 1820 Settlers arrived at Port Elizabeth, there was nothing awaiting them, not even a harbour. In fact, the sum total of the population of Port Elizabeth in 1819 was 35 souls, mainly men. Yet despite exponential growth in population and port activities, Port Elizabeth did not possess a proper harbour for the first 110 years of its existence.

How did the town handle the veritable flood of imports and exports until the first permanent  jetty was constructed in 1870 and the first quay in the 1930s?

 Main picture: Settlers landing in unstable flat bottomed boats

Initial shipping practices

Awaiting the settler ships en route to Port Elizabeth in 1820 were magnificent white sandy shores interspersed with sand dunes all along the littoral of the bay. As they approached the coast, no sign of a harbour hoved into view. The only solution was that used by the Royal Marines from yore. They had to disembark into smaller craft.

As JJ Redgrave eloquently pointed out, “The hearts of many settlers sank when they gazed on the distant sand hills and the very few cottages or huts which formed the embryo of Port Elizabeth”. One member wrote; “Our first impressions of the country at which we had at length arrived were anything but cheery. From the deck of our vessel, we descried a coast lashed by a broad belt of angry breakers, threatening we feared, death to a large proportion 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 Winterhoek Mountains frowned upon us”.


In order to avoid Roman Rock, the ships were instructed to keep 3½ to 4 miles offshore until past Beacon’s Point (Something Good Resturant) before making for the landing place just north of the Baakens River. It was only in September 1829 that two beacons were erected, one beside the sea and the one inland, which when aligned, pointed ar Roman Rock. In September 1858, two stone beacons, painted red and white, and surmounted by a black ball, replaced them. They are still standing. In 1851, the first red buoy was anchored above the reef, but all were washed away and after 1875 were not replaced.

Captain of the HMS Menai, Captain Fairfax Moresby describes the run in and anchorage in a report to the Acting Governor, Sir Rufane Donkin as follows:

From Beacon’s or Rocky Point to the landing point at Markham’s Cove is N.W. by N. by compass nearly three miles; sand hills covered with bush. Immediately over Markham’s Cove is Fort Frederic [sic], at present the only landmark by which a stranger is guided to the anchorage, and this from many positions is not easily distinguished but a pyramid about to be erected as a private memorial, half a mile to the south east of Fort Frederic [sic], will stand conspicuous for ships approaching the land”.

Markham's Cove
Above: A painting of Markham’s Cove

“From Markham’s Cove to Ferrara’s River [presumably Papenkuils river] is N.13 degrees east, by compass nearly four miles. Between this point and Beacon’s Point may be considered the anchorage of Port Elizabeth. The water deepens gradually from the shore, the bottom is hard sand in which the anchors hold well”.   

Exactly where Markham’s Cove is situated today, is difficult to establish. As this section of the littoral had no coves, presumably they were referring to the Baakens River estuary. Interestingly in the 1820s there was a hotel known as Markham’s Hotel, initially owned by a Richard Hunt. Whether the names had the same origin could not be established with certainty but they probably are related as Markham was the maiden name of Lady Elizabeth Donkin.

While still in the roadstead, the ships would drop anchor and await the puny but nimble surf boats. Once the offloading operation was completed, the fully laden surfboats were then propelled to the landing beach at Markham’s Cove, just north of the Baakens mouth by means of warps fixed between the shore and buoys in the roadstead.

Current bell buoy at Roman Rock
Current bell buoy at Roman Rock

JJ Redgrave explained that the process of disembarking operated as follows:

The management of the flat-bottomed surf boats from the ships to the breakers was in the hands of the seamen of the H.M.S. Menai in which had also arrived the Acting Governor, Sir Rufane Donkin. The work of removing the people from the surf boats to dry land devolved upon Captain Evatt of the 21st Light Dragoons and a company of the 72nd Regiment of Highlanders, which was then stationed at the Fort.

The utilisation of naval and military forces in the process of disembarkation of settlers was merely a temporary expedient as the number of trained local Hottentots or Khoikhoi was insufficient to handle the initial flurry of arriving ships.

The artist Thomas Baines described the operation as follows:

These surf-boats were large and strongly built; their bows were broad and well formed, but their stems seemed barely three feet in width, and from the upward slope of the bottom, to facilitate their runnings on the beach, not much more than half that depth; and a crowd of Fingoes [sic] , dressed in a piece of sack or gunny bag sufficiently large to protect their shoulders from the sharp edges of their burdens and decorated with beads, brass rings, and native amulets, were filling them with ox horns. As each boat completed her cargo six or eight fellows jumped on board, and laying hold of the line which led between the ‘horns’ of her stern and stern post, began to haul her out, the spray flying from her broad bows in a dazzling mist to the height of more than twenty feet as each successive breaker dashed against her, and forming so beautiful a picture that I could not resist the temptation to add it on the spot to my other sketches. The process was extremely arduous and labour intensive.

Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats in 1870s

It is highly probable that the small team of Khoikhoi – Hottentots as they were called then – was also used in the offloading process as one author, however, does mention settlers being “carried ashore on the backs of . . . strange black men”, while other writers and the settlers themselves make no mention of Black beach labourers. As this would have been the settlers’ first sight of black people, when it did occur, it would have been a memorable event.

Mfengu unloading coal from surfboats

Later practices

The procedure of offloading ships essentially remained the same until the North Jetty was constructed in 1870 subject to some superficial changes.

The process of offloading passengers remained the same except that the Khoikhoi labour was replaced by the Mfengus after the Sixth Frontier War between 1834 and 1836. In addition, the use of sedan chairs carried on the Beach Labourers’ shoulders was attempted.

Later on, once exports from Port Elizabeth became the norm, other issues arose. Just imagine attempting to load a 130kg bale of wool onto a rolling ship in the bay. The labourers had to balance themselves in an unstable craft whilst striving to lift their unwieldy cargo on board the ship.

Not only was it an arduous process to offload the goods, but there were also dangers involved for the passengers. More pressing than these latent dangers, was the concern regarding “decency” as the Mfengu refused to wear clothes. For most settlers, this was their first sight of black people but also of their genitalia.

Mfengu offloading imported goods
Mfengu offloading imported goods

Nudity on the landing beach had always been seen by some as a problem, as one observer put it: “I have no quarrel with the Fingoes .. . for they are a money-making and money-keeping people, and, therefore superior to the Hottentot and other of our native tribes. I respect them for these virtues … but, still, I think, that as WE are forced by the law (to say nothing of innate modesty) … the Fingoes should also be compelled to pay the same attention to the institutions of the civilized society into which they have been thrown”.

Another point of view was expressed in a local newspaper: “When Sir Henry Young [the lieutenant governor] landed … the first act of his pen was to write an indignant letter to the civil authority of this town, for tolerating the filthy, abominable, and beastly practice of employing black savages in a state of NUDITY as labourers on the beach”.

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export
Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

Finally the municipality acted. They issued regulations requiring the Mfengus to work clothed. The Mfengus instinctively reacted. In June 1852 the Mfengu working for the boating companies struck, being one of the first strikes in South African history. The following day they meekly submitted after appearing before the magistrate. Nevertheless, the die was cast. The demonstration served as an indicator of a coming struggle.

The first jetty

The initial impetus for the construction of a jetty at Port Elizabeth was to eliminate the arduous and unwieldy process of loading and offloading on the beach. Unlike a wharf with a breakwater, the use of a jetty would only eliminate the process of loading and unloading operations in the surf. The vessel would still have to anchor in the roadstead but the surf boats with sails would ferry goods and passengers to the jetty.

Operations were still totally dependent on the vagaries of the weather of which the infrequent south-easter was the most disruptive. In addition, a concern for the forwarders was the cost of the Mfengu labourers. As their skills were invaluable, combined with their industriousness, their wages surged at a rate far greater than that of either inflation or of related unskilled operations.

Mfengu carrying ivory
Mfengu carrying ivory

Based upon these factors, pressure continued apace for the construction of a jetty. In his excellent tome on Harbour Development in Port Elizabeth entitled Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth harbour Development 1820-70, Jon Inngs presents the minutiae of all the attempts at creating the first jetty in Port Elizabeth.

The first practical scheme to improve Port Elizabeth’s harbour facilities dates back to late 1831 because in 1832, on 6th February, a meeting was convened in Uitenhage by the Commandant of Fort Frederick, Captain Francis Evatt, to discuss the construction of a jetty at Port Elizabeth.”

Willem Frederik Hertzog

Left: Willem Frederik Hertzog

Two models for the jetty were proposed. One was by the newly appointed Harbour Master, Edward Wallace (1831-34) while the other was made by Lieutenant F.B. Fielding of the 98th Regiment. A damper was thrown on the whole exercise by the Government Gazette announcing that a stone pier was to be built in Table Bay “which will necessarily lead to the cessation of all expensive works, however important, in other parts of the colony”. Cynical pundits alleged that the pier in Cape Town would take ten years to complete and not the estimated five years as the rumours stated.

Instead of waiting for the completion of the Cape Town jetty, citizens of Port Elizabeth elected to build their own jetty with private funds. This proposal obtained the passionate backing of none other than Frederick Korsten of Cradock Town.

Approval was then sought from the colonial authorities to proceed with this proposal. In May 1833, the Deputy Surveyor General, W.F. Hertzog visited Port Elizabeth in order to carry out an inspection.  This ended in acrimony as Hertzog alleged, but Francis Evatt disputed, that he had not been shown the location of the jetty.

The whole project was in effect now placed in abeyance while the political priorities in England and the Cape Colony  were resolved.

Port Elizabeth in 1862[/caption]

Events in the Cape Colony ultimately forced the focus back onto the jetty question in Port Elizabeth. This event arose in June 1836 when the Cape of Good Hope Steam Navigation Company was formed. The object of this company was “the speedy and regular conveyance of goods and passengers between the Eastern and Western Provinces” using “one or more steam vessels”. Promoters of the subsequently formed Port Elizabeth Jetty Company were also involved in the Steam Navigation Company. John Thornhill, initiator of the jetty project, was simultaneously a director of the Steam Navigation Company. Both P. Heugh and J.C. Chase were also involved in both projects.

As Jon Inggs points out, events would not take their intended course. “The Steamer Hope was launched at the Clyde early in 1838 and was in service by December 1838. But its useful life was short as short as Port Elizabeth’s first jetty. It was wrecked at Cape St. Francis in March 1840 en route to Port Elizabeth”. 

Landing through the surf
Landing through the surf

While a shipwreck might have sunk the Steam Navigation Company, Port Elizabeth’s jetty received an unintended stimulus due to a shipwreck. On 10th August 1837, the three-masted schooner, Feejee, ran around at the very spot recommended for a jetty by the deputy surveyor general in 1833. Ironically the Feejee was wrecked for the very reason that the jetty was wanted. Bad weather had prevented the Port Elizabeth boatmen from unloading her immediately on her arrival on 28th July.

The wreck survived the pounding surf and a local merchant, John Thornhill, realised that, if it could withstand the waves, so could a jetty. He had to prove this first, however, if anybody was to be found to finance a jetty.

Jon Inggs continues: “Once he had realised the potential, Thornhill quickly set to work. He and a dozen Port Elizabeth businessmen clubbed together and bought the wreck of the Feejee for £244.

Surf boats
Surf boats

Within a week of the wreck, they had applied to government for the use of a Pile Engine and double power crane for the purpose of driving piles as a foundation for a jetty in Port Elizabeth. The matter was referred to the government engineer to ascertain whether the equipment was available. A 15 metre trial platform on fourteen 11-metre piles was quickly built under Thornhill’s supervision using the wreck as a base. A temporary platform was  constructed by lashing spars from the wreck  to its masts and rigging about 2.5 metres above the high water mark. This was then used to support the ‘pile engine and monkey’ which was employed to build the pile-based structure independent of the wreck. Once completed, the projectors proposed to link it with the shore by means of “massive chain cables”. If successful, they intended requesting permission to form a joint stock company to raise enough money to commence with a permanent structure”.

This project was to be bedevilled by numerous delays, many of them administrative and hence unrelated to the practical project execution. The first concern by the non-Port Elizabeth directors related to the preponderance of Port Elizabeth directors. Moreover, the long delay in finalising the Trust Deed retarded the project by a year. Following that, only the advances from Port Elizabeth shareholders were timeously received. This issue combined with the fact that 228 of the 600 shares had not been subscribed for prevented erection from continuing on schedule.


On the 20th anniversary of the landing of the settlers, the 12th April 1840, the foundation stone was laid on the masonry section of the jetty. By February 1841, £3300 had already been spent while arrears payment on shares amounted to £467.

Because of the financial straitjacket that the company was in, the original plan had to be extensively pruned. Sacrificed in the cost-cutting were warehouses, a tramway and 30 metres of jetty to accommodate steamers. The final version of the jetty would eventually be six metres wide and 208 metres long of which 146 metres were of wood and 62 metres were stone abutments covered with wooden decking.

Aside from the financial problems, by July 1841 surfboats were already using the jetty to land and ship supplies. When the decking was completed to near the old 1837 work, it was found that the trial piles had been attacked by worms. Scupper nails prevented the same thing from happening to the piles driven since October 1839.

Landing goods at Port Elizabeth before the construction of the Jetties
Landing goods at Port Elizabeth before the construction of the Jetties

Shareholders were now pressurised to pay their final instalments on the Trust Deed on the pay or forfeit principle.

Meanwhile the jetty was proving itself with the first vessel, 250-ton brig Vanguard, even being repaired off the jetty. Apparently, the dangerous leak was “effectively repaired with ease, dispatch, and without the smallest accident, and the vessel is now receiving back her cargo from off the jetty”.

Sketch of the first jetty

According to Jon Inggs, “The whole enterprise was given official recognition when the jetty was declared a legal landing place by the Customs Department from 30th March. The local Customs Official, David Polley Francis, pointed out, however, that there was ‘no chance at present of this jetty superseding the greater portion of work  which must still be carried on at the beach.” He therefore requested extra manpower. Captain Edward Henry Salmond was the first local businessman to exploit the real potential of the jetty when he procured a five ton sailing boat from Cape Town to work between the jetty and the ships at anchor.

Misfortune was to befall this jetty within five months after officially coming into operation. On Saturday 26th August 1843, three ships were driven through it.

Wooden Jetty in 1840
Wooden Jetty in 1840

[On] Friday night the gale increased until it raged to an extent that had not been witnessed since 1835. The night was truly terrific. So extreme was the darkness that no object could be distinguished except in the momentary glare of the lightning, while the roaring of the tremendous surf and the howling of the wind was perfectly deafening”.

 “At about 4 o’clock, the Brig Elizabeth Rowell came, stern on, about the centre of the jetty, through which in a very few minutes she made a complete breach, carrying away the decking of the Jetty upon her quarter deck. The crash and concussion were tremendous, but the crew of the Brig contrived to land in safety upon the Jetty”.


Within a quarter of an hour afterwards, the unfortunate Laura came foul of the outer part of the Jetty which was still standing – on which a part of the crew scrambled. But the joy of these fellows at their escape was doomed to be of short duration, for the Sea Gull, now dashed against the same part of the Jetty, carrying everything away and sweeping off the men who had taken refuge there, who were hurried into the raging surf and seen no more. When day broke, the beach presented an awful sight. The largest and most valuable part of the jetty had been destroyed, and the whole structure rendered useless.

Eleven lives were lost and the total damage, including the ships, was estimated at £30,000. It should be noted that eleven other vessels in roadstead rode out the storm.

Ironically John Thornhill was on board the paddle steamer Phoenix when it arrived at Port Elizabeth a week after the disastrous storm. He had sold up his business and relocated to Cape Town when the jetty had neared completion. His premises were taken over by the Mosenthal brothers who had just set up business in the Eastern Cape.

Phoenix paddle steamer
Phoenix paddle steamer

The Future

Various attempts at reviving the Jetty project were attempted but until 1870 only some dwarf jetties were constructed. However the North Jetty, as it was known, was still an interim step until a proper enclosed harbour facilities could be provided.

This would still take another 64 years until the Charl Malan Quay was completed in 1934. By then Port Elizabeth was no longer the entrepot to South Africa. With gold being discovered on the Witwatersrand and diamonds in Kimberley, South Africa’s future lay there and its seaport would be Durban. Ironically it was only when Port Elizabeth was in the process of being eclipsed by Durban, that Port Elizabeth was converted into a proper harbour.

Wooden Jetty in 1840 from the Donkin Reserve
Wooden Jetty in 1840 from the Donkin Reserve

The implication of this was that the antiquated method of loading and unloading ships in Port Elizabeth whereby ships would transfer their valuable cargoes onto surf boats would persist ultimately for 134 years.


Article in Contree Number 21 January 1987 entitled “Mfengu Beach Labour and Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1835-1870″ by E.J. Inggs

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 JJ Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

Notes on the Cape of Good Hope made during an Excursion in 1820 by Edward Blount

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