Port Elizabeth of Yore: From Sandy Hills to Tent Town to Sandy Hills Once Again

For the Settler, this voyage would be the quintessential destination to a terra incognito, not only from a location perspective but also from a livelihood point of view. Most had not been selected psychologically with the criteria of the rugged pioneer in mind nor did many possess any farming skills or aptitude. Apart from the tiny Deal Party, Port Elizabeth, or “landing place with fresh water” as it was shown then on the maps, was merely a waystation en route to the Albany District. As such, their initial impact on this hamlet was minimal; more like that of any itinerant or peripatetic soul. 

Yet their impact would ultimately be immense as those without the requisite farming skills would drift back to the area to apply their skills and their trade. It was only then that the hamlet would be converted from sandy hills into a vibrant fast-expanding town vying with Cape Town as the Colony’s largest city. 

This is the story of this transient herd, their travails and their experiences whilst in Port Elizabeth. By now, the story of the 1820 Settlers is well known and does not form part of the history of Port Elizabeth per se. As such, this blog will focus on the salient facts but not the minutiae of the Settlers’ experiences.

Main picture: Arrival of the 1820 Settlers

A polyglot contingent

Sometime after the first week of April 1820, the first of the ships bearing some of the 4,000 out of the 20,000 applicants who had been selected as emigrants to South Africa, would safety pass the treacherous Thunderbolt Reef off Cape Recife en route to their landing area close to the mouth of the Baakens River. The leading Scottish Settler, Thomas Pringle, would describe this polyglot bunch as “watermen, fishermen, sailors. Pale-visaged artisans and operative manufacturers, pauper agricultural labourers – a most unprepossessing collection of people. I should say that probably about a third part were persons of real respectability of character, and possessed of some worldly substance, but that the remaining two-thirds were for the most part composed of individuals of a very unpromising description.”  

Thomas Pringle

In spite of Pringle’s uncharitable assessment of the Settlers, history has revealed that the majority did indeed possess the strength and the sterling characteristics which enabled them to overcome all of the adversity that their lack of farming ability conflated with adverse weather conditions was to assail them.

After departing from England during late 1819, the first of the twenty-one sailing vessels – this was of course the age of sail, – the Chapman, was approached the landing area on a nondescript beach on Algoa Bay. To meet them when they dropped anchor on the 10th April 1820 after an almost four-month journey, was the English sloop, the HMS Menai, captained by Fairfax Moresby (later to become Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby).

The landing

In his erudite blog entitled “1820 Settlers Landing Through the Surf,”  Ralph George Goldswain describes the landing as follows: Landing was a complicated process that required the combined skills of navy and army personnel. The settlers had rehearsed it in the way that we rehearse fire evacuations in modern life, and then, when the time came, the captain of the designated ship would receive the signal and he would marshal the settlers into groups on deck. The ship’s small boats were lowered and made fast alongside. The settlers then clambered down rope ladders to the boats, carrying their hand luggage. When they got to the point just before the water was beginning to swell to form breakers, they were transferred to flat-bottomed surfboats. Soldiers then hauled them through the surf to the beach with thick ropes. Other boats took the heavy luggage to the shore. 

The landing crew had to make judgments about the weather and the state of the surf and there were days when passengers who had been told they were going ashore were then informed that they would have to wait for the conditions to improve before they could risk a landing. There were days when the howling south-easter in which it was almost impossible to stand made the use of equipment impossible, and there were times when the sea gathered itself into mighty swells that rose to the height of houses then crashed down with terrifying force. 

Landing of the Settlers by HWHC Piers AN H110

There were some tense moments. John Mandy, a party leader aboard the Nautilus, went ashore to prepare for his wife and children but had to wait for them. In one of his letters he wrote: ‘A strong south-east wind set in and stopped their landing for four days, the surf beating round the shore to a height of ten or twelve feet. They saw me but could not get at me. Mary Anne and the children came on shore on the 19th, very much frightened, the boats three parts full of water.’

When the weather permitted it the landing progressed swiftly. As the boats reached water that was shallow enough to wade through the men jumped out and made for the dry sand. The women and children were carried ashore by the Scottish soldiers of the 72nd Regiment.

John Centlivres Chase, a passenger on the first ship, and later on the second husband of Maria Korsten, described the landing in almost apocalyptic terms as follows: “Our first impression of the country at which we had at length arrived was anything but cheery. From the deck of our vessel, we descried a coast lashed by angry breakers threatening, we feared, death to a large portion 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 range of the Winterhoek mountains frowned upon us.

John Centlivres Chase

In spite of Chase’s gloomy prognostications, the settlers were landed without mishap.

A Town of Tents

As can be imagined, everybody’s experiences differed from the next party. Even within a party, the conditions at sea fluctuated on an intra-daily basis let alone between days. During the morning until 10am, the prevailing wind was offshore whereas in the late afternoon it was inshore. Another leading Settler, Thomas Philipps, described his trip and subsequent experiences as follows:

We sat in our boat about five minutes outside the breakers. When the signal was hoisted, I trod the soil of my adopted country. We walked up to the Government House, a neat thatched cottage, and I was introduced to Captain Moresby.  

About fifty tents which had come in the Northampton, had been hastily pitched and had she not arrived, we should have been obliged to stay on board. By moonlight we spread our bed clothes on our trunks and prepared for rest. Capt. Moresby and Mr. Ellis and Capt. Cloete (who acts in Col. Wane’s absence) came up to us. They offered every assistance to us and to all, walking thro’ the rows of tents, till 10 o’clock at night to see all wants supplied. I had a spare tent for my sheep. We lay down with our clothes on like so many sheep in a pen. Our camp was not many 100 yards from the beach, from which I was separated by a Sand Hill. The moon shone bright as day. The camp beneath me, a few tents with an unextinguished fire by them, the sea rolling, and the ships in the Bay reminded me of the scenes I had often painted to myself of an invading Army.

According to Eleanor Lorimer, “the town of tents described by Philipps was set up to the north of the landing place, where Russell Road and Main Street now intersect. ….

On the beach were huge stacks composed of provisions, equipment, agricultural implements, baggage and other goods protected by tarpaulins. The man chiefly responsible for the arrangements and the successful landing was Capt. Evatt of Fort Frederick. His men were obliged to carry the settlers ashore on their shoulders through the surf. Apart from Evatt himself carrying children ashore on his shoulders, his wife provided weary travellers with hot beverages. The Evatt’s even extended the courtesy of assistance to Philipp’s sheep which were accommodated at the Fort at night.

 

Settlers thoughts on the local inhabitants

In an excellent blog entitled “What your ancestors thought of the Locals at Algoa Bay” Ralph George Goldswain provides some insightful observations on this matter.

During the settlers’ tentative explorations in the vicinity of the beach they were seeing things they had never imagined. People who weren’t British, and not even the same race as Britons, all around them – a most amazing sight – were just the beginning: the ox-wagons for example. Accustomed to the well-built, compact wagons of England, made for relatively smooth roads and flat countryside, the big, loosely-constructed wagons that bent and gave as they moved through the rough land, pulled by spans of long-horned oxen, took their breath away. The wagon drivers – Dutch farmers – with long whips, speaking the strangest language, and the small dark-skinned leaders and other wagon attendants, almost completely naked, jabbering continuously with noises that sounded nothing like language but a series of clicks, made them stare in awe.

 There was a big turn-out of Dutch farmers, helping out with the landing, mainly with anything requiring wagons. The settlers found what looked like a uniform – their softened skin trousers, short blue coats, wide-brimmed straw hats and veldskoens – fascinating. It was all very strange. As they stood staring, in their black surtouts [a man’s greatcoat of a similar style to a frock coat], white trousers and English hats, the newcomers had no idea that before long they would be looking very much like them, also dressed in the practical garb of veld dwellers. The Boers were friendly and helpful. They spoke English and were able to answer the many questions the settlers were asking about their new home.

The Boers were the settlers’ European cousins. The Khoi were another matter. They were an important element in frontier life and the settlers were to have an up and down relationship with them for the next half century.

When Europeans first colonised the Cape, they dealt differently with the two indigenous groups: the San people and the Khoi people. The San survive today in small groups, still living, by European standards, a primitive life, far away from ‘civilization.’ There was no chance of their being assimilated into the world of the Europeans. The Khoi were closer to Europeans in their cultural development and were therefore “domesticated” and exploited. They were an adaptable people and soon became partners with the Europeans, albeit junior partners, used mainly as servants.

When the 1820 Settlers landed on the beach at Algoa Bay, the Khoi were everywhere – carrying luggage, loading wagons, helping the soldiers in constructing sheds and tents and the sailors in pulling the surfboats to the beach. The leaders and other crew of the ox wagons were Khoi, the waiters and cooks serving the ladies and gentlemen were Khoi. Their children ran about the beach, excited by this invasion. They knew what white people were as most of them lived on and around Dutch farms, but they had never imagined that there were so many.

The settlers were in turn fascinated by the Khoi. Thomas Stubbs, ten years old at the time, came to know them very well over the years but he vividly remembered his first encounter with a group of them: ‘After we had been ashore a day or two a lot of us boys took a walk, and on coming to the rocks …….. we saw a lot of Hottentots naked; they began to jabber and we began to run, and never stopped until we reached the tents. We thought it was all up with us.’

Khoisan

John Ayliff, a young weaver who was later ordained and became a famous settler, had a different kind of encounter – one that foreshadowed the political attitudes of a century and a half later. One day soon after his arrival he went for a walk after dinner: ‘As I went I saw some beautiful black and red berries and I saw a Hottentot a little way off, so I called out pretty loudly to him, “I say, Hottentot, is this berry good for skof?” The man looked at me very hard and I went right up to him, showing the berry in my hand, and repeated what I had said before, when he said, “Wat for ye call me Hottentot?” “Well,” I said, “you are a Hottentot, aint you?” He replied, “Ya, ik is, but me don’t like to be called Hottentot.” “What,” says I with astonishment. “are you ashamed of your nation?” He then said, “What would you say if I was to call you Englishman?” “What would I say?” said I to him. “Why man, I glory in the name.” So I repeated what I had before said. “I say good for skof?” and finding him angry, for he would not answer me, I left him and presently seeing some little Hottentots quite naked, I showed them the berries, using my Dutch “good for skof.” They looked at me, showing their beautiful white teeth, set up a hearty laugh at me, and off they darted into the bushes.’

The Wesleyan minister William Shaw was pleasantly surprised by what he regarded as the Khoi’s good qualities. While at Algoa Bay he visited the Reverend George Barker, the resident missionary at the hamlet of Bethelsdorp. After attending Barker’s prayer meeting he wrote: ‘I was much edified by the apparent seriousness of a goodly number of Hottentots who were present. They sang most delightfully.’

Departure

Until such time as ox wagons were available, the settlers had to camp on the beach. Some families were even invited by Francis Evatt to stay overnight at his “country” house at Chelsea. In her book, Sophia Pigot recalled her visit to this place as well as the various banquets and parties hosted by the dignitaries such as Moresby.

Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats in 1870s

Then it was time to depart. The slow but steady two-week journey to the Zuurveld had commenced, crossing the Zwartkops River at the Ebb and Flow at Perseverance. Soon they would be allocated a smallholding and their new lives on the wild frontier would commence.

That first year in the Zuurveld would be the litmus test for whether these settlers were pioneer material or not.

Sources

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

Panorama of Port Elizabeth by Eleanor K. Lorimer (1971, A.A. Balkema, Cape Town)

Articles by Ralph George Goldswain entitled What your ancestors thought of the locals at Algoa Bay, Babies on the Settler Ships and 1820 Settlers Landing Through the Surf

 


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