Port Elizabeth of Yore: Wages, Strikes and the Mfengu Beach Labour

In his thesis on the development of the Port Elizabeth Harbour, Mr E.J. Inggs raises some interesting facts not only about the convoluted path to the ultimate construction of a harbour but also the operation and importance of Port Elizabeth’s harbour to the Cape Colony.

Also of considerable interest  is his discussion of the issue of the wage levels of the Mfengu Beach Labour, as he calls the cargo loaders and unloaders. Their remuneration perfectly reflects what Economics 101 identifies as a fundamental factor in economics; supply and demand.

 Main picture: Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats

Port Elizabeth’s economy was able to capitalise during its first 150 years on the two booms firstly of wool exports and later motor vehicle assembly. Each set in motion a train of events which impacted upon the city not only economically but also socially. Initially the economy of the hamlet was based on mercantilism in which most items, apart from the simplest, were imported.

Wool Exports

Wool exports changed all that. It is more than a generalisation to claim that the Dutch farmers never envisaged the export of wool. That was left to a German immigrant by the name of Adolph Mosenthal. By not only importing better breeds of sheep but also by arranging for the export of wool, he set in motion a chain of events which would set Port Elizabeth upon the path to its first economic boom.

L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals

L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthal

For this singular achievement the Mosenthals has not been accorded the recognition that they richly deserves. Even the name – once celebrated in Port Elizabeth – has been lost in the mists of time.

By the 1840s, it Port Elizabeth bore the epithet “The Liverpool of the Cape” as its wool exports exceeded those of Cape Town. By 1856, this often snide characterisation was indeed true in terms of total trade as Port Elizabeth had eclipsed Cape Town in terms of both exports and imports. On average 70% of the Cape’s exports and 50% of her imports went through Algoa Bay during the 1860s.

This rise to economic prominence was never a foregone conclusion. It was solely attributable to one commodity: wool exports. From a derisory 98,000 kilograms in 1835, Cape wool exports rose to an unimaginable 16.9 million kilograms in 1870. Of rotal Cape colonial produce exports in 1868, 82% was of wool.

Boundaries and precedents

In two respects this trade, due to its rapid expansion and lack of harbour facilities, pushed traditional boundaries by discarding historical precedents.

Firstly, let us consider the magnitude of the volume of wool exported. According to Inggs, the million-kilogram mark was surpassed in 1847, the five-million mark in 1856 and ten million kilograms were exported in 1863.

Port Elizabeth was defying the odds but this massive expansion only occurred because it was the natural place to export the produce of the  Cape’s premier wool-producing districts. Needless to say but conspicuously absent, despite this advantage, was a harbour. The method elected to load and unload 130 kilogram bales of wool was the same as that of any other cargo, using surfboats from a notorious beach. Imagine how difficult it was to manhandle these unwieldy loads on a minute unstable craft out to sea.

 Therefore, it is not surprising that labourers prepared to do this work would soon realised their bargaining power and push up their already relatively high wages. Employers are never bereft of options, except that in management science, it is not exactly like physics. Newton’s Third Law of Motion might state that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this non-physics case, the first option was to reduce their dependence of beach labour, by using jetties except, of course, that there were none. The first attempt in 1837 was inauspicious when it was destroyed in a gale. Subsequently two private jetties were constructed, one being by an eminent merchant J.O. Smith in 1844 and the other by the Port Elizabeth Boating Company in 1857. As Inggs pithily notes; “Although both were too small to have had any real effect on landing and shipping, they did at least demonstrate what might be achieved with more substantial structures.” 

The Rise of the Beach Labourer

By all accounts, the 1820 settlers were not transported to the beach on the backs of black beach labourers but by the sailors of the ship Menai which fortuitously was at anchor in the bay at the time. Thereafter as goods shipped through Port Elizabeth steadily increased, the Khoi became the chief source of labour for beach work and were paid at a rate of about two shillings per day. This dependence upon the Khoi would prevail for the next fifteen years. The Sixth Frontier War of 1834-35 was to upset the proverbial apple cart for the Khoi. A radical change came in the form of the Mfengu ( or more correctly amaFengu ), who were resettled by the British within the Colony. This concession was granted as they had sided with colonial forces against the Xhosas. Between the fact that the Mfengu were dissatisfied with their “Promised Land” and the high wages offered to beach labourers as a result of labour shortages and burgeoning demand, work on the landing beaches became attractive to them. They soon superseded the Khoi who came to be “regarded as a curiosity” on the beach. In 1840, a beach labourer earned three shillings per day, almost as much as an artisan. At the time, there were over 600 Mfengus living in Port Elizabeth. When business was brisk, up to 100 were employed on the beach.

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

Mfengu loading 130kg wool bales for export

This is what John Centlivres Chase had to say about the Mfengu in 1843: “As savages, they are intelligent people, extraordinarily attached to money, and temperate and sober in their habits. Having hoarded up their wages, they convert them into cattle, and when these accumulate into sufficient stock, they leave service altogether, and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The possession of this provident and temperate disposition naturally causes them to be much prized by the colonists, so that even where the Hottentots [Khoi] lingered for a time, they have now been thrust out of the market, for if the services of the Fingos are more expensive in cash wages, their sobriety and industry are more satisfactory and profitable. In a word, there is a dependence upon the Fingo which can never be extended to the Hottentots.”

No finer testament or testimonial to the Mfengu has ever been uttered.

Surf boats in operation

 The 7th Frontier War of 1846-47 was to cause dislocation for the beach labouring business, for despite a record 25 vessels in the bay during November 1846, “the parties engaged in landing find it almost impossible to bring together sufficient hands for the working of one boat. Many of the Fingoes, who are the men employed in discharging the boats, have left for the frontier in order to obtain a share when the DIVISION of the NEUTRAL TERRITORY TAKES PLACE, while those still remaining behind, but full of the same idea, have become exorbitant in their demands for pay, and on the Monday last, they struck for an increase of wages.”


Surf boats en route to a sailing vessel

Surf boats en route to a sailing vessel

At that stage, the Beach Labourers were being paid 3s 6d for a nine-hour day and six pennies an hour overtime. By December 1846, the shortage of labour was so critical that other more radical measures were proposed to alleviate the situation. Among these under consideration was to request the Governor for fatigue parties of Mfengu to be sent to Port Elizabeth to clear the arrears and to ensure that supplies were forwarded to the troops.

What is also of interest is that rather than pressgang the Khoi into service, their preference was still for the Mfengu.

 Landing places in 1840

The return of peace saw the uneasy status quo return to the beach. All parties, however, had been made painfully aware of the labour problem. Meanwhile wages continued to rise. As Inggs notes, “by mid 1848, it was reported that the authorities intended expelling to Uitenhage any Mfengu refusing to work for six shillings a day. The move was obviously aimed at the beach workers.”


 Harbour development

It is fair to say that when in October 1848, the Governor alluded to having Algoa Bay surveyed for a breakwater, this issue was not a priority for the town. He was politely reminded that something had to be done in the interim “for facilitating landing, and diminishing to some sensible extent the enormous expense incurred in Fingo labour employed to carry goods from the stranded surf boats to the dry beach”.

Two years later when the feasibility of opening the Baaken’s River as a boat harbour was being considered, the public was reminded that Mfengu beach labourers cost about £ 6,000 per annum. Furthermore, urbanisation and westernisation had been taking its toll. “Lately, through habits of intoxication being very generally contracted by this people, their labour is becoming uncertain and precarious in the extreme.”

Harbour in 1870 with lighters and surfboats in the foreground and the original breakwater in the background

The harbour in 1870 with lighters and surfboats in the foreground and the original breakwater in the background

After having set a precedent by striking for higher pay, the Mfengu working for the boating companies struck in June 1852 because the municipality had issued regulations requiring them to work clothed. Even though they capitulated the next day, after appearing before the magistrate, the die had been cast. The demonstration was regarded as being indicative of an upcoming struggle.

For the local entrepreneurs, nudity amongst the Mfengu was a peripheral issue. Central to their concerns was the issue of high wages. Various locals would weigh in on this issue and especially the necessity of constructing a jetty. In 1852, Captain E. Harrison of the steamer Phoenix, after which a hotel by the same name is called, estimated that a jetty would halve the cost of landing goods because of the saving in labour. His opinion was confirmed by Captain E.H. Salmond of the Harbour Board. He felt that a jetty would considerably reduce “the enormous outlay for labour, and the complete dependence on the Fingoes.”  The two boating companies alone paid £7,000 per annum in what he termed “coolie hire”. He calculated that a jetty would save about 30%.

Naked Mfengu offloading British soldiers

Naked Mfengu offloading British soldiers

In 1853, the Eastern Province Herald reported that there were plans afoot to build a private jetty as labour “may be diminished at least to one-half of its present amount. But that would be a revenue saving of £4,000 per annum”.

Against that backdrop of rapidly escalating wage levels, the employers were devising their own solutions. First off the mark was the Port Elizabeth Wharf Company, which published a prospectus in November 1853 stating that a wharf might save most of the annual £3,000 Mfengu labour costs [sic]. J.H. Clarke proposed an alternative method of saving on such costs by extending the Port Elizabeth Boating Company into a landing and storing company. By building a large store the whole length of Beach Street, goods would only have to be loaded once, thus streamlining the whole process.


Wool for export

Wool for export

Mfengu’s strike a first

To make matters worse for the employers, early in 1854 the Mfengus and boatmen struck for higher wages as well as for stopping work at 13h00 on Saturdays. The boatmen wanted 7s 6d per diem and the Mfengu six shillings. Local artisans proposed to do the same. There was such a demand for labour in Port Elizabeth that common mason’s labourers were earning as much as four shillings per day at a time when the average Cape farm worker was earning just over a shilling. 

Interestingly, the Eastern Province Herald advocated short term expediency. Their solution was to meet the demand for a 50% in wage rate as rapidly as possible as they surmised that this would open the floodgates of supply whereby the employers would be enabled “to reduce the rates as far as they may now be compelled to advance them.” Overoptimistically they also opined that the construction of the proposed breakwater would eventually remove the need for both boatmen and beach labourers.

North Jetty with surf boats visible

North Jetty with surf boats visible

Initially the Mfengu lived in four areas: at the landing beach itself, in Stranger’s Location abutting Hyman’s Kloof and in two villages at opposite ends of town about 15 minutes walk from work. In spite of working as beach labourers on a liveable wage, nonetheless they tended garden plots generally during their lunch hour. As these plots became scarce, they were compelled to live near the Swartkops River forcing them to elect whether to work for wages or to farm fulltime.

Setting the cat among the pigeons, the beach labourers had by default not only set their rate of pay but that of the town. An instance of this was highlighted when, towards the end of 1855, work was about to commence on the proposed breakwater. In their application to the Governor for the use of black labour, they noted that they would employ them at one shilling per day, far below the five shilling that the Mfengu were earning. 

Surf boats in Port Elizabeth in 1860s

Surf boats in Port Elizabeth in 1860s with the first disastrous breakwater in the background

In mid 1856, the Mfengu struck for 6s 6d per day which they received. The domino theory came into effect as the Malay boatmen followed suit and demanded nine shillings. Having a jetty might solve the Malay boatman problem, but not the quandary regarding beach work which only the Mfengu would perform. 

The employers were now at the mercy of the “rampaging” Mfengu as work could be paralysed at a whim. But all good things must come to an end. In far-off Transkei, Nongqawuse, a Xhosa Prophetess, whose prophecies led to a culminated in the Xhosa cattle-killing crisis of 1856–1857, proposed an orgy of cattle killing. 

Nongqawuse (right) with fellow prophetess, Nonkos

Nongqawuse (right) with fellow prophetess, Nonkos

The end result of this millennialist movement’s prognostication was the entry of thousands of starving Xhosas into the Cape seeking employment. Some estimates put the number of refugees as high as 30,000. This had an immediate effect on the Mfengu who wisely recognised that their monopoly power had been broken while some amongst viewed “the introduction of the Caffres as a sort of infringement on their right.”

Rivalry broke out between the two factions. It was only by the expedient of placing the Mfengu township under magisterial supervision and the appointment of two constables to deal with trouble-makers that rivalry between the two groups was stamped out. 

The pendulum effect

The pendulum had now swung in the employers favour vis-à-vis the supply of labour. This newly acquired dominant position was first tested during an Mfengu strike towards the end of 1857, which was unsuccessful. According to the Eastern Province Herald, these “gentry struck for an advance from 6s 6p to 7s 6p; and the Boating Companies, by a firm resistance to these demands, succeeded in reducing the former exorbitant charge to 5s 6d.” Furthermore, the boating companies insisted upon “a more regular attendance” by requiring the Mfengu to take only an hour for breakfast and lunch breaks.

Also playing a crucial role in the changing power dynamic between these parties during 1857 was an attempt by the Port Elizabeth Boating Company to establish a less labour intensive method of handling goods on the beach.

Part of Stranger's Location at the top of the hill next to Russell Road

Part of Stranger’s Location at the top of the hill next to Russell Road

Another contributing factor to releasing the Mfengu stranglehold on beach labour, was the granting of freehold title to the Mfengu in British Kaffraria by the Governor, Sir George Grey in the 1850s. As most Mfengu viewed beach labour as a means to an end and not an end in itself, many of them were enticed back to agriculture.

By a combination of numerous factors, but especially the additional labour supply, the power of the Mfengu worker had not just been parried but blunted forever. Although the breakwater (1855-67) had been a dismal failure and thus the landing of goods on the beach remained important right up to the 1880s, the construction of jetties from the 1870s reduced the boating companies’ reliance on one landing method

Against this backdrop, by 1884 labourers working boats at the jetty were earning one shilling a day less than their beach counterparts while men loading trucks received two shillings less. On the beach, 28 men were required to discharge a boat – eight in the boat and the rest carrying the cargo ashore. Each boat could carry up to 25 tons of cargo. Jetties did have their disadvantages though. Due to the unrestricted room on the beach, up to fourteen boats per day could be unloaded compared with ten at the jetties. Like in all things in life, the devil is in the details. Beach versus jetties was once again to prove the veracity of that maxim. 

Industrial Action – an overview

Initially the Mfengu merely perpetuated the norms established by their predecessors, the Khoi. Foremost amongst those was their refusal to work during inclement weather. This practice which became a norm, cannot be attributed to industrial action or stretching a point, trade unionism. Rather it could be categorised as a health and safety issue. The refusal by 1840 of the Mfengu to work during atrocious conditions could also be attributed to local precedent.

First breakwater

First breakwater

The first industrial action in the form of a strike on 9th November 1846 for higher pay can be classified as South Africa’s first strike. Allied to chronic labour shortages, the Mfengu bargained from a position of strength.

Their second strike in June 1852 was for somewhat different reasons. It was in protest against a town regulation requiring them to work clothed. The following strike, the third, related to both working hours and higher pay.

Once having tasted the fruit of strike action, the Mfengu were tempted to taste it yet again. Even though the fruit had been soured by the influx of Xhosas in the late 1850s and the construction of jetties in the 1870s, gluttony consumed them. As if to prove that the fruit was no longer sweet, they struck in quick succession in June 1872, August 1876 and July 1877. All three strikes involved Mfengu. In the 1877 strike, 79 harbour board labourers struck for four shillings per day. All five “ringleaders” arrested were Mfengu. They were given the option of a £1 fine or seven days imprisonment.

Thereafter until the end of the century, no more strikes were recorded.

Surf boats in the distance

Surf boats in the distance

Economics lesson

As I noted in the opening paragraphs, one of the salient lessons from the Mfengu beach labourers saga was the proof that economic laws always hold true. Unlike laws in physics, which can never be violated, economic laws can be stretched like an elastic band, but they will always rebound to the default position, the lead and lag factor which bedevils cause-and-effect analysis.

After riding the crest of the wave as the kings of labour, the Mfengu were once again relegated to the ranks of ordinary labourer when a combination of technology and supply overturned their royal thrones.


Mfengu Beach Labour and Port Elizabeth Harbour Development, 1835-1879 by E.J. Inggs, Department of Economics, University of South Africa, published in Contree 21 in 1987


  1. Good morning,
    I now see that you have covered the sand dune problems of old.
    Any chance of replacing the stolen plaque on the little stone cairn in Summerstrand to commemorate Joseph Storr lister and the sand recalmation project to save the harbour?
    Refer Richard Tomlinson of the HSPE
    Kind regards,

  2. Dear Dean,

    I would like to know the source of the main image at the start of the article. I am a graduate student in the United States writing my dissertation on Merino sheep and wool in South Africa. I recognize several photos from the Inggs article, but not that one. Any information would be appreciated. Thanks!


    • Hi Ben,
      Jon Inggs gave you copies of a whole bunch of photos that he never used as part of his thesis in 1986. This was one of them


      • Wow! That is really something. I am interested in using this photo in my dissertation, would you be able to grant permission for my use of it (with proper attribution, of course) or perhaps put me in contact with Dr. Inggs?


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