Port Elizabeth was never the epicentre of whaling in South Africa. Nonetheless as the Bay afforded the calving whales a relatively tranquil area to calve in, Algoa Bay was used for this purpose.
Main picture: Landing a whale in North End in 1880
The earliest mention of whaling in Algoa Bay that I can trace is a reference in 1810-1811 to Frederick Korsten who had recently established himself in what was to become North End as a merchant, farmer and owner of whale fishery.
The beachfront at Millers Point – previously called Fishery Point – was originally part of a huge farm called Strandfontein (which later became the Summerstrand). It belonged to Piet Retief from 1814 to 1821. He then left PE to became a Voortrekker leader, and was killed in 1837 by Zulu king Dingane during negotiations about land. The memorial on the grass in front of Summerstrand Village shopping centre is dedicated to him.
Strandfontein comprised of the land from the Shark River (Humewood Beach) to where Humewood Golf Course is today. The homestead was situated where the Beach Hotel now is.
Furthermore, Margaret Harradine records that in 1821 Frederick Korsten was granted a piece of land on the beach adjoining Strandfontein – current day Summerstrand – for the establishment of a whale fishery.
According to Margaret Harradine in her book Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945, “[On 4th June 1821], Frederick Korsten was granted a piece of land on the beach adjoining Strandfontein for a whale fishery. Known as the “Fishery”, the choice of this spot lies in a small cove there which was said to provide safe landing for boats in all weathers. There was never access to the Fishery along the beach, but only overland via the Fishery Road. Apparently Fishery Point is what is now called Miller’s Point. The small cove was said to provide safe landing for boats – and is most probably where Avalanche is today. It is highly likely that there were no rocks on the beach in those days due to the huge driftsands emptying into the sea along that whole stretch of coast.
His whaling enterprise alone was bringing him in over £4,000 per year besides the lease of Saint Croix and Bird Island which produced in one season over 14,000 seal skins. No less than 152 whales were killed in Algoa Bay between 1819 and 1841.
These fisheries were very successful, but declined, owing in later years due to the large number of foreign whalers on the coast, which apparently used to intercept the whales on their way to calve in the bays. No less than 60 to 100 vessels, principally American, are said to have been fishing off the South African coasts at one time.
Captain George Herbert managed the Fishery for Korsten in the early days. Two well known members of the whaling team were a famed Portuguese harpooner, Jose de Mell, and West Indian Coxwain, Jack Frost. Korsten offered the Fishery for sale more than once and the next owner was John Norton, followed in 1845 by Daniel Phillips and his brother Robert.
In 1828 Retief sold a section of the farm, called Gomery (now the suburb Humewood), to a WB Frames. In 1851 Frames started a wool washery at the Shark River (which runs out into the sea at Humewood).
In about 1854 R.L. Crump bought it and ran a fish salting enterprise there until his death. Finally in 1863 W.B. Frame purchased it. In 1864 he then dammed up the river and became the first water supply to PE. The house, cottages, and other buildings were in due course engulfed by the drift sands. Until 1909 there was still a fish salting factory operating beyond the slipway called Kalk Bay Fisheries. Then production ceased as the facility was engulfed by the driftsands.
Even though the land grant was in Humewood, the catch was usually landed at North End, a little beyond the Gas Works. Here Korsten erected huge boiling pots where the whales were cut up and blubber reduced to oil. The residue fat, known as kines or greaves, was given away in cakes to be eaten by the poorer class or as food for the dogs or cats of the wealthier residents. Coloured and Black hawkers used to sell these kines on street corners at two a penny.
The act was whaling required huge bravery for the whalers would approach the whale in small craft armed only with their puny harpoons. As the sharpened harpoon had to be strategically placed in the whale, that meant that the whaler had to be within a few metres of this huge creature. Some whalers became experts in judging the correct timing of their throw and hence gained a reputation as skilled whalers. Amongst the most expert was a Malay, Old Darby, whose real name was David Doit, who gained recognition as one of South Africa’s finest whalers.
In his book Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days, JJ Redgrave recounts how this was done: “From the top of the Donkin Reserve, the seamen used to keep a sharp look-out for a whale to ‘blow’ in the Bay, especially during the calving season. At that period the cow, accompanied by the bull, seeks shallow water, preferably near the mouth of some fresh water river where there is more warmth and less danger for the baby calf.
The harpooner received fifty pounds for each whale caught and the seaman were paid twenty five pounds each; this amount included the cutting-up of the whale, which usually took fourteen days. The whalebone was always carefully cleaned and disposed of at a very high price to the manufacturers.
The carcass of the whale was then placed in a boat and dropped off a good distance out to sea. In May 1897, a large sperm whale was captured measuring from 60 to 65 feet long and 15 feet across. Its value was estimated at 800 pounds.
Classic description of whaling
“We had the good fortune to see a fine fish killed, which was done thus. As soon as it was observed in the bay, three boats set off from the fishery, having 4 oars and 6 men in each. That which carried the harpooner led the way. No sooner was the fish struck then he made a desperate plunge towards the bottom, carrying the harpoon with him. But soon, returning to the surface he dragged the boat along with the greatest velocity, until being exhausted he once more permitted them to approach, where they dispatched him with spears and then towed him ashore.”
The only party of Settlers which remained ensconced in Port Elizabeth after their arrival was the Deal Party. While still encamped on the beach, they became animated when they noticed a great shoal of whales frolicking in the Bay. As they had already established a fishery near the Swartkops River, they soon added whaling to their business. Charles Gurney, the leader of the Deal Party, was appointed their harpooner.
Last of the whales
In the late 19th century, the well known Port Elizabeth businessman, James Searle, numbered whaling among his many maritime enterprises, and he used St. Croix Island for cutting up the whales. When he found that the excess oil which was escaping into the sea was killing off some of the penguins, he relocated his operation to the North End beach.
In 1897, Mr. Searle killed the last of the sperm whales in the Bay and it skeleton now hangs in the museum. At about the same time, Stephanus Frosy. employed by the Messina Brothers, killed the last “Southern Right whale and the skeleton is also in the Museum.
Mr C.L. Searle learnt his trade from the most famous of Port Elizabeth’s harpooners, “Darby.” In contrast to Darby, who was a huge powerful man, his predecessor Fernandez, a Portuguese, was slightly built. It is claimed that Fernandez would leap onto the back of a sleeping whale to drive home his harpoon with the whole weight of his body. He would then leap back onto the boat before the whale could “sound.”
In those days, fetched £2,000 per ton and oil 2s 6d per gallon. With an average of half a ton of whalebone and three to four thousand gallons of oil from each whale, a single kill was highly lucrative as it garnered £1,500, a small fortune in those days.
Denouement of whaling
I am unable to ascertain when whaling in Algoa Bay ceased but in the literature whaling in South Africa during the 20th century is only mentioned in relation to the West Coast and Durban.
The practice of whaling in South Africa gained momentum at the start of the 19th century and ended in 1975. By the mid-1960s, South Africa had depleted their population of Fin Whales, and subsequently those of Sperm and Sei whales, and had to resort to hunting the small and less-profitable Minke whales. Minke whales continued to be caught and brought to the Durban whaling station from 1968 until 1975. South Africa comprehensively banned whaling in 1979.
At least these majestic creatures would now be safe from the predations of most humans. There are currently only a few countries which do not adhere to this ban on whaling as they contend that their catches are for scientific purposes only. This smokescreen does nothing to conceal their true motives as the number caught is excessive. Unless the whale population is protected, this future gift to our grand-children will be precarious at best.
Walter Sherwill’s comments on whaling
An Englishman, Walter Sherwill, paid a visit to Port Elizabeth in June 1840. He embarked aboard a brigantine, the 108-ton Trekker or Emigrant, on the 19th June, bound for Port Elizabeth. With the chill of winter still in the air and a dull dreary sky above, they set sail with five passengers aboard. A blustery gale tormented the sea, and, in its anger, it sought revenge on this puny craft with the passengers periodically feeding the fish. On arrival in Port Elizabeth, he booked into an unnamed hotel with a view of the bay from Cape Recife to Woody Cape.
Sherwill noted the decline in the number of whales caught as follows:
- 1829 – 18 – valued at £ 4,000
- 1830 – 15
- 1840 – 3 presumably for the period January to June
Sherwill provided us with a stark reminder of the effect of all the whales being slaughtered in Algoa Bay when he described the use of whale bones as “land beacons” and fencing. He noted that halfway to Cape Recife at a place known as The Fisheries there was a cattle kraal or enclosure formed entirely of whale skulls. Furthermore, the beach around The Fishery, now Hobie Beach “was strewn in every direction with ribs and jaw bones of whales captured in the Bay. The jaw bones are generally sold and used as landmarks, being very durable and from 10 to 15 feet long. The bones present a curious appearance when erected as land beacons.”
Post the whaling ban
From a situation where the appearance of whales in Algoa Bay was a rare occurrence invoking huge excitement, their presence became ever more frequent. In December 1967, it was reported in the local press that a young girl of 18 had been given an involuntary ride on a whale’s back when it broke surface beneath her. A specimen of the rare Blainville beaked whale was beached at Cape Recife in 1952.
Ineluctably, these Leviathans of the sea began to make more than guest appearances to Algoa Bay.
Long may this last.
The Port Elizabeth Museum, which forms part of the Bayworld complex, has a very unique exhibit hanging in the Marine Hall. It’s the skeleton of the last Southern Right Whale to be harpooned in Algoa Bay. It is the focus piece of an exhibit that covers whales and sharks along with everything associated with them.
Article in the The Eastern Province Herald, 7th May 1935 The Sherwill Journals, 1840-1843. Voyages and Encounters in the Eastern Cape of Southern Africa, Edited by June Harvey, (2020, Cambridge Scholars Publishing) 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 J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press) Thar She Blows by Khitab (Looking Back, March 1978, Vol 18, No 1) Internet – Jonker Fourie: https://fireflyafrica.blogspot.co.za/2014/01/port-elizabeth-whale-skeleton.html