The harbour in Port Elizabeth has always been intimately connected with the City. When the 1820 Settlers arrived, they found wide expansive, almost virgin beaches devoid of human habitation except for the occasional Khoi San nomads. Fort Frederick had recently been constructed and some troops were manning it. Apart from that it was desolate and unoccupied.
Essentially the harbour’s history can be trifurcated as follows:
- the North Jetty – 1837
- the Charl Malan quay in 1933
- The modern era
Main picture: An early view of the harbour from the Donkin
Port Elizabeth has been an important port and harbour on the South Africa east coast ever since the first British settlers began arriving from 1820.
The first recorded reference to the area was by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias who landed and erected a cross at Kwaaihoek on 12 March 1488. He was followed by Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese explorer who became the first European to discover a sea route to India around Africa, when he passed Algoa Bay in 1497. For several hundred years afterwards the area was noted in navigation charts as a “landing place with fresh water.”
Following the arrival of British settlers in 1820 the harbour achieved port status in 1825 with the appointment of a harbour master and collector of customs a year later. In 1836 a surfboat service was provided for the handling of cargo and passengers, with the first jetty constructed in 1837. Forty years later in 1877 Port Elizabeth had developed into the principal port of South Africa, albeit still without a proper harbour, with annual exports valued at the equivalent of R6 million. In 1933 construction of the Charl Malan Quay (No.1 Quay, now used as the Container and Car Terminals), was completed and Port Elizabeth now had a ‘proper’ harbour. “It was gratifying to note that cargo was now consigned to Port Elizabeth, not Algoa Bay, and official records of freight were also similarly styled,” said the President of the Port Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce at the chamber’s annual meeting in 1935.
The Construction of a Jetty in 1837
The Construction of the Charl Malan Quay
In spite of its auspicious start, Port Elizabeth remained poorly equipped for the handling of ships, with little protection from the open sea until 1935 when the Charl Malan quay was completed, followed by additional quays leading to today’s modern port.
Agriculture and farming has always played an important role in the port’s activities, principally deciduous and citrus fruit and the annual wool crop. More recently containers have assumed an prominent role in the fortunes of the harbour, with Port Elizabeth serving its local industrial base and forming an alternate port of call to container ships whenever the Durban or Cape Town container terminals are congested.
Other principal products handled include manganese ore, which is railed from the Northern Cape, and petroleum products which are imported from other South African ports. The motor industry has long been an important industrial activity for the Eastern Cape and the port plays a leading role in this regard and boasts a large open area car terminal. The fishing industry also makes extensive use of the port. There are no major ship repair facilities but a slipway is available for fishing vessel repair. Passenger ships usually make use of one of the fruit terminal berths when calling at Port Elizabeth.
The port’s container terminal has three berths totalling 925m in length and a storage area of 22ha with 5,400 ground slots for stacking purposes. The container terminal is equipped with latest generation gantry container cranes and straddle carriers.
The breakbulk terminal has 6 berths (1,170m), two bulk berths totalling 360m and a tanker berth of 242m. The tug, fishery and trawler jetties measure 120m, 165m and 136m respectively.
The port has adequate rail and road links with other parts of the country.
The South African Navy has established a naval station at Port Elizabeth but does not maintain any ships here. In the future some of the port’s present commercial activity may be lost to the new and nearby port of Ngqura (Coega) although the car terminal and possibly the container terminal are likely to remain intact.
The modern variant