During the first British occupation of the Cape, the puny settlement at Algoa Bay found itself threatened by raiding Xhosa & khoikhoi warriors. For defence, the British soldiers constructed an extemporised fortification known as Star Fort on the Ferreira River [today’s Papenkuils River]. This inexpensive fort dug in the shape of a star around Thomas Ferreira’s house, would act as the settlement’s first fortification.
With the imminent threat to the settlement, comprising mainly wattle and daub huts around the mouth of the Baakens River, a more substantial redoubt was required. To meet this exigency, shortly thereafter a blockhouse was constructed by the Royal Engineers at the drift across the Baakens Lagoon, now sadly no more. This would be Port Elizabeth’s second fortification but did it ever serve a useful purpose or was it ill-designed and located for the task at hand?
Main picture: 1803 Gesigt van Fort Frederick en Algoa Baai, Willem Bartolome Eduard Paravicini Di Cappelli, H103
In 1799 unrest again broke out in the eastern districts of the Cape Colony. This time it was decided to protect the landing and watering place at Algoa Bay. Major-General Francis Dundas, then acting governor of the Cape, placed General Vandeleur in command of 200 dragoons and disciplined Khoikhoi soldiers with orders to establish a military post at Algoa Bay. To this end, Dundas decided that a wooden blockhouse would be built behind the sandhills on the western bank of the Baakens River. Due to a lack of suitable skills in Algoa Bay, it was decided to construct a prefabricated wooden blockhouse in Cape Town. It was then shipped in pieces on board the Camel to Algoa Bay where it arrived in August 1799 with 30 artificers to erect it. Intended to house 50 men, it was erected near the beach, so as to command both the ford over the Baakens River and the landing place on the shore. It was armed with two three-pounders mounted on a flat square roof.
This structure, built according to the same plan as Fort Frederick, stood at the foot of Military Road [then known as Government Road].
What was this blockhouse actually used for?
Even though it was armed with two three-pounders initially, what was this blockhouse used for as the blockhouse on the hill known as Fort Frederick erected shortly afterwards assumed the martial roles of the Blockhouse abutting the Baakens River.
In an era prior to cellphones with both tape recorder and camera, it was the lowly pen and paper which had to perform the role as recording mechanism. In this case, it was De Henry Lichtenstein, the German tutor to the son of Governor Janssens, who with his pupil travelled with de Mist’s party to the Eastern Cape. Later he would describe the Algoa Bay settlement as he saw it. “On the last hill, which goes down to the shore“, he wrote, “stands Fort Frederick, built by the English in 1799. Eight guns, 12 pounders, command the shore and protect the buildings lying near, and the barracks, guard-houses, etc. Westward of the hill on which the Fort stands, comes from a deep gully a little stream called Baakens River. At the ford of the river, which is concealed between the hills that rise on each side of it, is another Block House, which under the English government was prepared in Cape Town and sent in parts by sea to the Bay. It serves at once as a prison and as a guard-house.”
In was during 1804 that Commissary-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist visited Fort Frederick and Bethelsdorp accompanied by a party which included his daughter, Augusta, and Dr Heinrich Lichtenstein, a scientific observer, and Janssens. That means that it was only during part of this brief period of late 1799 to 1804, that this blockhouse could have fulfilled its role as a military installation before it was consigned to a more lowly role as prison and guard-house. Whether its role was reassigned by the British before their departure or the Dutch on their re-occupation of the Cape is also unknown.
Given the challenges arrayed against them, the French supporting the Graaff Reinet rebels, and the Xhosa being in cahoots with the khoikhoi warriors, the English would be head pressed to meet all the threats if they should coincide.
As the spectre of warfare loomed large in the eastern areas, the role of this redoubt was downgraded with more reliance being placed on Fort Frederick. During both of the military engagements during this period, both featured Star Fort, the accidental fortification, that would be intimately involved. First it was the attack by the Xhosas and khoikhoi warriors on Star Fort on August 10th 1799 when they stole livestock which was recapture and then it was the French. As further protection, this post was strengthened with a breastwork. Subsequently, it just over a month later on the 20th September 1799 i.e. before the blockhouse was completed, a French frigate “Preneuse” entered the Bay under false colours and exchanged fire with the sloop “Rattlesnake” and storeship “Camel”. The masts of the “Camel” were damaged, and the quartermaster and a carpenter were killed. Although having the advantage, the French ship left the Bay and was later sunk off Mauritius, when her true identity became known.
What enhances the view that this blockhouse continued to fulfil a role as prison was it was it was recorded that in June 1822 the blockhouse was repaired and re-roofed so that it could continue in use as a gaol. This probably refers to the building at the mouth of the Baakens, even though both it and the one within the walls of the Fort were used for this purpose.
Extract from the book: Forts of the Eastern Cape
Whilst the redoubt [i.e. Fort Frederick] was under construction on higher ground, a prefabricated blockhouse sent from Cape Town in parts which would be a detached structure to accommodate sixty men, was erected on a lower level on “a light shelving ground” near the landing-place at the mouth of the sand-clogged Baakens River to protect the watering place where fresh water was obtained from a welI. It would also serve as a forward or advanced post in case of a hostile landing.
There were some stores and huts for the men and the works was equipped with two three-pounder cannons. It stood about 24.4 metres (80 feet) from the seashore and was commanded on two sides by a bank of sand. When Lieutenant Stocker wrote his report from information gathered by Captain Dixon, he found that the blockhouse required three machicolates and Lieutenant Lewis reported that the building was in such a ruinous state and the situation so injudiciously chosen chosen that the structure was neither worth repairing nor retaining. In 1808 Captain Cuyler found that it had a canvas roof. Major Holloway, on his tour late in 1827, does not mention it, because it was no longer used by the military, but by the civil government as a prison.
When he says 80 feet from the sea shore, I presume that he means the Baakens Lagoon as it is impossible to fit anything other than a sand hump in that distance. Also spring tides could wash it away.
Exact location of the blockhouse
Extant documents refer to the blockhouse lying between two sand dunes to the north of the Baakens River on the road to the drift near South End. Later it is reported where the Blockhouse was located relative to the later buildings: “Behind the sundial, in the rear of the Commissariat Building, stood the “Residency”. This stone house was the abode of the officer in charge. There were also some outhouses employed as a “lock-up”. To the south of this, between the pump and Slater’s Steam Mills, was the “block house,” an unattractive square building of brick and wood. The site where the original St. Mary’s Church with its ugly disproportions, would stand the site was occupied by a mud hut used by the Commissary. Behind what would become the original Phoenix Hotel, stood yet another house, also in the form of a mud pondok.”
Later still the Slater’s Steam Mill and the Commissariat Building was replaced by the new Post Office building which faces onto Military Road. As the construction of the foundations of this building disturbed the original foundations of the Blockhouse making it now highly improbable that the exact location of the original foundations will be found.
Not to put too fine a point on it but I am conflicted and a tad confused. The various drawings indicate that the blockhouse, whilst not situated on the river bank, was almost within “spitting distance” from the water. That begs the question of why various commentators over the years alluded to the fact that the blockhouse was located close to the foot of Military Road? It is possible that these non-military people misidentified a building further west as being a “blockhouse” as the original blockhouse which could have been washed away in one of the bête noirs of Port Elizabeth, its periodic floods, was no longer in existence.
A Final Word
Lastly what should be noted is that the wooden upper storey of the blockhouse either rotted away or had been stolen as the palisades in front of Fort Frederick were. Apparently when the first photograph of the blockhouse was taken, the upper storey had already disappeared as it probably rotten.
For all that, even if the blockhouse never served in its envisaged role as a military fortification, it did serve a useful purpose as a goal for the town.
Strategic Military Colonisation: The Cape Eastern Frontier 1806–1872 by Linda Robson and Mark Oranje, Department of Town and Regional Planning, University of Pretoria
Forts of the Eastern Cape -Securing the Frontier 1799-1786 by Colin G. Coetzee
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)