Port Elizabeth of Yore: Why did Piet Retief purchase Strandfontein?

Historically Piet Retief’s connection with Port Elizabeth and importance as a resident has been wholly misstated. Perhaps due to English dominance of the town, a vision of Retief arose to counterbalance the contemporary narrative. Apart from owning the farm Strandfontein in Summerstrand and several plots in the centre of the hamlet, Retief never actually took up residence in the area.

As Prof. Terblanche concludes in his article entitled “Die feite oor the omstrede Piet Retief” dated 10 March 2009, “Die idilliese prentjie wat mense dus het van Retief wat op sy plaaswoning se stoep gesit en oor Algoabaai getuur het, is eenvodig nie waar nie.”

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The first wave of Trekboere alighted upon the uninhabited area across the Gamtoos River which was the boundary of the Cape of Good Hope, after the 1770s. The area was largely devoid of people but the nomadic Khoikhoi were occasionally encountered. Many of these Trekboere owned underage female slaves to assist with food preparation and the caring for the large brood of children which was the norm. Various trekboere settled in the area and left a lasting memory in the form of their farm’s names. Buffelsfontein, Nooitgedacht, Strandfontein and De Duine arose during this period.

Settling in Uitenhage
By 1804, the Uitenhage District had been established and three Voortrekker leaders viz. Piet Uys, Karel Landman and Piet Retief are intimately associated with it. Towards the end of 1813, Retief made his home in Uitenhage and in July 1814, Piet Retief married the widow, Magdalena Greyling.

Early in 1814 he already owned two farms in the Grahamstown District. Retief then entered into a contract with the government for the delivery of rations to the troops and these farms served as pastures for the slaughter cattle as part of his supply contract. During that year Retief also purchased two erven in Uitenhage – Number 5 and 15 in Baird Street. Erf no. 5 had a house on it and is most probably where Piet Retief resided.

Financial concerns
As an entrepreneur, Retief experienced severe financial problems from time-to-time and debt that he had incurred sometimes overwhelmed him. By October 1815, he had sold his two plots in Baird Street at a profit. Retief had also entered into other property transactions in Uitenhage in the meantime. He had purchased three erven in Caledon Street – numbers 1, 2, and 3 – at an auction. Erf no. 1 is currently 126 and 128 Caledon Street and on erf 2 is the current Congregational church and parsonage.

After the government cancelled their contract with him, Retief commenced disengaging from Uitenhage. Due to his weak financial position, Retief was compelled to operate as a land speculator and in that manner to earn a living. During a period of 15 years from 1814 to 1829 Retief was involved in various property transactions in the swiftly growing settlement at Algoa Bay as Port Elizabeth was known prior to 1820.

For example, he purchased three business erven in the central business district of Port Elizabeth apparently with an intention of speculating. Not one of these erven was built upon. A fourth piece of ground in North End on the littoral side of Main Street between Green and Reed Streets was awarded to him in 1816.  This ground was apparently earmarked for a garden.

Today the historical vision of Piet Retief is based upon the fact that he owned Strandfontein which is in all material aspects similar to the current Port Elizabeth suburb of Summerstrand. If one takes into account the brevity of his ownership and the fertility or lack thereof and the scarcity of water, a different version of events is revealed.

This loan farm, which was previously owned by Casparus Knoetze, was transferred into the name of Pieter Retief during November 1814. The first owner of this farm had been Theodorus Potgieter. Even though Retief first took ownership of the farm in 1814, it was only in July 1819 that Retief applied for the farm be awarded to him in terms of the new land tenure system [landpagstelsel].

Retief revealed a rather indifferent attitude to the farm because even though Strandfontein was registered in Retief’s name for four years -1814 to 1818 – yet he only accepted financial responsibility for the farm for one year. He then sold the farm by the end of 1818 or the beginning 1819 to the well-known entrepreneur, Frederick Korsten of Cradock Place.

Strandfontein lay on the westerly side of Algoa Bay in the field cornetcy of Swartkops River then still part of the district of Uitenhage. The farm was 2062 morgen in size. In a southeasterly and a northeasterly direction it stretched to the sandy shores and the adjoining farms were Welbedacht of A.M. Muller and De Fonteyn of M. Oosthuyzen.

Retief’s farm was more or less where Summerstrand is situated today. It stretched from the current Happy Valley along the coast to the Humewood Golf course and then inland for approximately 3 kilometres. The farm largely consisted of sand dunes and thick shrubs. According to J.J Redgrave the farm merely comprised “a collection of arid sandhills interspersed with dense shrub and boulders.” The author also makes mention that “the shifting sandhills and wind-swept arid area of Strandfontein.” According to EK. Lorimer “the area is a dreary waste of sand and shrub.”

Map of pre 1820 farms in southern areas of the future Port Elizabeth

In the contemporary land tenure document, it is stated that Strandfontein is 189 hours way from Cape Town by ox wagon. It lay against the coast and there was no water supply [watertoevoer]. Despite this it was stated that the water stocks were sufficient. The pastures were “sour”, and the farm could only maintain 50 head of cattle for seven months of the year. Hence cattle could only graze there for a portion of the year. The farm was not suitable for cultivation and there were no cultivated fields as well as an absence of trees.

Aerial photo from 1930 showing Noordhoek dunes going right across Cape Recife. Originally the whole visible area was covered with sand dunes.

In July 1818 when Retief requested tenure of Strandfontein, he was requested to submit an inventory of his possessions. Accordingly, it stated that in his possession were 9 slaves and 2 slave girls, 12 horses, 200 oxen, 125 breeding cattle as well as 2000 sheep and goats. Everything indicated that the abovementioned head of cattle grazed at Retief’s farm in Grahamstown.

It is unclear why Retief purchased Strandfontein as it did not possess exceptional grazing.

As far as can be ascertained Retief never resided in Port Elizabeth. He is certainly one of the early owners of land in the young settlement in Algoa Bay. It is however historically untrue to label him as a prosperous large ground owner, a land baron.  He was at most, in the words of Dr A. Appell, “’n hoopvolle en onderneemende grondspekulant juis in die tyd toe dorpsuitbreiding in Uitenhage, Grahamstad en Algoabaai op dreef begin kom het.”

Retief’s memory honoured
Retief’s memory in the town is honoured by amending the name of the Sidwell Primary School in 1938 to the Piet Retief Primary School. A life-size image of the Voortrekker leader in a sitting position was unveiled on 11 November 1939.

The Piet Retief monument on the corner of Marine Drive and 8th Avenue Summerstrand, was erected on a portion of his farm, Strandfontein. This monument was originally erected at Coega. It was next to the former main road to the north, where the roads from Port Elizabeth crossed the roads to Uitenhage, Somerset East and Grahamstown intersected. The monument which was conceptualised by the well-known Gerard Moerdijk was unveiled on the 16 December 1939.  

Over the years the monument site became dilapidated. Consequently it was decided to relocate the monument to Port Elizabeth where it was re-unveiled [heronthuling] on its current stand in Summerstrand on 16 December 1975.

Pieter Mauritz Retief (1780-1838) is still a contentious [omstrede] figure in South African history.

Of more intellectual interest to me is why Port Elizabeth would recognise Piet Retief over many more worthy residents of the town. Frederick Korsten pf Cradock Place springs to mind. What about a John Owen Smith or John Paterson?

Die feite oor the omstrede Piet Retief”  by Prof. Terblanche [Die Burger, 10 March 2009]

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