Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cape Recife Lighthouse-Protection from Thunderbolt Reef

The entrance to Algoa Bay from the west was treacherous with  Thunderbolt Reef being especially hazardous. In spite of the authorities being cognisant of these dangers, for decades no progress could be made in convincing the Cape Government to erect a lighthouse at Cape Recife.

However, the struggle was finally successful, and that saga is covered by this blog. 

Main picture: Cape Recife Lighthouse

Portuguese Explorers

Bartholomeu Dias was a knight of the royal court, superintendent of the royal warehouses, and sailing-master of the man-of-war, São Cristóvão (Saint Christopher). King John II of Portugal appointed him, on 10th October 1487, to head an expedition to sail around the southern tip of Africa in the hope of finding a trade route to India. Dias was also charged with searching for the lands ruled by Prester John, who was a fabled Christian priest and ruler.

Map of Cape Recife Area
Cape Recife Lighthouse 1851

Dias’s squadron of three caravels rounded the Cabo de Roca (Cape Recife) and entered Baia da Roca – Algoa Bay – sometime during late February 1488. Dias’s expedition reached its furthest point on 12th March 1488 when it anchored at Kwaaihoek, near the mouth of the Bushmans River, where a padrão—the Padrão de São Gregório—was erected before turning back. Dias wanted to continue sailing to India, but he was forced to abandon that plan when his crew mutinied and refused to go further. The remnants of this padrão or stone pillar were found by Eric Axelson in 1938.

This was the last photo taken of the Kapodistrias wreck at Cape Recife- the next morning she was gone
This was the last photo taken of the Kapodistrias wreck at Cape Recife- the next morning she was gone

The discovery of the passage around southern Africa was significant because, for the first time, Europeans realised that they could trade directly with India and other parts of Asia, bypassing the overland route through the Middle East, with its expensive intermediaries. Regrettably, the official report of the expedition has been lost.

Vasco da Gama, the successor to Bartolomeu Dias, was the second European explorer to view Cape Recife, named Cabo do Arricife – Cape of the Reef – on his charts, when he entered Algoa Bay in December 1497 during his voyage to India.

One of the shipping beacons out Cape Recife. In addition to the lighthouse there are two beacons that were used in the early days to guide ships into Algoa Bay before the advent of modern navigational equipment. Ships sailing along the southern coast towards Algoa Bay had to stay on a straight course until they lined up the two beacons. Only then was it safe to turn into the Bay and avoid running aground on the treacherous Thunderbolt Reef.
One of the two shipping beacons at Cape Recife. The beacons that were used in the early days to guide ships into Algoa Bay before the advent of modern navigational equipment. Ships sailing along the southern coast towards Algoa Bay had to stay on a straight course until they lined up the two beacons. Only then was it safe to turn into the Bay and avoid running aground on the treacherous Thunderbolt Reef.

Requests to erect a lighthouse

The issue of erecting some kind of marker at Cape Recife was first raised in 1811 to little avail. Even an offer by a Captain Callender in 1819 to build a lighthouse there at his own expense was declined as it was considered a government project.

After Captain Fairfax Moresby surveyed the eastern coast as far as the Keiskamma River in 1820, he recommended that a lighthouse be built at Cape Recife to safeguard the coastal trade.

Captain Sir Fairfax Moresby
Captain Sir Fairfax Moresby

The subject was next raised in 1826 by the Customs Official at Port Elizabeth, William Dunn. “The whole expense of keeping up a humble Light would cheerfully be paid by the Coasters, and such is the general anxiety manifested by everyone conversant on the subject, that I have no doubt sufficient private subscriptions might be obtained to build a Cottage Light house.”  Dunn proposed obtaining oil for the light from the nearby whale fishery of Frederick Korsten.

The lighthouse issue was taken a step further in August 1827. After a meeting at Robinson’s Hotel under the chairmanship of Captain Evatt, a petition was submitted requesting that one be built on the western shore of Algoa Bay at public expense. Frederick Korsten even offered to donate the necessary land. The idea was supported in the 1828 Commission of Inquiry Report on Cape trade and harbour facilities.

D'Urban Rock at Cape Recife
600D’Urban Rock at Cape Recife

At the beginning of 1835, another memorial was submitted calling for a lighthouse at Cape Recife. Although it was similar to the 1827 memorial, it was timed to coincide with one of the governor’s visits to the frontier. D’Urban, on his way back to Cape Town, spent three weeks at Scorey’s Hotel. An address was presented to him pointing out the need for a lighthouse at Cape Recife. More cynically, an elaborate picnic was organised for him at Cape Recife during October 1835 at which the proposed lighthouse site was named D’Urban rock. However, it was all to no avail. Instead, Capt. Charles Selwyn of the Royal Engineers erected a beacon – Selwyn’s Beacon – on the Hummock, the hillock at the centre of the peninsula. This extemporised beacon comprised a spar, painted white, with a black cask mounted on top of it.

Selwyn’s Beacon

It would seem that if, approaching from the west, Cape St. Francis could easily be confused with Cape Recife causing Captains to turn into the bay thinking that they had arrived.  Depending on the wind direction in the days of sail, it could have taken quite some time to extricate themselves from this embarrassment.  No remnants of the beacon remain but we do have the historical record of establishing it.  It seems as if a beacon comprising a white painted spar and a black cask on top and it was placed on the highest clear point near Cape Recife.  This was the ‘Hummock’ surveyed by Major CJ Selwyn and named – wait for it – Selwyn’s Beacon.  This productivity and face-saving aid was announced in the 1836 Government Gazette that fixed it at 3½ miles NNW of Cape Recife.

Google Earth’s map of Selwyn’s Beacon

With the construction of the Jetty in 1837 using the wreck of the ship Feejee as the base, attention was diverted away from the treacherous reefs off Cape Recife. The next move came from the government who were intent on generally improving communications at the Cape. However, its scheme for opening mountain passes, coupled with lighthouse construction, convinced the Secretary of State that the Chief Engineer, Charles Michell, “was merely an enthusiast out to squander money.” Thus, permission was refused. Undaunted, Michell continued to actively campaign for lighthouses until Lord John Russell ordered him to prepare estimates for Cape Recife, Cape Agulhas, Simon’s Bay and Mouille Point. In July 1842, Michell submitted his proposal for Cape Recife amounting to £12, 848.

Lord John Russell
Lord John Russell

Progress at last

The scheme eventually got off the ground in February 1848, when the secretary to the government, John Montagu (1843-52), personally chose the site and commissioned a local architect to draft plans, which were then submitted to Cape Town. In July, it was reported that the project would be started within a month of the completion of the Agulhas lighthouse. To everybody’s disappointment, the government engineer, Captain George Pilkington, arrived early in 1849 but “came in the morning and departed after a few hours stay.” Despite local scepticism, in June it was announced that Pilkington’s plan for the Cape Recife lighthouse was to commence immediately. In August 1849, the tower’s foundations were thrown.

At the same time as construction commenced at Cape Recife, moves were afoot to resurvey the area. This the navy was unwilling to do without admiralty permission as a survey had been done by Captain Owen in 1826. Meanwhile, the ex-harbour master, Jamison, now at Simon’s Town, was asked to report on the subject and confirmed the need for a resurvey.

Thomas Maclear
Thomas Maclear

The Cape Royal Astronomer, Thomas Maclear, had also been consulted about where to locate the lighthouse. Ultimately, it was decided that Owen’s chart was sufficiently accurate to pinpoint the lighthouse’s position but the problem was that the scale was too small to indicate the dangerous rocks.

The lighthouse was built of stone under the supervision of G.W. Pilkington, son of George Pilkington, Civil Engineer for the Colony. In July 1850, with the lighthouse nearing completion, the government again requested the navy to assist in surveying Cape Recife. During the following month, the government engineer was ordered to remove the obsolete beacon at Cape Recife.

The Cape Recife lighthouse was completed by early March 1851. Henry Switzer of Cape Town was appointed as the first lighthouse keeper, with Henry Jenkins as his assistant. The light was officially lit for the first time on 1st April 1851. In February 1853, George Feather replaced Henry Switzer as lighthouse keeper.

Cape Recife#05

Finally, in 1856, the newly appointed harbour master, Lt. H.G. Simpson, initiated a scheme to open up communications with the Recife lighthouse by means of a signal station.


Description of the Cape Recife Peninsular

The outer rim of the peninsula is edged with outcrops of the hard sandstone of the Table Mountain series, and the strata are highly inclined from having come under great pressure in the geological past, accounting for the sharp jagged nature of the rocks on this. part of the coast. The interior of the peninsula is a mixture of bush cut across by wide stretches of sand. The original bush was probably acacia but has now been invaded by the Port Jackson willow. Lieut. Wily’s map of 1816 has the legend “Sand covered with heath, frequented sometimes by ostriches” and the bush is marked with “Bush bucks, porcupines, wild boars, tygers, etc.” The calcareous sand consists of broken shells and various minerals, mainly quartz. An old Admiralty manual of sailing directions for this coast makes a special note of the Cape Recife Hillock in the centre of the peninsula as a guide for mariners to distinguish it from Cape St. Francis for which it was sometimes mistaken. About 3/4 of a mile W.S.W. of the Cape lies Thunderbolt Reef, usually distinguished only by the breakers, although in calm weather and at low water the reefs can actually be seen. The manual advised vessels approaching the Bay to keep at a distance of 2½ miles from the Cape.

Cape Recife Nature Reserve


Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70, Jon Inggs, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986 Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth) Cape Receife by Alf Porter [Looking Back, March 1981]


    • My father, Gert (Better know as Gellie) Geldenhuys, as well as the rest of my family including myself, were stationed here between 1984 and 1991. Although we only lived on the lighthouse premises for around 5 years before the building we lived in was deemed unsafe due to the fact that the harsh weather conditions were causing the build to basically fall apart. I loved it there though…growing up as a 3 to 8 year old…I had the largest play ground any child could ever wish for! My father was pictured in one of the local news papers on the first or 2nd pages pointing out the stranded Kapodistrias vessel that ran aground.

  1. Pingback: Milana Travis

Leave a Comment.