Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cecil Rhodes and the Countess of Carnarvon

The Countess of Carnarvon possessed neither pretensions of royalty nor naval majesty. Instead, it was a small screw steamer of 100 tons, which operated in Algoa Bay. In his inimitable way of paying scant regard to treaties and morality, Cecil John Rhodes conjured up a masterstroke to acquire land illegally on the Pungwe River in Gazaland, Portuguese East Africa using this nondescript vessel as a gunrunner. 

If this scheme was illegal and immoral, Cecil John Rhodes did not understand the basis of what was unlawful. Would this outrageous scheme finally blot his copybook? 

Main picture: The Countess of Carnarvon, probably painted in Genoa after her completion

Early life of the Countess

It is worth noting that I possess a tenuous family link – not to these illicit actions – but rather to the former owner of this passenger launch cum tug. My aunt married a Mr Wood and her mother-in-law’s father was Joseph Giri, a so-called “Passenger Boat Proprietor” who had purchased some of the first steam tugs in Port Elizabeth. These vessels were probably used for transporting passengers and goods in the bay and also for coastal trade. It should be remembered that during this period, Port Elizabeth never possessed a proper enclosed harbour. Instead, it comprised three jetties protruding out to sea, unprotected from the devastating south-easter winds. All ships anchored somewhere in the Bay and goods and passengers first had to be transhipped to smaller vessels for passage to one of the three jetties or the beach.

As Joseph died fairly young, and his children were too young to take over the running of the business, it was sold to the Messina Brothers who were launch proprietors. Included in that sale of assets was this steam launch with the pretentious name – The Countess of Carnarvon.

Rhodes’ plan

Rhodes had always been an arch imperialist even more so than the political establishment in England. He dreamt megalomaniac dreams of British hegemony over vast swathes of Africa. In many ways, Rhodes disdained convention, one being his personal life. In fact, his love life was an enigma to society in an era when homosexuality was considered to be an abomination. His attraction to young men belied the impression conjured up as a macho man.

Hoisting the flag at Fort Salisbury
Hoisting the flag at Fort Salisbury

On 13th September 1890, the Pioneer Column of the British South Africa Company – B.S.A. – reached Fort Salisbury. The British flag was hoisted indicating that Mashonaland had been taken in the Queen’s name. This was but one step in Rhodes ambitious plans. What he foresaw was the necessity to create a short route to the Indian Ocean for the transport of goods to and from Mashonaland. It was a matter of pure economics and damn the fact that Gazaland already was in the orbit of the Portuguese. The cost of transport from South African ports would be £72 per ton whereas from the east coast ports it would be £11. The only decision was the location of the port. After consultation, the mouth of the Pungwe River, today’s Beira, was regarded as the most suitable.

Mouth of the Pungwe River
Mouth of the Pungwe River

That the Portuguese claimed sovereignty over the area, did not perturb Rhodes in the least. In his dissembling manner, he held that there was no effective occupation much like a latter day President Clinton could shamelessly claim, “I did not have sex with THAT woman.”  Like a mendacious lawyer, he also held that if he could obtain concessions from native chiefs, he was prepared to take over the whole of Gazaland. Did he envisage bluster and bombast on a Trumpian scale when his ruse exposed? Already his endeavours to take over Manicaland was also provoking conflict with the Portuguese.

However, the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, was cut from a different cloth than Rhodes. Even though he was also an ardent imperialist like Rhodes, he still possessed some modicum of respect for international morality and treaties, neither of which Rhodes displayed. Moreover, in 1889, Britain had expressly recognised that the Portuguese owned the coastal strip between the Zambezi and Crocodile Rivers. As far as Lord Salisbury was concerned, no argument would alter that fact.

Lord Salisbury
Lord Salisbury

Even before the occupation of Mashonaland, Rhodes had despatched Dr Aurel Schultz to negotiate with the chief of Gazaland, Chief Gungunhana. On the 4th October 1890, in the presence of his indunas and Dr Schultz’s party, Gungunhana had stated his willingness to grant full mineral and commercial rights over his whole territory on condition that the B.S.A. supplied him with a thousand rifles and twenty thousand rounds of ammunition. Moreover, he demanded a subsidy of £500 per annum. Shrewdly, Gungunhana promised to ratify this in writing upon the delivery of the guns and cartridges together with the first instalment of the subsidy. In the document drafted by Dr Schultz, it stated that the concession was to be considered as a Treat of Alliance between Gungunhana and the government of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.

The matter was further complicated by the fact that, after negotiations between the British and Portuguese governments, a modus vivendi had been drafted on the 14th November 1890, in which Gazaland was recognised as falling within the Portuguese sphere of influence. The Company’s contention was that as their agreement predated the modus vivendi, it was still effective.

Supplying the guns

So far so good. By means of legal ruse and subterfuge, Rhodes had succeeded in the first phase of his endeavour. Now he was faced with a more daunting prospect: how to deliver the guns to the King. As Rhodes had already sailed for England, he delegated the matter to Dr Rutherford Harris, the South African Secretary of the Company.

Cecil Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes

With a few days after the receipt of Dr Schultz’s letter in January, he arranged for the purchase of the steamer, “The Countess of Carnarvon.”  Dr Harris had initially decided to send the guns overland  from Fort Tuli but he decided against that option as it the route was impassable during the rainy season. He elected the less fraught alternative option viz to send them by ship under the noses of the Portuguese. Amongst his many misdemeanours, Rhodes would now be adding smuggling.

Having acquired the ship, Harris engaged as skipper, a captain Henry Buckingham who was familiar with the navigation of East African rivers. On the 10th February 1891, the guns and ammunition was loaded onto the ship in Algoa Bay. Where Harris had managed to acquire such quantities of weaponry without arousing suspicions, is astounding. The party who were to deliver the guns also came on board. They comprised Mr J.S. Stevens, Captain A. Pawley, and six members of the British South African Company’s police. The “Countess” sailed on the 11th February 1891, and reached Durban on the 13th. The bad weather that delayed them for two days was used profitably by loading additional coal and water. The ship crossed the bar of the Limpopo River on the 17th when it sailed three or four miles upriver where it anchored for the night.

In the evening, three Portuguese officials came in board. They indicated that their post was a little further up the river and that an official call would be made the following day. To prevent a visitation by the Portuguese officials, on the following morning the captain hoved up the anchor and proceeded up the river, flying the British Ensign. A few miles further on, they passed a  few shanties. Officers on the bank shouted at them and hoisted the Portuguese but unperturbed, the Captain steamed on, disregarding the commotion and signals to ultimately drop anchor at a village called Chaichai. The local chief informed them that this was “the King’s landing place.”

Limpopo River
Limpopo River

While the guns, ammunition and other goods were landed and stored in a hut, messengers sped off to the Manhlagazi, the King’s Kraal, asking for carriers to be sent. The messengers returned on the 21st with letters from Dr Schultz and a riding mule for Stevens who set out the following day on the 45 mile journey taking the subsidy money but leaving the rifles in charge of Captain Pawley.

Stevens had barely left, when a force of 150 native troops and some Portuguese officers commanded by an official named Raposo arrived and took possession of the landing stage. Communication with the shore was cut off but at about 10:30, Captain Pawley shouted orders for the ship to leave for Durban, where she would have her engines overhauled, take on fresh stores and return in about a week to pick up Schultz and Stevens. As she was unable to sail until dawn the following day, Captain Buckingham slept fitfully as he expected an attack by the Portuguese at any time. The Countess reached Durban on the 24th February and  departed again on the 27th.

BSAP Troop at Umtali in Manicaland
BSAP Troop at Umtali in Manicaland

Fortunately, for the Countess party on shore, Rapozo, the chief Portuguese official, was hapless as he had only a hazy idea of what he ought to do. Instead of impounding the guns, he demanded an amount of £2000 as Customs Duty. Pawley protested but eventually relented by providing a Personal Bond amounting to £2000 for payment to the Portuguese government. Rapozo had allowed himself to be conned into releasing the arms, and these were immediately removed by the carriers of the King who had arrived.

Dr Leander Starr Jackson now makes more than a guest appearance. In accordance with the wishes of Rhodes, he set out from Umtali on the 10th January 1892 with Denis Doyle, an expert linguist, and Dunbar Moodie, a Manicaland prospector, to map out the route to the Pungwe and also to secure the concession document which Schultz had drawn up with Gungunhana. After an appalling journey, they arrived at the King’s Kraal on the 2nd March while the delivery of guns and cash was occurring. The king lost no time in calling together his councillors and formally signing the document with Jameson, Schultz, Doyle and Stevens signing on behalf of the Company.

King Gungunhana
King Gungunhana

At the meeting, the King appealed to be taken under the protection of the British Crown, and that two of his indunas be sent to England to plead his cause. It was decided that Schultz should stay to arrange for them to go later. The party then left to be return to the Limpopo where they hoped to be picked up by Captain Buckingham.

On his arrival at Durban, Buckingham found that the Portuguese Customs Steamer, the “Marechal MacMahon” was undergoing repairs. He decided to give her a wide berth and slipped out of port early on the morning of 27th February, reaching the old anchorage on the Limpopo on the 1st March. He waited there for several days for the party returning from Manhlagazi. On the seventh, the “MacMahon” steamed up and dropped anchor twenty yards astern. An officer was sent aboard the “Countess” to enquire as to her name and business and with orders to lower the British ensign. At first, Buckingham refused to do so but after being threatened, he lowered the ensign. The next day the party from the King’s kraal reached the river and went on board. The Commander of the “MacMahon” ordered Buckingham not to leave his anchorage and asked for his signature of consent. This he refused to do. The Commander then ordered all the crew and passengers on the “Countess” to go aboard the gunboat. Doyle was now too sick to be moved, so Dr Jameson volunteered to stay and look after him. After an argument, Captain Buckingham and one engineer were also allowed to stay but the ship was taken over by sixteen armed Portuguese troops. The next morning the two ships steamed down the river together and three days later, they anchored at Delagoa Bay. There the passengers and crew were declared free but the “Countess” was held for duties and a fine on a charge of alleged smuggling.

Map of the area
Map of the area

Jameson, however, saved his precious treaty. When it became evident that the  Portuguese were about to take action, he handed it to an African who slipped ashore and riding Moodie’s horse across country, made his way to Lorenco Marques, where he handed the parcel to the British consul. A few days after the seizure of the “Countess”, Captain Pawley and his men arrived at Chaichai but found to their astonishment no ship waiting for them. They had to stay there until the 23rd April when the Portuguese gunboat “Marechal MacMahon” picked them up and brought them to Lourenco Marques. In the meantime, almost all of the party had gone down with fever and one trooper died.

The seizure of the “Countess” led to a first class diplomatic row and brought the whole question of Gazaland before the Foreign Ministers of Portugal and Britain. At the Cape, Sir Henry Loch, the Governor, wanted the British government to send a warship to Portuguese East Africa. In Portugal, feelings ran so high that a movement was started to raise a special expeditionary force to resist the feared British invasion. The B.S.A. Company’s lame explanation annoyed Lord Salisbury. The Portuguese were adamant that the ship would not be released until a fine of £3,400 was paid, failing which the ship would be sold. The Company paid the fine and the officer in charge of the “Countess”, Captain Buckingham, having gone to Port Elizabeth on 27th April, was informed on the 23rd May, that he could leave at any time. The ship, however, was not able to leave until the 8th June after the return of Captain Buckingham.

The consequence of this affair was that on the 11th June 1891, a treaty was drawn up defining the respective spheres of influence of Portugal and England. Part of Manicaland fell within the British sphere, the passage of British goods through Portuguese territory was arranged on favourable terms and plans were formulated for a railway to Beira. Gazaland, however, remained Portuguese.

Post script

As far as can be ascertained, after this episode, the “Countess” reverted back to the Messina Brothers in Port Eliabeth.

Ironically, it was the “Countess of Carnarvon” which was requested to transport the two representatives of King Gungunhana back to their country after their visit to England, where they had been feted and given presents, although there was no diplomatic result from their visit.

Amongst the pile of ships during onshore during the great gale of August 1902, was the Countess of Carnarvon

The “Countess of Carnarvon” might have survived its encounter with the Portuguese authorities but it was unable to survive the predations of the South Easter in Algoa Bay. In the great gale of August 1902, “The Countess of Carnarvon” was driven onto the North End beach and destroyed.

Thus ended the tumultuous career of such an insignificant little vessel.


The Countess of Carnarvon – Gun Runner by A. Porter

Hansard: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1891/apr/23/the-countess-of-carnarvon


  1. You spoil an otherwise interesting story of the Countess w/ this gay crap.. totally irrelevant to the story and unsubstantiated assumptions..

    “In many ways, Rhodes disdained convention, one being his personal life. In fact, his love life was an enigma to society in an era when homosexuality was considered to be an abomination. His attraction to young men belied the impression conjured up as a macho man.”


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