Port Elizabeth of Yore: Port Instructions Issued in 1844

Whether due to a lack of funds or wilful neglect, by the 1840s, despite Port Elizabeth’s harbour exceeding Cape Town for exports, it still operated directly from the beaches. The so-called landing beaches stretched along the beach from Jetty Street to the mouth of the Baakens River. 

The loading and unloading of vessels at anchor in the Bay has been dealt with in a prior blog. Instead this article, deals with the management of the vessels in the Bay during those early years.

Main picture: Vessels at anchor in Algoa Bay

Without question, the operation of the “harbour” in the 1840s was archaic by nineteenth century standards. The clamour for the erection of jetties was persistent yet these calls fell on deaf ears. It stands to reason that the lack of jetties delayed the process of loading and unloading vessels to such an extend that the turnaround time in the Bay could extend to as much as a month. It is little wonder that ship owners demanded a more productive method of operation.

In order to systematise the harbour operations, on the 6th February 1844, the Governor, John Montegu, issued the proclamation entitled “Notice to Mariners. Fort Instructions for Algoa Bay.”

These port instructions at the time read as follows: Should it be the intention of the master of a vessel to discharge or receive on board any considerable quantity of cargo, a convenient berth will be pointed out by the Port Captain, as close to the landing-place as the safety of the vessel and other circumstances will admit.   

The vessel must then be moored with two bower anchors, with an open hawse to the South East and especial care taken not to overlay the anchors of other vessels, or in any way to give them a foul berth. Ships or vessels touching for water and refreshments, may ride at single anchor, but they must then anchor well to the northward, so as to prevent danger (in case of drifting) to the vessels moored; and it is particularly recommended, when riding at single anchor to veer out 70 or 80 fathoms of chain; the other bower cable should be ranged and the anchor kept in perfect readiness to let go; strict attention should be paid to keep a clear hawse, (when moored), the more so when it is probable [that] the wind may blow from the S.E., and whether at single anchor or moored, the sheet anchor should be ready for immediate use.

The situation of the vessel must be taken by land-marks, and the depth of the water, and should any accident occur by which she may drift from such [a] situation, or lose her anchors, the same must be notified in writing to the Port Captain. 

Frederick Marryat painted by John Simpson

It is recommended that vessels be kept as snug as possible; especially such as may have to remain some time in the anchorage, for the periodical winds blow occasionally with much violence

Vessels having Marryat’s Code of Signals can make their wishes known to their Agents, in blowing weather, through the Port Office. Vessels not having the Code, can make the following with their Ensigns:

1st. Ensign in the Fore Top-mast Rigging – I am in want of a Cable

2nd. Ensign in the Main Top-mast Rigging – I am in want of an Anchor

3rd. Ensign in the Fore Rigging – I have parted a bower cable

4th. Ensign in the Main Rigging – I am in want of an Anchor and a cable

5th. Whift, where best seen – Send off a boat


Whenever a red flag may be hoisted at the Port Office, it denotes that it is unsafe for any Boat to land.

(Signed) H.G. DUNSTERVILLE. Port Captain, Approved

By Command of His Excellency, the Governor


Sec. to Government

Colonial Office, 6th February, 1844.


Bower anchors: each of two anchors carried at a ship’s bow, formerly distinguished as the best bower (starboard) or small bower (port).

Open hawse: an arrangement of starboard and port anchor cables in which the cables run directly to the anchors

Sheet anchor: an additional anchor for use in emergencies.

Whift:  noun obsolete. Meaning a brief emission of air or a hint of a sound or smell.


The Eastern Province Directory and Almanac for 1848 (1848, Godlonton & White, Grahamstown)


  1. Dean in your fine article on shipping the heading quotes the year 1844 yet the source document is 1848.I think its a case of too much brandy sauce on the pud.Thanks for the blogs its always interesting Hope 2018 is a good year.


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