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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

2. A Port
is Established

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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East London was born out of conflict. Periodic, low-intensity wars erupted occasionally on the Cape's eastern frontier as two alien cultures, one indigenous and the other colonial, disputed interests. The imperial army's attempts to control these skirmishes during the 19th century witnessed both a steady extension of the Cape's boundaries and the creation of large White settlements within the disputed area. East London owed its existence to these tensions.


It is difficult to imagine the Buffalo River mouth in its natural state, before humans used their engineering skills to excavate a harbour. Fortunately, however, maps dating back to 1847 still exist which show the river in its virginal condition. Recorded eye-witness descriptions from the years 1835 to 1836, and again in 1847, add further details to enrich our knowledge of the early 19th century landscape. We are fortunate too that during the 1870s a certain John Mackay took up residence at East London to supervise construction of the new harbour. Mackay had a deep interest in the geology of the region and wrote copious notes on his observations. He also conducted oral interviews about the state of the Buffalo River during the three decades before his arrival and from these he drew detailed maps of the river mouth, even as far back as 1835.

The original river consisted of a large lagoon, described as being some four miles in length and about 30 feet in depth. Both the eastern and western banks of the estuary had gentle slopes at the seaward end, but further inland the lagoon emerged from a deep valley, steep on both sides and covered with dense natural forests. As with most rivers in the Eastern Cape, the Buffalo tended to silt up during times of drought. The mouth was therefore often closed by a sand-bar, which shifted continuously according to the dictates of wind and tide.

At times, especially when the drought was so severe that the river ceased to flow altogether, the sand-bar formed a regular beach across which a person could walk without even wetting the feet. Usually, however, the bar would be about knee deep at low tide but impassable when the tide was full. Circumstances then changed dramatically during times of flood when the river would rage down the narrow valley and scour the floor of the lagoon, driving all the sand before it. The bar would then disappear, leaving an entrance that was at times a good twenty feet in depth and into which ships of some considerable size (for those days, at any rate) could sail.

The western shore of the river had a more gentle slope than the eastern. It also had a more certain water supply. A stream ran into the lagoon about a mile from the sea at a point which would later be known as Gately's Kloof. Further to the west was a marshy area where springs trickled continuously even in the worst of droughts. On the eastern side, however, there were two marshes of brackish water. This was the source of the "Gwygney" or Quigney River which flowed into the Buffalo Lagoon at a point roughly opposite to Gately's Kloof although the stream tended to dry up during protracted droughts.

The contemporary maps and written records indicate that there was already a Black community living at the river mouth before 1835. They were of the Gqunukhwebe people, under the authority of Chief Phato, and they had established a small village or kraal on the western shore of the river at the point where Gately's Kloof joined the lagoon. Scattered huts also dotted the gently sloping terrain further to the west.

There was apparently no habitation on the eastern shore due probably to the unfavourable climatic and geographic conditions. Not only was there a limited water supply which dried up during times of drought but the nature of the Buffalo River itself made it more convenient to settle a community on the western side. Although the generally shallow sand-bar meant that cattle could be driven over the river at low tide to graze on the eastern slopes, a flash flood might make the river impassable for months on end.

There was no other point at which the river could be conveniently crossed. The lagoon was deep and stretched far inland, while beyond that point the rocky river bed, the sheer slope of the valley and the dense, almost impenetrable bush made it practically impossible to herd cattle. Had any persons chosen to live on the eastern shore, therefore, they would have been completely cut off from the rest of the community after a period of heavy rainfall.

The people were pastoralists but they also had their gardens in which they grew their corn and other vegetables. Early written accounts dating to May 1835 mention these plots, situated near the spot where Gately's Kloof joined the lagoon. The reports also spoke of the cattle which were seen being driven over the river mouth at low tide. Indeed, in the early decades of colonial settlement, this community won a reputation as the major supplier of milk. In all respects, therefore, the people at the Buffalo mouth were like their kin further inland.


The first attempt to create a port at the mouth of the Buffalo River occurred during the war of 1834, commonly known as the 6th Frontier War. The Governor, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, personally supervised the campaign and by May 1835, when much of the fighting was over, he devised a scheme for carving out a new British territory between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers, which he named the Province of Queen Adelaide after the wife of his good friend, King William IV of England. The amaXhosa would be driven over the Kei River and a new buffer zone would come into existence, possibly with White settlements to maintain order, although it is not certain what precisely the Governor intended by the annexation.

One night, as Sir Benjamin rested with his troops at the military camp upon which he had bestowed the rather grandiose title of King William's Town, he noted that the Buffalo River ran directly through the centre of the new territory. Because the river was of reasonable size, it was logical to presume that its mouth might make a harbour for the Province. The following day, therefore, a "Hottentot" Levy of some 600 men under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Smith, he who would later become Governor of the Cape, set out to investigate the viability of the proposal.

The excursion to the coast took a whole day and according to the journal of D'Urban's aide-de-camp, James Alexander, was accomplished in an ostentatious display of military exuberance and destruction in which everything that moved was shot at. The soldiers reached the river mouth at about sunset but the small coastal community had been fore-warned, probably by the noise of the advancing gun-fire, and had already abandoned their village. Thwarted in the attempt to seize or kill any of them, the soldiers spent the night camped in the midst of the gardens, wreaking havoc on the crops growing there.

The following morning, at low tide, some herders were seen at the river mouth driving their cattle across the knee-deep sand-bar to the eastern bank. The soldiers immediately set off in pursuit but it was a hopeless chase. The distance from the gardens to the mouth was considerable and the attempt to lead horses through eddying water on a shifting bed of sea-sand was a slow process. Besides, they had other work to do and so they turned back to devote their attention to the surveying of the lagoon.

A consensus was quickly reached that the Buffalo River would indeed make an admirable port for the Province of Queen Adelaide. Alexander wrote that the river opened into "a fine lake" which was unfordable for some four miles. The depth of sand-bar at the mouth, he wrote, measured twelve feet at high tide and six feet at ebb, although this conjecture was clearly improbable if one is to accept the story of the easy escape of the herders with their cattle.

Their project completed, the soldiers returned to their headquarters at King William's Town and, in true bureaucratic fashion, the business was immediately shelved. The truth is that D'Urban had other worries and had entered into a lengthy period of procrastination which ended in 1837 with his dismissal as Governor. The problem was that both the Governor and his henchman, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith, had embroidered their official reports with copious references to the brutality with which they had conducted their military campaigns. Their anecdotes spoke of a war of revenge in which enemy soldiers were senselessly slaughtered, crops destroyed, huts razed to the ground, and women and children rounded up and led away almost as slaves.

It was the wrong time to embark upon such descriptions. By 1835 the Romantic Age was peaking in Europe and the British government was at the summit of its philanthropic pilgrimage. Indeed, Secretary of State for Colonies, Lord Glenelg, took particular exception to what he was reading. To consign an entire country "to desolation", he wrote, and a whole people "to famine" is an "aggravation of the necessary horrors of war, so repugnant to every just feeling, and so totally at variance with the habits of civilized nations". The "honour of the British name" therefore demanded a satisfactory explanation or, failing such, the Province of Queen Adelaide would have to be abandoned.

The Governor slowly collected his evidence but, while he was dilly-dallying over a suitable reply to the Colonial Office, Captain John Bailie who had been on the original expedition to the Buffalo River mouth, began to badger him with letters pleading that some action should be taken. It is probable that Bailie had ulterior motives because his own farmstead had been razed during the war and he could see excellent prospects for acquiring new land at the river mouth, a site which would quickly become extremely valuable if he could persuade the powers-that-be to create a port there.

Despite his preoccupation, Governor D'Urban eventually gave way to Bailie's pressure and consented to a ship being hired on an experimental basis to take supplies to the troops in Queen Adelaide Province. It was to be a one-off voyage because, by the time that the Knysna anchored in the roadstead at the Buffalo River mouth, the decision had already been taken to abandon the Governor's dream, the Province of Queen Adelaide.

D'Urban had succeeded in antagonising too many people and had failed to supply the demanded explanations to the Colonial Office, causing the latter to order a return to pre-war boundaries. Indeed, while a group of soldiers under the command of Captain Thomas Biddulph worked at unloading the Knysna's cargo, Lieutenant-Governor Stockenstr”m was already in King William's Town signing new treaties with the Chiefs by which their independence was to be restored.

A story is told that Stockenstr”m, having signed the treaties, set out immediately for the Buffalo mouth to witness the unloading of the Knysna's cargo. He was so impressed with what he saw, the story goes, that he thereupon named the place Port Rex in honour of the ship's owner, John Rex. The truth of this tale does seem somewhat doubtful, however, since the ink was at the time hardly dry on the treaties of independence and it is unlikely that Stockenstr”m would be so Janus-faced as to establish a colonial port within the ceded territory. It is possible, on the other hand, that the entire "naming" ceremony was simply a prank organised by bored soldiers at a party held to honour the presence of the Lieutenant Governor. True or not, however, the "port" was abandoned by the end of December 1836 and the tiny Xhosa community regained its independence.


The next attempt to create a port at the Buffalo River mouth took place more than a decade later and once again it was warfare that necessitated the action. D'Urban's successors, especially Sir Peregrine Maitland, gradually whittled away the value of Stockenstr”m's treaties until by 1846 only a vestige of independence was left the amaXhosa.

A further conflict became inevitable but, when the War of the Axe erupted in 1846, the Governor proved incapable of handling the situation. He made a series of tactical blunders and stretched the supply lines beyond their limits by using Port Elizabeth instead of the Buffalo River mouth as the port. He was also faced with mutiny amongst his own troops. Finally, a prolonged drought devastated the pastures and decimated the draught oxen which pulled the wagons. All of this naturally put immense pressure on the beleaguered British soldiers.

Eventually the Colonial Office took matters into its own hands and decided to proclaim a protectorate over the territory between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers, to be governed according to what was deemed as the best interests of the indigenous population. The area would henceforth be known as British Kaffraria. Sir Henry Pottinger, as co-author of the scheme, was thereupon requested to act as Governor so as to supervise its implementation but he accepted the post only on condition that he be appointed High Commissioner, and be offered promotion to India as soon as this became possible.

Despite the grand plans, Pottinger's influence over the frontier proved to be minimal. The war was still raging when he arrived at the Cape and he decided not to implement the scheme until such time as the hostilities had abated. That happened only towards the end of 1847, by which stage the High Commissioner's dream of a position in India had become a reality and he set sail for richer pastures in the orient. The task of establishing British Kaffraria was therefore left to his successor, none other than Sir Harry Smith, D'Urban's henchman who was now returning to the Cape in a higher capacity.

The events which then ensued were a travesty of the original plan. Smith arrived in Cape Town without the official Letters Patent to establish the Crown Colony and so he annexed the territory by virtue of his perceived authority as High Commissioner. In a single imperial sweep, he undid all the carefully devised plans and substituted them with his own. The system of administration which he thereupon installed was essentially a return to D'Urban's scheme of 1835, which Smith knew well because it was he who had been responsible for its implementation. Instead of a leap into the future, therefore, British Kaffraria took a significant step backwards to an already discredited past.

As far as East London was concerned, Smith's actions were most unfortunate. A port had already sprung into existence in April 1847, as soon as the decision had been taken to create the new protectorate. Soldiers were moved to the Buffalo River mouth and with them came the civilian camp followers, itinerant traders who made their living by selling to the army. By May that year a thriving little community of such merchants had already taken root, with soldiers in residence to protect them from attacks which never happened.

Stores and canteens were quickly established to provide the soldiers with luxuries and alcohol, while some of the more enthusiastic entrepreneurs took to journeying inland to barter hides and horns with the amaXhosa. The indigenous coastal community in turn recognised that both the soldiers and merchants lacked the skills for living on the African frontier and immediately offered their services for a fee.

Smith was quick to realise that his new "Crown Colony" was to have serious legal consequences. In essence, he had established a military government in British Kaffraria but it could only operate through the system of martial law. He needed to normalise the situation through the establishment of civilian rule but that required the publication of the Letters Patent, which he did not have. The problem did not concern the amaXhosa whom Smith was happy to suppress through his network of magistrates, backed up by the imperial army. The colonial traders, on the other hand, immediately saw loopholes in the system and were quick to milk these for their own profit.

By January 1848, not three weeks after his proclamation of British Kaffraria, the High Commissioner was already expressing disquiet over the rapid growth of a smuggling industry. Merchants as far afield as Grahamstown, the Orange River Sovereignty and even Natal, he wrote, were re-routing their goods through East London so as to avoid customs duties. Smith could do nothing to halt the process without establishing a legitimate customs post at the port.

Because of the urgency of the matter, he took the temporary expediency of annexing the port and its two mile "rayon" to the Cape Colony. In doing so, he placed East London under the colonial bureaucracy and within days Charles Wolfe was transferred to supervise the collecting of customs, thereby becoming the sole civil servant at the port. At the same time, Smith gave the community a new name - from then on the place would be known as East London instead of the cumbersome Camp at the Mouth of the Buffalo River.

It is clear that Smith's measure was meant to be temporary, to last only until the Letters Patent arrived, at which point East London would return to British Kaffraria and to normality. It was a tragedy for all concerned, however, that this did not happen. The awaited document arrived only in December 1850 but went unpublished because the High Commissioner was by then fighting yet another frontier campaign (the Mlanjeni War) which rapidly escalated in magnitude until it had swept over both the Kei and Orange Rivers, and promised to cost the British Treasury a small fortune.

Smith was soon given his marching orders and his successor, the Honourable George Cathcart, called for new Letters Patent but failed to publish these when they arrived. That brought Sir George Grey to the colonial stage, with his own grandiose scheme for the transformation of the amaXhosa into Black Englishmen. He had no intention of allowing niggling questions of legality to undermine his plans and so he shelved the Letters Patent issue until his own recall in 1859, when further delay in publication was of little worth. Until that year, therefore, East London remained a tiny enclave of the Cape Colony.

Smith's pragmatism in January 1848 had cataclysmic effects on the fledgling community at East London. For the traders, there were severe economic and legal ramifications. Although the port was legally annexed to the Cape Colony, the colonial government still regarded it as a part of British Kaffraria and therefore refused to spend so much as a penny on its development unless this was absolutely essential. British Kaffrarian military officials, on the other hand, viewed East London as part of the Cape Colony and consistently refused to include the port in their limited budgets unless it would directly aid military efficiency.

The impasse was felt in every sphere. The harbour, touted as having advantages far outweighing those of Port Elizabeth and even Cape Town, was left virtually undeveloped. The Commissariat Surf-Boat Establishment at East London established a monopoly on the transportation of merchandise to and from the ships anchored in the roadstead, resulting in such gross inefficiency that merchants found it easier and cheaper to transport goods overland from Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. The new port, with its wonderful prospects, was soon stagnating under a recession from which it would never fully recover.

For the Black community, circumstances were even worse. The people of the coastal village found themselves caught up in a nebulous legal system where they were theoretically citizens of the Cape Colony but in practice were ruled under a system of martial law as if they were still a part of British Kaffraria. In reality, they belonged to neither world and so became victims of unique circumstances which would echo through the decades, to be felt even as late as the 1930s.

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