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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

3. Birth of the
Location System

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The Xhosa community at the Buffalo River mouth would not have perceived in 1847 that the arrival of the British soldiers, together with their "camp followers", could in any way threaten their own well-being and traditions. Indeed, many in the village would have remembered the earlier military camp of November 1836, when the soldiers had scarcely disturbed village life. It was an understandable expectation, therefore, that the newcomers of April 1847 would also be brief sojourners and so the indigenous community went out of its way to make them welcome. As a result the twin villages of Black and White peoples gave every indication, during those initial months, of forming a peaceful and harmonious society, despite the war raging in the interior.


The White arrivals, being a mixture of soldiers and merchants, did not generally possess the particular skills for survival on a frontier but needed the aid of the amaXhosa. The latter in turn quickly realised that they were particularly qualified in four essential areas. The newcomers needed daily supplies of milk and vegetables. There was a demand for drivers to goad the oxen pulling the heavy wagons, and for guides to escort both soldiers and merchants into the interior. There was also the necessity for house-building expertise. All of these skills could be plentifully supplied by the people of the local village.

In April 1847, when the first wagons of militia and supplies trundled into the Buffalo Lagoon area, the soldiers were ordered "to hut themselves". In very unmilitary disorganisation, they chose plots with haphazard abandon and did their best to provide shelters. They were soon forced, however, to call for expert assistance from the nearby community and Xhosa-style wattle-and-daub huts, with thatched roofs, began to appear here and there. Once the walls were dry, they were given a bright coating of yellow lime-wash. The cost of constructing these dwellings was estimated as ranging between £20 to £30 each, while the larger ones, termed to be "of the more aristocratic order", cost as much as £35 to £40.

The "camp followers" were in the same precarious situation as their military counterparts and needed local expertise to build huts which they situated in amongst the soldiers' dwellings, also with scant attention to order or to the future development of the town. The Xhosa village itself was not more than 500 yards away from the new White community. Since several of their huts were also scattered about the countryside, there was every possibility of a mixed community developing at East London, with merchant and soldier, Black person and White, living together as neighbours. Perhaps in another country and, at another time, this might have continued.

By January 1848 the total population at the port was small. Unfortunately the official statistic for the Black community listed only males but, if the ratio of men to women and children provided in an 1860 survey holds true for the earlier period, one can calculate an approximate population of 60 men, 50 women and some 120 children. Apart from those people who lived within the two mile "rayon", another twenty entered regularly to supply the town with milk. Moreover, whenever ships arrived, the population increased temporarily as more labour was forthcoming to unload the vessels.

The merchants, on the other hand, formed a tiny community, probably numbering less than ten at that stage. Even while the war was still raging up-country, these people had opened a trade in hides, horns and gum with the amaXhosa but their existence was too precarious to bring wives and children to join them, if indeed any were as yet married. The soldiers therefore formed the largest group, numbering some 200 men, but many of these were en route to the interior and were using the port as a temporary base. The result was that, although the total population at East London was probably about 400, the approximate number of Black people equalled that of the Whites.

The evolution of a mixed population was further promoted by the occasional arrival of sailors. Because shipping was initially infrequent, no arrangements were made to accommodate the sporadic influx of seamen who frequented the canteens and thereafter sought a roof for the night. Captains could afford the East London Tavern and Inn, the port's first hotel, but the sailors often took up temporary lodging with the amaXhosa, a circumstance which would continue for at least a decade although frowned upon by the port's military officials.


Given the nature of segregation that would eventually develop throughout South Africa, it would be naive to assume that an idyllic integrated community could have emerged at East London. Legal segregation, however, was rudely thrust upon the port population in January 1848, at that fateful moment when Sir Harry Smith annexed East London to the Cape Colony. Indeed, his action ushered in two legal systems, one for the Whites and another for the Black population.

The probability was that the Governor simply did not think out the possible consequences of his actions. He merely saw an immediate problem - that smuggling was beginning to occur through East London - to which he imposed an impulsive and short-sighted solution. Annexing East London to the Cape Colony, however, created legal problems for the White community: how would the small group of merchants find judicial redress if such was necessary? The King William's Town community fell under the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act but, because the Act applied only to British subjects who lived beyond the borders of the Cape Colony, it could no longer be applied to East London which was now a part of the Colony.

Smith solved this problem by proclaiming that the residents at the port would temporarily fall under the colonial district of Victoria, which meant that a circuit court could sit when necessity dictated. The point must be stressed, however, that this solution was meant to apply only to the White community because they alone were regarded as British subjects. The Xhosa residents within the two mile "rayon", on the other hand, were still looked upon as part and parcel of the general British Kaffrarian population, despite the fact that in reality they were now physically located within the boundary of the Cape Colony.

The amaXhosa of British Kaffraria fell under a system of Magistrates and Special Commissioners to whom they had to apply for authorization if they wished to enter the Cape Colony. Such permission was granted in the form of a legal document called a "pass". The nearest Special Commissioner to East London, however, was Lieutenant Colonel John Maclean but he lived at Fort Murray which was over 30 miles away. Any Black person who wished to enter the White village had therefore to make the 60 mile return journey to Fort Murray to acquire the necessary pass, even if that person lived only half a mile from the port.

This arrangement led to unsurpassable difficulties for the Black community, especially for such people as the herders who wished to enter the White village on a daily basis to sell their milk. This did not unduly worry the White officials; their chief anxiety was the fact that these preposterous arrangements unduly hampered trade at the port. Because shipping was as yet sporadic, it was not cost-effective to employ a permanent labour force. Migrant workers were therefore preferred but the sudden arrival of a ship created a massive headache because of the difficulty in acquiring immediate passes for the required influx of labourers.

Because this situation militated against White interests at the port, it therefore resulted in pressure being brought to bear on the Special Commissioner to relax the system. As a result, the Resident Magistrate at East London was eventually empowered to issue passes in future - but that was only in November 1849, after almost three years of the worst possible inconvenience to the Black community.

Chief Commissioner John Maclean, however, made it clear that the exception referred only to sellers of milk and those wishing to enter the village as labourers. Free access to East London was not to be permitted. He also made it a rule that the passes could not be issued except for specific purposes such as recovery of cattle or property. Certainly they were never to be issued, he said, "on the frivilous [sic] excuse of visiting, or seeing sick relations." Indeed, Maclean referred to instructions from the Governor himself that the district of East London was to be kept free of all Black people not authorised to remain there. Essentially, therefore, the local Xhosa village was now regarded as nothing more than a labour pool for the White community, a situation which would persist for almost a century.

While the pass law was being revised, however, Maclean also imposed another directive that all "native" huts scattered within the two mile "rayon" of East London be pulled down. In a sense this was merely bringing the Black community at the port into line with their kin throughout British Kaffraria as a similar directive had been issued there as early as March 1848. It had the effect, however, of forcing all the amaXhosa into the riverside village.

The first "location" at East London was therefore created in November 1849 and strict organisation based on a form of martial law was then imposed. The freedom of movement of the initial months was thus replaced by rigid separation of the White and Black populations. Maclean was even prepared to waive an established principle that no troops at the port were allowed to be used as police. The term "location" now became the official designation for the Xhosa village and Maqoma, an autocrat and a drunkard, was appointed as Headman, reporting to the local Magistrate and no longer to Chief Phato.

Yet the authorities were still not happy with the situation and sought the means to establish ever greater control. The constant influx of people such as migrant labourers and the milk-sellers who lived outside the "rayon" was considered a "disturbance to the orderliness of the community" and so, midway through 1849, it was decided that all the amaXhosa living within the magisterial district must be located at the location to form, Maclean said, "but one native village." A sunset-to-dawn curfew was then introduced, with a bell to announce the time for departure from the White residential area.


In December 1850, the burden of Sir Harry Smith's autocratic regime in British Kaffraria became too heavy to bear and yet another frontier conflagration erupted. The Mlanjeni War was to be the greatest conflict yet, lasting three years and spreading to the neighbouring territories of the trans- Kei and the Orange River Sovereignty. It would cost the British Treasury dearly and would lead to the demise of both Sir Harry and his successor, the Honourable Sir George Cathcart, neither of whom was able to control the situation.

At the same time, the European nations had entered upon a new political era. The Romantic Age was by now quite dead, having passed away during the time of the revolutionary period of the late 1840s. By 1852 a more pragmatic approach was being adopted for international diplomacy and the era of Realpolitik was being born. Furthermore, the British Treasury, reeling from the shock of the Mlanjeni War, was beginning to insist that the colonial citizens be made more responsible for their actions.

The result of the changed philosophy was the enactment in 1853 of a new constitution for the Colony which saw the introduction of representative government and the first parliament was opened in June 1854. It was to be a debating chamber rather than a responsible government and, in any case, the body of fledgling politicians needed time to stretch their wings and would fall under the spell of any charismatic leader. Such a man was Sir George Grey, the first English civilian to grace the Cape's Tuynhuis. He was the imperial blue-eyed boy and was wallowing for the moment in the confidence of the British government after his apparent success in New Zealand.

Grey came armed with a totally new policy for British Kaffraria which was based on his earlier plan for the Maoris. He wanted to convert the amaXhosa to his personal ideal of civilization and Christianity but to do this, he argued, he needed to "open up" the territory and create employment. This would make the people dependent upon the British style of economy and at the same time would break the power of the Chiefs. Yet to do all this, he needed institutions of what he termed a "civil character" such as schools, hospitals and mission stations which he believed would have a dramatic acculturating effect.

The key feature of Grey's plan, and around which all else revolved, was an intense immigration scheme. The Governor wanted some 5 000 retired British military officers, together with their wives and children, to settle in British Kaffraria. Not only would that create a White population of some 20 000 people in the region but, being ex-soldiers, they would form the immediate nucleus of an army should they be needed in times of unrest.

Grey laboured hard to persuade the Colonial Office to accept this idea, using a combination of argument and veiled threat. He knew that the British government was paranoid about the possibility of yet another frontier war. He also knew that almost any story he devised to fuel these fears would pass virtually unchallenged by his bosses in England who lived so far away that they were dependent upon his telling the whole truth. He therefore set about a clever scheme of prophesying yet another frontier war, knowing that the mere thought of the expense that this would incur would send shudders through the Treasury officials. His scheme, on the other hand, would cost a paltry £40 000 per annum which was nothing in comparison to the millions a war would consume.

In a sense, the Governor's scheming backfired on him. Less than a hundred soldiers signed up for immigration but Grey had been so persuasive about the need for settlers that the Colonial Office immediately made alternative arrangements and unilaterally decided to send out over 2 000 German soldiers instead. These were men of the Anglo-German Legion who had been conscripted to fight against Russia on the battlefields of Crimea, but the war ended before they saw action and the War Office was left with the problem of what to do with them. It thought about Grey and his threats of catastrophe on the eastern frontier and so transformed the German soldiers into farmers.

The Legionnaires set sail late in 1856 and arrived at East London in January and February the following year. Their arrival saw the creation of many new towns strung out in a line across British Kaffraria, places with German names like Berlin, Potsdam and Stutterheim. The East London district gained two such villages, each with an English name: Panmure on the eastern bank of the Buffalo River and Cambridge which was about five miles further inland. In addition, the soldiers were given one-acre lots to the north of the town in what later developed into the suburbs of North End and Southernwood, as well as ten-acre agricultural lots along the Nahoon River - today the suburbs of Nahoon, Stirling and Vincent.

The year 1856 also saw the beginning of the Cattle Killing as many of the amaXhosa embarked upon a campaign of destroying their livestock and food supplies. This was done supposedly in the expectation of a resurrection from the ancestors, especially of herds uncontaminated by the dreaded lung sickness which was decimating many of their cattle. It would also, it was claimed, lead directly to the overthrow of British authority in the Colony.

Modern historians differ in their interpretations of this controversial issue but, since it does not concern East London's Black community directly and since authoritative work has already been published on the topic, it is not the intention to enter into the debate here. What is important in terms of East London's history is that the Cattle Killing succeeded in dividing Xhosa Chiefs into believers and unbelievers. At first, Sandile did not join in but Phato, Mhala and Maqoma (the Chiefs closest to East London) did. It was reported that new cattle kraals were under construction and old ones repaired so as to hold the "resurrected" herds. New corn-pits were dug, while old ones were cleaned out and enlarged.

By the end of January 1857, just as the first legionnaires were disembarking at East London, the Cattle Killing reached its peak, causing acute famine in the land. Many of the amaXhosa were therefore beginning to leave their homeland and migrate into the Cape Colony in search of food and employment. Rodney Davenport states that, of an original Xhosa population of about 105 000, only 37 000 remained, although only half the loss was accountable by deaths. The rest, he says, were a broken people who moved into the Colony for help.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Black population within the "rayon" of East London participated directly in the campaign. This was because the port community had by 1856 ceased to be agriculturally based and had come to exist by selling its services to the village and harbour in return for fixed wages. In any case, the restrictions which had already been imposed upon the amaXhosa at East London demanded that they be employed as labourers in the district if they wished to reside there. Wages were also higher at East London than in other parts of British Kaffraria and this dependence on money rather than on cattle would have tended to immunise the local community to the demands of the Cattle Killing phenomenon.

The Cattle Killing did, however, influence the port community in other ways. In the first place, trade was affected. In August 1856 the Special Magistrate with Phato reported that the amaXhosa were taking large quantities of hides to the port and that "considerable numbers" of Sarhili's people were visiting East London to sell their corn. At the same time, they were buying spades "in extraordinary quantities" and agriculturally-based migrant labour was becoming very scarce in the village.

Secondly, when the campaign reached its peak, it brought starvation and poverty close to the port so that the poor and hungry turned to violence for survival. As a result, attacks and robberies on the road to King William's Town were frequently reported. The White community at East London looked upon the phenomenon with great apprehension, believing that it was an omen presaging yet another frontier war.

The popular John Maclean, whose views were readily digested by the local English communities in British Kaffraria, claimed that the amaXhosa were aware that the British were fighting a war against Russia and rumours of this war, he said, were being exaggerated to the disadvantage of Britain. It was therefore believed that, in the event of another frontier conflict, the Cape Colony would not receive any imperial aid. Maclean concluded, therefore, that what he called the increasing "thefts and outrages" were merely a means to incite yet another war of resistance. As a result of such apprehensions, tension at East London increased and it is in this light that the events of February 1857 should be understood.


One evening in February, a soldier of the 89th Regiment was murdered and his body was discovered among the rocks close to the sea and not far from the Black village. Although the post-mortem revealed that the man had been clubbed to death with a blunt instrument, there was no clue as to where or by whom the murder had been committed. Only after the killing had taken place was the body carried to the spot where it had been found.

Despite little supportive evidence, however, the Resident Magistrate concluded that there were strong grounds for suspecting the murder had been committed in one of the huts in the "location". He therefore requested authority to remove the entire village to beyond the "rayon" of East London and to dismiss Maqoma, whom he believed to be "totally unfit" to control his charges. Soldiers of the 89th Regiment thereupon took matters into their own hands and attacked the amaXhosa, burning their village to the ground and chased the people through the town, beating them as they ran.

The incident threw the whole of East London into a frenzy and within a couple of days a petition was produced calling upon the Resident Magistrate to afford the White populace greater protection. The Whites linked the murder of the soldier to the other incidents in British Kaffraria and, inspired by Maclean's rhetoric, concluded that war was indeed about to erupt. Magistrate Staunton responded by appointing two "Hottentot" special constables to assist "in preserving regularity in the Town", although they were never called upon to act and were discharged after a week, once the scare had died down.

Yet the murder provided Maclean with the excuse he wanted to order the Black people to be registered if they were to be allowed to reside at East London. He recommended, moreover, that the magistrate "do away with [Maqoma's] nest of thieves". The magistrate in turn decided that, since the "kraal" had already been razed to the ground, it was the ideal opportunity to move the "assemblage" and to build another village at a spot further from the town.

The regulations for the new location stipulated that its site be well clear of the town so that no Black person other than those servants who slept on the premises would have the excuse to be in the White residential area after working hours. No huts would be allowed which had not first been sanctioned by the Chief Commissioner himself and all male labourers had to be registered, along with their wives and children. The Headman in turn would be responsible for strangers who visited the "location" although no-one would be allowed to remain there without the express permission of the Resident Magistrate himself. No women, other than the wives and children of registered persons, would be granted leave to live there.


In the meantime the Cattle Killing frenzy had also provided Governor Grey with the excuse he needed to enforce more draconian legislation on all the amaXhosa in British Kaffraria. His henchmen quickly found excuses to imprison most of the Chiefs on Robben Island, while their people were herded into tribal reserves. This would have two lasting consequences. First, it freed much of the land which could then be parcelled out to White immigrant farmers. Second, it gathered the amaXhosa into units which would accelerate the acculturation process. Part of this procedure was to use economic means to erode traditional ties and values. The people would be propelled into a monetary economy by being forced to pay both hut and animal taxes, while the authorities encouraged them to adopt the British culture by making life easier for those who converted.

In March 1858 Grey issued a set of instructions which was to be applied by all Magistrates in British Kaffraria, including East London. Each hut belonging to a separate family was subjected to an annual tax of ten shillings. If more than one family inhabited a hut, a separate tax would be charged for each additional household but those people who were wealthy enough to own more than one hut would not be liable for extra tax. If, on the other hand, a European-style house was built, only one tax was to be levied no matter how many families dwelt there.

The years immediately following the Cattle Killing, therefore, were notable for the advance in government control throughout British Kaffraria and for the separation of the White and Black communities in the territory as a whole. Once the majority of the Chiefs had been transported to Robben Island for extended sentences, the government gained the opportunity to subjugate the population under a European dictatorship. A mission-based education system was thereupon introduced at many of the Great Places.

Between 1848 and 1857, a dramatic transformation had overtaken the East London community. The once tranquil riverside village was turned into a "location" ruled by a government Headman, with its own set of "location regulations" and controlled under a form of martial law. Around the village, even outside the "rayon", the scattered huts became a thing of the past. Furthermore, the Black people were no longer allowed to be subsistence farmers, but were considered as nothing more than a labour pool, their continued tenure in their own village dependent upon their being employed in the town. A system had been imposed, therefore, which would become the norm at East London, to last until the promulgation of the Natives (Urban Areas) Act in 1923.

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