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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

5. Forced Removals

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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By 1872 the international community had changed radically from even a decade earlier. Both Europe and America had witnessed upheavals which would dramatically alter the perspectives of their governments and societies. In Europe, the first international conflict since the Napoleonic Wars had occurred and, although the Crimean War (1854-6) would end inconclusively, it would nevertheless alter the fabric of political philosophy in the decades to come. The Americans too would quickly move from the crises of the Civil War and the Reconstruction towards a new conservativeness.


The new philosophy which was emerging in Europe would be characterised by what the Germans called Realpolitik, a concept that depended more on military might than moral principle. At the same time, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution found an enraptured audience. It quickly became encapsulated in the phrase "survival of the fittest" which explained how dominant species endured while the weak perished. The theory then translated into what would later be called Social Darwinism, applying his concepts to political states and human societies. War became glorified as the means to prove the fitness of a nation, while the suppression or even extermination of "inferior" and "unfit" peoples was no longer viewed with abhorrence.

Indeed, British economist Walter Bagehot argued that the strongest nation had always been conquering the weakest because the former, he said, "tend to be the best." British naturalist Alfred Wallace, in similar vein, claimed that there were "superior" and "inferior" nations. The intellectual, moral and physical qualities of the European were incomparable, he said, so that the very power and capacity which had caused an evolution from "the condition of the wandering savage" to the "present state of culture and advancement" enabled the European to conquer the "savage man" and "to increase at his expense". German biologist Heinrich Ziegler contended that the "physically weaker", the "less intelligent", the "morally inferior" or the "morally degenerate peoples" must make room for "the stronger and better developed".

America was also on the threshold of reactionary change. The eruption of the Civil War and the post-war Reconstruction produced the facade of an American society that was markedly liberal in its orientation. In a sense, however, this was a false perception which arose because the war had ostensibly centred on the issue of slavery. Yet Abraham Lincoln made it abundantly clear that the real issue had been a political one and not slavery, that the purpose of the war was to preserve the Union and not to bring about emancipation. Nevertheless, the latter was achieved and the Reconstruction attempted a dramatic restructuring of the American South. It nevertheless succeeded only in alienating the southern Whites who would reimpose their reactionary ideals as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

By the 1870s, therefore, the forces of reaction were beginning to re-emerge within the international community on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, the socialists became enraptured by the triumph of nationalism and the heady brew of successful militarism. The French and the British each embarked upon a new age of nationalist imperialism where, in competition with Germany, they set about carving up the world into "spheres of influence" and zones of domination.

In this way Africa, a continent that had hardly been explored by the Europeans before 1870, fell rapidly into the hands of foreign armies so that by 1890 hardly any of its territory was not owned by some European state. The same was true for the Indian subcontinent and the Far East and by the 1880s the American South was able to begin shrugging off the Reconstruction and embark on a new voyage into racial oppression.


By 1870 the Cape Colony had itself reached the crossroads. The Constitution of 1853 had been designed to make the colonial citizens more accountable for their actions, yet it gave them no real power. It may be argued that Sir George Grey was responsible for greater peacetime developments than any previous governor but it is also true that there was a great deal of luck on his side. His term of office had, after all, coincided with a period of relative prosperity so that more money was made available to him than to any previous regime. He was also appointed at a time when representative government was a novelty, so that he was able to manipulate the parliamentarians to his will.

Sir Philip Wodehouse, on the other hand, did not enjoy the same advantages. He became governor in 1862, at a time when the Colony was receding into an economic depression which was coupled with a relentless drought. Furthermore, the onslaught of the American Civil War seriously affected the Colony's wool exports at the same time as the Colonial Office was drastically pruning its financial aid. This would lead to a colonial debt in the region of £1 million. Wodehouse was therefore forced to take austere measures that proved unpopular with the Cape Parliament which had now found its feet and had realised its powers to block the Governor's plans. Nevertheless, financial stringency forced the Colony to enlarge its territory through the incorporation of British Kaffraria.

At the same time, regular confrontation between Governor and Parliament led the Colonial Office to the conclusion that the next stage in the evolution of government was necessary. In 1872, therefore, yet another constitution was installed when the Colony was given Responsible Government and became virtually independent of Britain in the administration of its internal affairs. Although it would take time for the full impact to set in and for the colonial representatives to find their executive feet, the scene was nevertheless set for local sentiment to prevail, instead of following a policy that was essentially directed from England.

Cape politicians nevertheless eagerly scanned the overseas newspapers and absorbed the current philosophies and scientific advances. The governing elite therefore quickly began to supplant the theory of Traditional Liberalism in favour of their own form of Social Darwinism and other reactionary concepts. The department of "Native Administration" would be the first to move in this new direction although it would take time before any policies could be formulated. In the interim, the newly appointed Secretary of Native Affairs set about gathering as much information as possible on prevailing conditions.

No real change would therefore happen until the Secretary felt his way clear to devising a new policy, which happened only in 1876 with the publication of the Native Locations Act, by which stage East London's location had fallen into municipal hands. This was a vital reality because, from that moment onwards, the port's location system would be a mishmash of local sentiment married to an increasingly reactionary colonial philosophy. That in turn would enable East London to pioneer location policy and so create a system which could be emulated by the other municipalities.


During the interim years between 1872 and 1876, the Resident Magistrates were ordered to issue annual reports about the state of conditions amongst their Black communities. Theoretically, therefore, one should be able to gather some knowledge, even if biased, of the conditions prevalent at the East London locations but the local reports were both scanty and superficial, and are therefore of little value to the historian. Indeed, Magistrate Orpen seemed anxious only to air his personal opinions about a people whom he did not understand, yet whom he wished to exploit for the purposes of the Colony's labour market.

The townsmen of East London, on the other hand, were very slow to accept the mantle of local government. Sir Harry Smith's debacle in 1848 of annexing the port to the Cape Colony caused a severe dislocation in trade which saw the community stagnate. The general economic downturn during the 1860s crippled business confidence even further and so hindered urban growth that, by 1870, East London and Panmure were still no more than large villages on each bank of the Buffalo River. The consequence was an apathy on the part of the townspeople which saw local government remaining in the hands of the Resident Magistrate until 1873, resulting in a failure to construct streets or provide water, while the sanitation remained medieval.

Guided, however, by the leadership of the liberal ex-military merchant, John Gately, municipal status was finally conferred and a five-man committee was elected to serve a four year term, with Gately as the first chairman. Nevertheless, the transition was scarcely a success because Government interference saw the new municipality without a commonage, which meant that there could be no land sales to generate essential funds. The councillors also proved inefficient and even the collection of rates went by the board during that same period. In short, the municipality remained penniless and toothless.

In the meantime, economic factors were changing the face of the town. The depression began to lift after diamonds were discovered in Griqualand West in 1869 and it was found that East London was the closest seaport to the diggings. Trade began to flourish for the first time in the port's history so that increased revenue from the diamond market made the Colony temporarily rich, with enough money to devote to both harbour and railway construction. East London would benefit from both, although the railway line would initially lead only as far as Queenstown.

The joint projects nevertheless revolutionised the town. The positioning of the railway terminus on the East Bank (as the eastern municipal ward was now called) but with no bridge to span the river, meant that the West Bank (encompassing the original village of East London) was doomed to become a backwater, while the German settlement at Panmure was destined for rapid growth and would quickly become the town's centre of commerce.

Such a change was already noticeable by 1874, when more and more Black labourers were being required to serve on the East Bank, both for railway construction and for the new harbour scheme. There was, however, no place to accommodate this influx of people and, although the Municipal Board was fully aware of the problem, its hands were tied by an absence of authority over the commonages. Indeed, the Board could neither create a new location nor remove one should another body decide to establish it.

This latter eventuality happened almost immediately. Realising that the municipality was helpless, the harbour authorities decided to create a location on the East Bank where it could house its Fingo labourers. The Municipal Board could merely observe as a helpless bystander, able to protest but powerless to act. In this way, almost in a fit of absentmindedness, East London acquired a new Black neighbourhood, the Fingo Location, which was the first such community on the eastern bank of the river.

It is difficult, however, to pinpoint its exact position. The first reference to the site was given only in April 1877 when the Municipal Board was selecting a spot for a new cemetery which, the committee stated, was to the rear of the "present native Location". In 1880 the Board's Chairman described the location as "near the Gwygney River", while a report in the Dispatch of 1892 placed it on the bank of the "Gwygney" and "immediately above the . . . . railway reservoir". That would have positioned it in the area between today's Curry Street and the railway station, and probably just north of Fleet Street.


The commonage dispute was settled in June 1876 so that the municipality was given both land and authority over the Black villages situated on that land. Attention could therefore be given to the Fingo Location which lay across the main route to urban expansion. By 1877, with the East Bank community growing rapidly, the Municipal Board decided that the town should develop in an easterly direction, into what is today the suburb called the Quigney. The Fingo Location was in the way, however, and therefore had to go, resulting in the second of East London's forced removals (the first being on the West Bank in 1857). A new site was selected, much closer to the sea and at a spot below the cemetery where the Holiday Inn now stands. The Fingoes were given notice to move at once and, at the same time, the Town Council decided that all the amaXhosa living on the East Bank would also have to transfer.

So began the short-lived Seaside Location, although very little is known about it. Indeed Tim Gordon, in his 1978 Masters thesis on East London's township of Mdantsane, incorrectly located the village alongside Signal Hill, near the Orient Beach. The site Gordon proposed lay within the Military Reserve and it was not within the Municipal Board's power to establish a location on that spot. Unfortunately, the location was not reflected on any contemporary maps, although municipal documents spoke of it as lying between Lime Kiln Kloof and the municipal tips which were alongside the Blind River, near the Eastern Beach.

On the other hand, the only reference to community life in the Seaside Location comes from the minutes of an overzealous inspector who placed the Municipal Board in hot water when he exceeded his authority and burnt down a hut there. The officer, upon being called before the Council to account for his actions, claimed that he had found the neighbourhood of the hut to be "in a filthy state" and it was, he said, being used as a brothel. He had subsequently found the hut to be "unregistered and therefore unauthorised", which alone he considered was sufficient reason for its destruction. He admitted later that he had not given prior notice of his intention to raze it and had therefore afforded the occupants no time to remove their belongings. The hut owner thereupon sought legal advice and the Council found itself before the Magistrate in a case it had no chance of winning.

Nevertheless, the municipality did not view the mixing of Fingoes and amaXhosa as ideal. The former had had a long history of collaboration with the colonial forces and tended therefore to be singled out for special treatment. The Town Council certainly gave lip-service to this philosophy. In a matter of months, therefore, it was seeking a new site for a segregated Fingo village and in April 1878 a spot was chosen close to the suburb now known as North End. Because most of the Fingoes belonged to the Wesleyan denomination, their new township would quickly assume the title Wesleyan Location.

The Municipal Board's appetite for moving the Black community had now been whetted. Next to go was the entire Seaside Location. Its site revealed the myopic vision of the Town Council because the township stood on the route to the Eastern Beach. One has to bear in mind that in those days there was still no adequate water supply for the town and so the only form of ablution lay in bathing in the sea. Since the townsmen insisted on swimming in the nude, bathing at the town's beaches became sexually segregated, with the men being given both the Buffalo River and the adjacent Sandy Beach. The women, on the other hand, were given the outlying Eastern Beach, as well as the rocks along what is today the Esplanade.

Because the Seaside Location was so close to Eastern Beach, it was considered a threat to White female bathers. The township could not stay and so in December 1879 the Xhosa residents were given notice "to quit". A new village, known as Newsam's Town in honour of Town Clerk George Newsam, was then laid out near North End, on a hill to the west of the Wesleyan Location and near the First Creek River. Protests from the Church of England that the Council should at the very least grant compensation for the expense of removing some of the buildings fell on deaf ears.

In the meantime, the West Bank Location existed in a similarly insecure state. In September 1880, inspired by the success of establishing the two locations on the East Bank on what it called a "more rational basis", the Municipal Board decided to move the West Bank community as well. The location had been on its existing site for 23 years now and under minimal supervision. Furthermore, reports claimed that it was in an appalling condition. Indeed, in December 1879 the District Surgeon described it as "very filthy", with many huts "mere bundles of old rags" and the inhabitants "drunken whores of the lowest cast [sic]". Prostitution was rife, he said, and venereal disease common. He recommended therefore that the location be destroyed and the people be made to start building all over again.

The Municipal Council decided to ascertain conditions for itself and commissioned an independent inspection. The new report confirmed the earlier finding, stating that the place was in "a nearly hopeless state of confusion" both as regards the dwellings and the residents. The huts, the report stated, were built in any fashion while the inhabitants were a complete mixture of amaXhosa, "Hottentots", "Fingoes", American "niggers" and Whites.

Such an intermingling of people offended municipal sensibility, especially the news that Whites were co-habiting with the indigenous population, while the African Americans were spreading their revolutionary views about racial equality. It was recommended, therefore, that the location be destroyed and a new one be "properly established", as had been done on the East Bank. Regulations could then be drawn up to forbid both Whites and African Americans from living there. Procrastination, however, saved the residents for another few years.


In December 1883 the Council started yet another wave of removals. The first to go was the Wesleyan Location, a surprise move because all reports on the Fingoes had been positive. Indeed, the Location Inspector had announced only in January 1881 that the village was in "very good order" and there was no cause for complaint. The residents of North End were the fly in the ointment because they objected to a location situated so close to their neighbourhood that noise disturbed their Sunday afternoon repose. The Council bowed to their demands without argument, moving the Fingoes but a short distance to a spot over the brow of the hill and out of shouting distance.

The Fingoes did not accept the decision willingly but began to mobilize resistance against what they perceived to be an unjust and unjustified action. Their defiance took the form of passive resistance: they simply refused to move. By July 1884 few had transferred despite the expiry of the deadline some three months earlier. It was the first time that the Council's authority had been defied in this way and so the councillors decided to take a hard line, threatening force to have their way, and the Fingoes were faced with the prospect of compliance or gaol. Their resistance wavered and, with some beginning to relocate, the rest found themselves out on a limb so that their defiance crumbled.

The West Bank Location was next to go. In November 1884 the location sub-committee, having procrastinated for four years, recommended a new site and a month's notice was given to the inhabitants to move. Yet the resolution was most inopportune because East London was then in the trough of a grave recession and in the grip of another crippling drought. The decision also proved confusing because the new site was close to the original position of the Xhosa village of 1847 which, the residents hastily pointed out, was so close to the town that they would, by implication, be in danger of a further relocation in the not-too-distant future.

The Council was hesitant to resort to force, afraid that the earlier Fingo resistance might inspire more serious opposition on the West Bank. At the same time, the councillors recognised that the location residents were in a "very impoverished condition" and so they consented to stagger the removal by refusing permission for the building of any new huts on the old site. The whole question then fell virtually into abeyance for the next four years until 1890 when the entire system was once again reconsidered and pressure was put on the West Bank community to go.

Newsam's Town narrowly survived this round of removals. Although the Location Inspector admitted that, in view of the recession, the time "had hardly arrived" for removing all the locations, he nevertheless argued that the existence of two distinct townships on the East Bank was "objectionable". Newsam's Town, he said, should be destroyed simply to establish one large location in its place. The Council hesitated, probably for fear of open rebellion, and decided rather on an alternative solution: that all dilapidated huts be destroyed and Newsam's Town be extended in a westerly direction and away from the neighbourhood of North End.

It was at this point that an interesting idea was introduced into the debate. Although some councillors, like Henry Willetts of North End, were blatant racists who saw the Black people merely as a commodity to serve White interests, there were others who believed that every assistance should be given for the upliftment of the location community. Technically speaking, it was possible for any Black person who had sufficient wealth to move into the town. The Cape's constitution of 1872 did not theoretically discriminate on grounds of race or class and so any person regardless of colour was entitled to vote, provided he met the norms. That in turn exempted certain Africans from the various Location Acts which applied to the unenfranchised tribal population. It was certainly possible, therefore, for the "exempted" to live within the East London residential areas as equal citizens of the Whites.

In reality, however, this was not easy to do. In the first place, cultural affiliations would lead the "exempted" persons to desire settling close to their kindred. Second, because of the pronounced cultural differences between the White and Black populations in what was still very much a frontier town, an "exempted" person was not necessarily welcome in the White neighbourhoods, even if he and his family were legally entitled to be there. Finally, the degree of wealth upon which the franchise depended was not necessarily sufficient to enable that person to pay the rents demanded in the town.

Although John Gately had on several occasions expressed the desire to open the door for Black upliftment and to foster a movement into the urban area, the reality was that most of the African population were tied to the locations. It was this class of "superior" person, as they were called, which spurred some councillors to formulate ways of helping them. A solution was to create yet another location but one which was dedicated to the wealthier and better educated person. The idea was therefore proposed that some 20 plots be made available at a suitable spot on a 14 year lease period. In that way the "more respectable" could escape what Gately called "the contamination" of Newsam's Town and the Wesleyan Location, and such a class distinction would be an encouragement for others to emulate.

Yet the idea of a 14 year lease period met with opposition from two sources. The first, led by Councillor Amelius Vincent, was happy to create an "elite" location but did not wish to see the municipality grant any rights to the land. Gately, on the other hand, naively opposed "alienation of the land" for such a long period. There would never be a "disposition" on the part of the Whites, he said, "to dispossess deserving natives". He therefore preferred to see the "alienation" period reduced to a shorter time. Both objections failed and the idea of a new elite location based on a 14 year lease scheme was adopted by a majority of a single vote.


Within five years, the Council's assumed humanitarian spirit was over and the future of Newsam's Town, the new Wesleyan Location and the elite township were all in the balance. The catalyst came in the form of a request by the Presbyterian Church to have another location created for occupation by members of its congregation. A site was duly granted near North End but a deputation from that suburb's ratepayers objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would devalue their property. The kloof at the foot of St Peter's Road, the residents stated, had become a "receptacle for filth" and they called on the Council to move every location to at least a mile from the populated part of the town for "sanitary and moral reasons".

For a period of four months the Council vacillated in its attempt to choose another suitable site for the Presbyterian Location but eventually a spot was selected to the west of Newsam's Town. The decision, however, was accompanied by what can only be termed a debacle when Mayor Lance gave an oral explanation of the proposed site which confused "west of Newsam's Town" with "west of North End". The Mayor's interpretation was endorsed by the Council and only later was it discovered that the new location would be placed in the middle of the Queens Park Botanical Garden. The resolution had therefore to be rescinded, with much acrimony about whether or not the Mayor, a popular man among the ratepayers, had been solely responsible for the Council's folly.

The muddle gave Councillor Vincent the opportunity to move that the time had arrived to unite the existing East Bank locations and to select a totally different site. His motion was carried and a plan was soon drawn up to create a new and composite township much further out of town, at a point to the east of the First Creek. Newsam's Town would therefore disappear, the Fingoes would be moved for the fourth time in 12 years while the idea of the elite location would be scrapped, giving lie to the 14 year lease scheme.

The decision was viewed by the township residents as blatantly unjust because the Council could give no concrete reasons for the move. The three locations were well laid out and in accordance with municipal specifications and were relatively new. The Council could certainly not claim that lack of adequate supervision was the cause. Indeed, the councillors had simply bowed to the wishes of the North End ratepayers who looked to the value of their own properties, which they felt was adversely affected by the close proximity of the Black population. It also upset their "moral and sanitary sensibility" and, as the Dispatch commented some years later, "the evensong of the natives", inspired by the mixing of traditional beer with "vile spirits" (mostly brandy), was "unappreciated by their White neighbours".

The location residents refused to accept the decision and drew up a petition listing their objections to the scheme. First, they appealed as "fellow Christians" who, because they worked in town, would be unable to attend worship since the distance to their churches would be more than doubled. They also pointed out the expense of removing the mission houses and churches. Not only would worship have to stop, they claimed, but those who attended night school in the town would no longer be able to continue. Punctuality at work would also cease. A major concern, however, was the question of accommodation. Since most of the people worked long hours, they believed it would be impossible to build new huts and, because it was still winter, both grass and "wattles" were scarce. They appealed to the Council, therefore, to impose a stricter and more effective control on the existing locations which, the petitioners claimed, would result "in much improvement".

The appeals fell on deaf ears. The Council informed the petitioners that it had taken all their reasons into consideration but saw no justification to alter its decision, which was not exactly the truth because the issue was never brought up for further discussion. Having failed to persuade the Council on humanitarian grounds, therefore, certain of the more educated residents decided to take legal advice and appointed Richard Rose-Innes, an attorney from King William's Town, to defend their case.

Rose-Innes told the Council bluntly that its decision was illegal and that the location population had been instructed to refuse to move from their homes. The majority of the residents, he wrote, were opposed to the re-location and many of them owned their houses through purchase from the municipality. The Council was therefore ordered to refrain from any further action until the legality of the decision had been tested by court of law.

The extent of the resistance took the Council by surprise and it dithered for some months. Initially the Mayor denied that there was any "strong opposition" from the Black populace but, on the contrary, a "very considerable number" had already moved to their selected sites. That information was almost immediately contradicted by the Location Inspector who reported that only 13 huts were in course of construction. All work, he said, had ceased because of instructions from the attorney.

The Mayor then argued that the removal had not been one of "caprice" but was "of absolute necessity" for "the health of the natives themselves", an excuse which had little validity in the light of the Inspector's positive reports on conditions within the locations. The confusion was further compounded when the Town Solicitor refused to act because he felt himself to have been slighted by the Council when it had not made use of his services in another case. He subsequently resigned because the Council offered him no apology.

In December 1889, confused and without legal direction, the Council decided to appeal directly to the Cape's Attorney General for clarification of its powers under the Municipal Act and subsequent bye-laws. A lengthy reply was received early in the new year but unfortunately the contents were never published in the municipal minutes and the document has since vanished from the Archives. It is apparent, however, that the Attorney General advised the Council that its actions were indeed legal, probably in terms of the municipal regulations which gave the municipality authority to move the locations "whenever it was deemed necessary". Certainly the communication prompted the Council to continue on its decided course and all opposition collapsed.

By October most of the residents had been relocated and in his minute of February 1891, the Mayor was able to report that, "after considerable trouble and no little opposition", the old locations on the East Bank were "a thing of the past". The "firm action" of the Council, he said, had brought about a "marked improvement". The new site not only held "great advantages" to the Black populace itself but was in such a position as would, he hoped, make it clear that the question of a further removal "need not be immediately considered".

By 1890, more than a decade before the bubonic plague pandemic galvanised the municipalities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and King William's Town to move their Black populations to sites far from the town, the East London Council had already transferred its Black residents into two locations, one on the West Bank and the other on the East Bank. Moreover, these were municipal creations and not the government townships that would be established at the other towns. East London was therefore exploring new ground and it would be more than a decade till the Lagden Commission mooted a similar idea in its report of 1905, the concept of which would be implemented throughout South Africa by means of the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923.

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