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East London
is born

First nine months in the town's life

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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It was midday on 2 April 1847. Some heavily laden military wagons trundled onto the west bank of the Buffalo River. They were under the command of Lieutenant-General George Berkeley, come to establish a port for the new colony of British Kaffraria.

The colony had not yet been proclaimed. The War of the Axe was still raging and Governor Sir Henry Pottinger deemed it expedient to wait for its end. The annexation would therefore only happen in December, by which time Sir Harry Smith would be Governor.

The Buffalo River seemed a good port although the mouth itself was virtually closed off by a sandbar. Nevertheless there was a narrow channel through which shallow surf-boats could be rowed even at low tide while their ships lay at anchor in the roadstead.

Within a few days, Lieutenant William Jervois arrived and began to survey a site for a village. Not more than a couple of weeks would pass before the first merchant arrived.

He was George Reeler, a "camp follower" who profited by selling the soldiers goods not provided by the army. He would also establish a barter trade for hides and horns from the amaXhosa.

By May, Reeler had built the first trading store, described in the Graham's Town Journal as "a substantial wooden store well filled with the necessaries and luxuries of life".

"Although we may be almost shut out from civilized society," Reeler himself wrote. "yet we have the pleasing reflection that ere long, many friends will be tempted to join us in exile."

By July, his first export of hides and horns was taken about the Conch, a vessel small enough to enter the lagoon on the high tide and then depart again when the surge rushed out once more.

The new port held every prospect of rivalling both Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Both these ports had jetties into the open sea, and a drought-stricken hinterland not conducive to animal-drawn transport.

The Buffalo River, on the other hand, had a deep lagoon protected from wind and surf, and a grassy, well- watered hinterland. In short, it promised to be the perfect harbour.

As a result, more traders soon made their appearance and, by January 1848, there were no fewer than seven of them. A very small hotel -- the East London Tavern and Inn -- had also been established by James Ryder.

Until December 1847, the port was still referred to simply as "the camp at the Buffalo River mouth". On Christmas day, however, Sir Harry Smith arrived and proclaimed it to be "London".

He had looked at a map of British Kaffraria and remarked that its shape was not unlike that of England. This prompted him to name the port after England's leading harbour.

His action, however, caused confusion and an article in a Cape Town newspaper soon remarked on how a steamship had sailed from London to Table Bay in only three days. It would seem, the editor wrote, that the "aerial machine" had just been invented.

On 8 January 1848, therefore, Sir Harry changed the port's name to "East London".

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