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The Letters Patent

East London given to the Cape Colony in 1848

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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On 8 January 1848 -- the same day that Sir Harry Smith renamed the port "East London" -- he annexed it to the Cape Colony. This was all to do with smuggling.

Sir Harry had somehow left the critical "Letters Patent" in England when he sailed for Cape Town in September 1847. This was an important document authorising him to proclaim the Colony of British Kaffraria. Indeed, without it he could not establish a civilian government.

The colony had therefore to remain under martial law. An army, however, was not equipped to collect customs revenue, which meant that any imports through East London would be duty free.

This was not a problem for British Kaffraria itself because trade would initially have been very small but merchants in Grahamstown, the new Orange River Sovereignty and even Natal soon started importing through East London.

This was smuggling, and it would quickly cost the three colonies a fortune in lost revenue. There was nothing that could be done to stop it, however, apart from annexing East London to the Cape, whereupon Cape Town would be charged with collecting customs.

The action was meant to be temporary, to last only until the Letters Patent arrived -- which happened in December 1850. By then, however, the Mlanjeni War had erupted and the Governor was on the frontier leading his troops.

Because Sir Harry appeared incapable of ending the war, he was recalled. Sir George Cathcart took his place. He found the four year-old document, had no idea what to do and so begged instruction from England.

The Colonial Office responded by issuing new Letters Patent but these arrived just as Sir George Cathcart himself was about to be transferred. He therefore left the document to his successor.

Sir George Grey arrived in December 1854 but he had his own plans for British Kaffraria and did not want any legal obstacle in his path. He therefore did not publish the Letters Patent until October 1860 -- when his own term as Governor had been terminated.

More than 13 years had passed and incalculable damage had been caused. British Kaffraria's primary source of revenue should have been its custom's revenue but, because East London was part of the Cape Colony, this money was being diverted to Cape Town.

East London itself also needed expansion as a harbour but who was going to foot the bill? British Kaffraria couldn't afford it because it had almost no revenue beyond its slender military budget.

In any case, why should money be spent on a port which was part and parcel of the Cape Colony? The Cape, on the other hand, chose not to because East London could at any moment be handed back to British Kaffraria.

East London was at last returned to British Kaffraria in 1859 but, just nine years later, diamonds were discovered at Kimberley. The Cape became awash with money and could afford to build railway lines -- and it did so from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

The arid hinterland was no longer a problem. East London had therefore lost its advantage over Port Elizabeth.

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