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The Surf-Boat
Establishment

Destroying East London's trade

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The Buffalo River mouth had every possibility of making a good harbour. The lagoon was wide and deep, while the river banks rose sharply on both sides to provide shelter from the wind to whatever boats were at work in the river off-loading their cargo.

The hinterland itself was grassy and well watered, and there were few rivers to cross -- important features in the days of animal-drawn transport.

A major problem, of course, was the extensive sand-bank at the entrance to the river which was only knee deep even at high tide. Indeed, one could wade right across the river when the water was at its shallowest.

A narrow channel, however, was navigable to surf-boats even at low tide, while small ships of less than 80 tons could cross into the lagoon with the inrush of water just before high tide, and depart again just after high tide when the water flowed rapidly out to sea once more.

The larger ships would anchor in the roadstead and initially send their cargo into the river by means of their long-boats. Then the Commissariat set up its own Surf-Boat Establishment which used three boats to land cargo.

On the west bank of the river was a rocky promontory jutting into the sea. It was known as the "Blinders Rocks" and over this the waves broke mercilessly.

Onto this promontory the Surf-Boat Establishment attached a long rope or warp, with its other end tied to a buoy out to sea. This warp allowed sailors to haul their surf-boats hand over hand to and from the ships, thus establishing an easier route in and out of the river mouth.

It was suggested in early 1848 that a civilian surf-boat establishment might also be established. That plan, however, was scrapped because it was believed to be impossible for too many surf-boats to utilize the warp at one time -- and there was not enough room for another warp.

On the other hand, because East London's primary purpose was initially a military one, the Commissariat Surf-Boat Establishment took preference. That situation would last for the next 30 years.

It was an unfortunate circumstance because the military did not care much for its civilian cargo which was frequently ignored. Sometimes therefore ships had to remain for months in the roadstead, and civilian cargo often landed in a damaged condition.

Insurance on cargo bound for East London had therefore to be exorbitant which meant that it did not pay merchants to land goods at East London. Indeed, it was quicker and cheaper to import through Port Elizabeth and then to transport the merchandise overland by ox wagon.

This circumstance quickly saw East London's status as a port decline. A total of 20 ships visited the port in 1848, but this quickly fell away to only 13 ships in 1849 and just 12 in 1850.

After a promising beginning in 1847, therefore, East London descended into a recession by December 1848 -- and it would not witness any substantial change until diamonds were discovered in Kimberley twenty years later.

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