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The tragic years: 1848 to 1857

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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East London had been created as a port for British Kaffraria but, in January 1848, was annexed to the Cape Colony. This action would have major implications.

Was East London seriously part of the Cape Colony or was it just expedience to stop the smuggling? What legal system would be applied and how would the traders find legal redress: through British Kaffrarian courts or through the Cape Colony?

Sir Harry Smith had thought through none of this and solved every problem on an ad hoc basis.

The first sign of trouble was when Lieutenant Colonel George Mackinnon was appointed magistrate for East London. He was Chief Commissioner from British Kaffraria and therefore a very busy man. Furthermore, his headquarters were at Fort Murray, at least a day's journey away.

Mackinnon was succeeded by two more military men -- Captain Edward Rooper and Captain Edward Staunton -- both being Commanding Officers at Fort Glamorgan. Only in 1857 was the first civilian magistrate appointed: the Collector of Customs, Matthew Jennings.

This was not good for the traders at the port. In the first place, army officers should not be in authority over civilians. Second, they had no power to make decisions in civilian affairs.

If the traders had legitimate needs, their only recourse was through a memorial to the magistrate. This would be forwarded to military headquarters and then to the Governor himself for advice. At each step, the memorial had to be motivated anew, thus losing its impetus.

The lack of a law court was another crisis. Had East London remained part of British Kaffraria, the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act would have sufficed but that Act applied only to cases beyond the borders of the Cape Colony. East London, however, was now part of the Cape Colony.

It was only in November 1848 that this chaotic situation was rectified when the port was temporarily placed within the District of Victoria, and therefore visited occasionally by a circuit court.

The uneasy legal circumstances, together with the irresponsible activity of the Commissariat Surf-Boat Establishment which made it virtually impossible to import through East London, could only have a negative impact on the port.

Indeed, a recession was soon felt and, by the end of 1848, traders were selling up and abandoning the port.

The Collector of Customs in 1849 described East London as in a sorry state. "Nothing but quarrelling and bankruptcy," he wrote, "and since Major Smith left, it has become little less than a mud-hole."

He went on to explain the shoddy relationship between the army and the civilians. "They have rendered my residence at the port most miserable," he wrote, "and they have set their faces against all civilians, in and out of office."

The King William's Town Gazette summed it up: "The wonder is not that East London remains so small and insignificant," the editor wrote, "but that it still retains any inhabitants at all, so great has been the pressure of bad government."

Even by 1857 -- after a full decade in existence -- there still seemed no hope that East London would ever become a vibrant community.

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