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Prosperity of sorts!

Diamonds and free trade: 1868 to 1872

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The Commissariat Surf Boat Establishment had been at the heart of East London's economic woes for over 20 years. It was a military monopoly and came to represent East London's military nature.

It consistently refused to take responsibility for any civilian cargo in its hands, leading to damaged and lost goods. This pushed insurance sky-high. Charges too were exorbitant -- and yet the organisation still ran at a loss.

If it had been placed in private hands -- something that had been suggested as far back as 1848 -- it could have reduced prices, safeguarded its cargo and run at a profit. Imports through East London would then have risen and the port would have become prosperous.

As long as British Kaffraria was a military colony, however, nothing could be done to change this situation. Indeed, the Governor vetoed any attempt to change the Surf Boat Establishment's status because he saw the organisation's purpose purely in terms of serving the military.

Of course, when British Kaffraria became part of the Cape Colony in 1866, the Governor lost that power and very soon Parliament passed an Act placing the Surf Boat Establishment in private hands.

This would nevertheless take time to accomplish and the East London Boating Company was formed only in June 1872 -- although there was a strange anomaly because its headquarters was in King William's Town and not at East London.

By 1866, however, the drought and the recession had made overland transport expensive and so merchants in British Kaffraria and the Free State began to turn again to importing through East London. This was nevertheless difficult because of gross inefficiency.

The Union and Diamond Shipping Lines, for instance, often failed to call at East London even when passengers had booked their voyages from there. At other times, the ships anchored only briefly in the roadstead and then sailed again without offloading either passengers or cargo.

"When they were not in the humour to call at East London," the King William's Town Gazette reported, "they have steamed past within gunshot, deigning only to signal 'no time to wait'.

"Their passengers have not unfrequently been woefully disappointed and put to no end of expense, by being obliged to wait there for the next steamer with no better result, and ultimately make a long overland journey to Port Elizabeth."

The change in East London's fortunes nevertheless happened very suddenly. In 1868 diamonds were discovered at Kimberley and it was found that East London was the closest port to the diamond fields.

Furthermore, the entire line of road from Kimberley to East London was better pastured and better watered than the route to either Cape Town or Port Elizabeth. A more efficient Surf Boat Establishment also helped.

In 1872 imports through East London rose by an incredible 300% over the previous year, and by more than 1,500% over the figure for 1869.

It was, however, too late to ensure East London's ability to compete. As railways got under way in the mid-1870s, all East London's natural advantages would be neutralised and the port could then never hope to compete with either of its two colonial rivals.

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