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A poor start indeed!

Attempts to get a harbour going at East London

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The Buffalo River had been examined in May 1835 as a possible harbour for Sir Benjamin D'Urban's Province of Queen Adelaide.

Reports from Sir James Alexander -- and later from John Bailie -- had praised the deep, wide lagoon which could afford protection to longboats as their crew off-loaded cargo while the ships rode at anchor in the roadstead.

A half-hearted attempt was then made to use the river as a port in November 1836 -- the "Port Rex" incident -- but it was a once-off adventure because by then the decision had already been made to abandon Queen Adelaide.

The re-establishment of a port in April 1847, however, promised to be successful because this time it carried the stamp of approval from the Colonial Office itself.

Indeed, the river mouth was now properly surveyed by an expert -- Lieutenant Charles Forsyth -- who used a longboat from the Frederick Huth to make his soundings. The legend that he used Charles Darwin's Beagle is nothing more than a legend.

Forsyth concluded that the Buffalo River had the potential to be a most successful port. There was an extensive and deep lagoon in which to off-load cargo. The anchorage in the roadstead was exceptional, with a sandy sea-bed providing a good grip for anchors.

There was plenty of drinking water not far from the village of East London itself, while the well-watered grassy hinterland with no rivers to negotiate was more than either Cape Town or Port Elizabeth could offer, important during those days of animal-drawn transport.

In January 1848 Sir Harry Smith himself established a Board of Commissioners to recommend projects needed to make the port a resounding success. It was a perfectly balanced committee, with two senior military men and two merchants to debate the vital issues.

Their recommendations were simple enough. The port must have a jetty, and it needed a surf-boat organisation that was in the hands of the merchants themselves to handle the transporting of cargo from ship to shore.

Sir Harry Smith, however, chose to ignore both the Board's recommendations. The problem lay in the strangely uncertain political nature of East London.

Sir Harry had been forced by economic expediency to annex East London to the Cape Colony. It was not meant to be a permanent feature but to last only until legal documents arrived which would allow him to establish a civil government for British Kaffraria.

Because a civil government kept being delayed, East London remained as a minor enclave of the Cape Colony. That Colony, however, was not prepared to spend a solitary penny on a port that could soon be handed over to British Kaffraria.

British Kaffraria, on the other hand, was being administered on a very tight military budget. The army therefore was not prepared to see any of its funds spent on East London which, after all, was an enclave of the Cape Colony.

In the end, nothing was done and the port of East London simply stagnated.

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