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History of East London

Port Rex

What really happened in 1836

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The War of 1834 -- commonly known as the 6th Frontier War -- saw Sir Benjamin D'Urban annex the territory between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers under the name "Province of Queen Adelaide".

In May 1835, as the Governor and his soldiers relaxed at a mission station called "King William's Town", they realised that the Buffalo River ran right through the centre of the new colony. Might its mouth then not make an ideal port?

Sir Benjamin immediately sent a company under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Smith to the river mouth to check.

Their report was more than promising. The mouth formed a deep lagoon which would provide good shelter to small coasting vessels once they had crossed the shallow sand-bar.

Nevertheless, Sir Benjamin procrastinated until eventually, after some badgering, he appointed Captain John Bailie to survey the area properly. This was done in January 1836.

With Bailie's reports also being satisfactory, the brig Knysna -- owned by John Rex, a Cape Town merchant -- was chartered to carry supplies to the troops at Fort Peddie.

The Knysna duly arrived at the Buffalo River mouth in mid-November 1836. It would remain at anchor in the roadstead for six weeks, its mass being too great to enter the lagoon.

During that time, 100 soldiers under the command of Captain Thomas Biddulph would see to the off-loading of her cargo and to its transportation to Fort Peddie.

In November 1936 a memorial was erected on Signal Hill to honour John Bailie. It reads:

ON THIS SPOT
THE BRITISH FLAG WAS FIRST HOISTED
BY LIEUT. JOHN BAILIE. R.N.
NOVEMBER, 1836.


The John Bailie memorial is a fascinating tribute, mainly because almost every bit of it is incorrect!
  • Bailie was a captain and not a lieutenant.


  • He was never a member of the Royal Navy but was in the Cape Hottentot Infantry.


  • It was not he who raised the flag but rather Captain Thomas Biddulph who commanded the expedition. Bailie was there only as an observer.
There are in fact two descriptions of this incident: one by Captain Biddulph and the other by John Bailie himself. Both declare that it was Captain Biddulph who raised the flag.

The story goes that the name "Port Rex" was bestowed by the Lieutenant Governor of the Eastern Districts -- Sir Andries Stockenström -- who visited the camp on 5 December 1836.

Sir Andries was said to have been so impressed with what he saw that he named the place in honour of the ship's owner who had risked so much to bring his vessel to these unchartered waters.

There is, however, a problem with this story.

Sir Andries was there for a specific purpose: to restore independence to the Xhosa Chiefs. Only the previous day he had met them at King William's Town and had signed the legal documents. The ink was scarcely dry before Sir Andries journeyed to the Buffalo River mouth to inspect operations.

Is it likely he would have been so Janus-faced as to recognise the Chiefs' independence the one day and proclaim the existence of a new colonial port the next -- a port which would then cease to exist just three weeks later?

The truth is more likely that the troops threw a party that night to honour the visit of the Lieutenant Governor. In fact, it is quite clear that the soldiers held regular parties, and had named the pathway from the river to their camp "the Grog Stairs".

It is probable, therefore, that the decision to "name" the port was no more than a party prank. Out came the paint and soon a nearby stone had been daubed with the words "Port Rex". The next day Sir Andries set off for the Cape Colony -- and probably with a very sore head.

Three weeks later, camp was struck and the name would be used no more.

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