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John Bailie

Surveying the Buffalo River mouth

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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John Bailie was born in Madras (India) but educated in England. He came to the Cape Colony at the head of a large party of 1820 Settlers.

When his property was destroyed at the start of the War of 1834 (6th Frontier War), he joined the military and was promoted quickly to the rank of captain in the 1st Battalion, Provisional Infantry. In this capacity, he came to the Buffalo River mouth in May 1835 and was responsible for surveying of the river in January 1836.

In November 1836 Bailie returned to the Buffalo River mouth in the company of Captain Thomas Biddulph to supervise the off-loading of the Knysna which had brought a cargo of military supplies for the remnant of troops still stationed in the Province of Queen Adelaide (the so-called "Port Rex" story).

It should be noted, however, that he was not in charge of this expedition despite claims to the contrary on the John Bailie Memorial at the East London harbour.

There is an interesting sequel to the "Port Rex" story. John Bailie claimed that he returned to the Buffalo River mouth early in 1837 and bought a piece of land from the local Xhosa community, on the eastern bank of the river.

It was extensive, he wrote, and stretched along the coast from the Buffalo River to the Blind River (where Marina Glen is today). There he built a house, planted fruit and oak trees, and prepared to sow cotton and tobacco.

Dysentery had then overtaken him and he was forced to seek medical assistance in the Colony. The War of the Axe (1846-7) erupted before he could return, however, and so he journeyed to Trans-Orangia instead. There he was convicted of murdering a Boer farmer and was sentenced to death, later to be commuted to life imprisonment.

Bailie's story is unsubstantiated, however, and can probably be taken with a pinch of salt. It was stated in a memorial to Sir Harry Smith, Bailie's friend of yore, when he was appointed Governor and High Commissioner for the Cape Colony in 1847. On hearing of Smith's promotion, Bailie wasted no time in imploring a pardon for his crime of murder, a request that was duly granted.

Bailie thereupon sent another petition for possession of the land, knowing that the Buffalo mouth was at that very moment serving once more as a port for a new territory called British Kaffraria. A village was even then forming on the western bank where the military camp of "Port Rex" had been.

Indeed, reports hinted that "London" would rival even Port Elizabeth in the not-too-distant future. If Bailie, therefore, could acquire the land on the eastern bank, his fortune would be made.

Nothing came of the request because the Governor had no intention of allowing the new port to expand across the river to the eastern bank. Although he was desperate for traders to settle at "London", they were to be allowed land only in close proximity to the military base on the western bank.

Friend or no friend, Governor Sir Harry Smith was certainly not going to give away the land so easily.

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