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Edward John

Very early trader at East London

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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Edward John Maynard Syfret is best known as the man who was the indirect founder of South Africa's Syfrets Trust Company, an organisation which began in 1919 when Edward Ridge Syfret separated a trust branch from his father's original financial firm in Cape Town.

Edward John was born in London in 1821 and, at the tender age of sixteen, joined a French Commercial House in Mexico. He returned to London in 1840, where he became articled to a firm of accountants.

He emigrated to the Cape Colony in 1843 and joined the Guardian Assurance Company in Graham's Town. It was always believed that he remained in Graham's Town until 1850 when he moved to Cape Town and opened his business there as a mortgage broker and estate agent.

There is clear evidence to indicate, however, that he did not in fact remain in Graham's Town at all but took up residence at the new port at the mouth of the Buffalo River, a port which was then known as "London" but would soon become "East London".

Indeed, several memorials addressed to the Resident Magistrate at East London -- and even to the Governor of the Cape Colony -- during 1848 and early 1849 suggest that Syfret was a prominent leader amongst the small trading community there.

The exact date of Syfret's arrival at the mouth of the Buffalo River is not certain but he bought his trading licence there on 8 January 1848 for the sum of £50. It is probable, however, that his arrival was sometime in late 1847.

An advert appearing in The Graham's Town Journal in May 1848 reveals that Syfret concentrated on the sale of general merchandise, varying from coffee, meal, sugar, tobacco, "Caper and fine Teas", wines, stationery, groceries, as well as an assortment of indigenous products.

Another advert in November 1848 mentioned a supply of oilman's stores, haberdashery, hosiery, hardware and blankets. Like many of the frontier traders, Syfret allowed a system of barter because of difficulties in cash payments. He was willing, he said, to accept produce "at its highest value".

Yet he was not content merely to operate his own trading store. He also acted as agent for a Cape Town firm -- Long and Company -- and entered into a partnership with F. Lucas of Graham's Town to become joint trustee for various firms in East London and in King William's Town.

His businesses initially prospered and in May 1848 he was able to take over C.W. Borradaile's general trading company at the port. By March 1849 he owned considerably more land at East London than any other merchant -- with no less than five lots to his name.

He was considered by the military officials in British Kaffraria to be one of the more respected merchants, although the Magistrate at East London did comment in 1849 that there was "not a tradesman from the most respectable downwards that does not carry on illicit dealings."

Syfret had arrived at East London with the expectation of making a quick fortune. Indeed, by January 1848, the port had the potential to rival even Port Elizabeth, despite that town's 20 year age advantage.

Not only was East London a river port where surf-boats could land and load cargo protected from the wind and the sea, but the road into the interior was well-watered and well-pastured -- an important consideration in the days of animal-drawn transport.

By 1849, however, a severe recession was under way, causing the Collector of Customs to describe the port as in a deplorable condition with "nothing but quarrelling and bankruptcy". Indeed, he wrote, East London had become "little less than a mud hole".

This economic slump was caused by East London's annexation to the Cape Colony in January 1848. Sir Harry Smith had arrived as Governor in December 1847 without the necessary authorisation to create a civilian government in British Kaffraria. He was therefore forced to maintain martial law.

An army, however, was not equipped to collect customs and so, in the absence of revenue officials, a smuggling trade established itself as merchants from Graham's Town, the Orange River Sovereignty and even Natal imported through East London where their goods would be landed duty-free.

The only way to block this hole was for East London to be annexed to the Cape Colony where colonial officials would man the customs department. The event, however, caused political and economic mayhem which truncated the hoped-for prosperity.

The subsequent recession, however, revealed a new side to Syfret. Whereas, up till now, he had remained manifestly silent, suddenly he became the instigator of a series of petitions.

The first drew attention to the fact that East London had de facto been placed outside any practical judicial system, which meant that the merchants at the port could gain no redress from any local court of law.

The memorialist appealed to the Governor to declare that the civil law of the Cape Colony be wholly or partially extended to all the white inhabitants of British Kaffraria -- and even beyond the Kei River. He also begged that East London fall under the jurisdiction of a circuit court.

The memorial was partially successful. East London indeed became part of the District of Victoria for judicial purposes, thereby gaining access to a circuit court. It meant, however, that the inhabitants of the port had sometimes to journey all the way to Alice to have their cases brought to justice.

In a second memorial, Syfret complained of the high rate fixed for quitrent at East London. This plea too had its desired effect. Quitrents were soon adjusted to only 10 shillings per year, which was considered by all as being a fair rate.

Another memorial raised the question of licence fees. Merchants at East London had bought their trading licences just one week before the port had been annexed to the Cape Colony but they had paid the British Kaffrarian rate of £50 per licence instead of the Colonial rate of £20.

In fact, a couple of merchants had been required to take out additional licences from the Cape Colony, as they had been informed that their existing British Kaffrarian licences would be invalid. They all therefore requested a refund.

The memorial also pointed out that taxation levied at East London should have been used to improve the port by way of drainage and the provision of drinking water. Since the transfer of the taxation to the Colonial Treasury, however, all such work had come to a standstill.

When no joy was obtained from the Governor, Syfret drafted yet another memorial, this time couched in language which stopped just short of accusing the Government of theft -- referring to it euphemistically as "a tax levied in error". The Governor, however, still refused to grant a refund.

Syfret had left East London by the middle of 1849. It appeared that he could no longer see much of a future at the port which remained bogged down in legal and economic confusion. His departure, however, was gradual.

In November 1848, he placed an advert in The Graham's Town Journal giving notice of his intention to have a public sale at his store on 5 December. A variety of merchandise, he said, would be sold "without reserve".

In December, he advertised the sale of the business he had been operating for Messrs Long of Cape Town. Moreover, he said, he would continue to sell off his own variously assorted stock of merchandise.

His sale continued into January 1849, when another advert proclaimed the official closing of his business at East London. The finale, however, was reached only in June that year when he put on the market his "Five Desirable Erven with the Commodious Stores and other Tenements thereon".

Although Syfret's sojourn at East London had lasted a mere 18 months, the merchant had been responsible for several major developments at the port.

East London's legal system had become less ambiguous and the merchants now had access to a local court of law. Rental on their land had also been reduced.

Other ambiguities had also been brought to light, such as the lack of title-deeds to the land bought by both merchants and military men. Indeed, in June 1849 the hamlet was properly surveyed and plots went on sale, giving all occupants a valid title to their properties.

It must have been with deep regret that his fellow merchants watched Syfret's departure from East London. His stay at the port had been a significant one, while his leaving brought to an end an important era in the development of the port.

[Adapted from: Keith Tankard, "Edward John Maynard Syfret: Early trader at East London" in The Coelacanth, Vol. 23. No. 2, December 1985]

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