Go to the Labyrinth of East London Lore

The West Bank Location

The early community
of 1847

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The river people at the Buffalo Mouth were neutral during the War of the Axe. In fact, they lent a hand whenever it was needed.

When the British soldiers arrived and were ordered "to hut themselves", it was the amaXhosa who showed them how to build the round mud huts.

In February 1848, Customs Collector Charles Wolfe, who had just bought one of these huts from a soldier, described it as "small but well built of wattle and daub".

The frame-work, he said, consisted of "stakes and twigs covered with a kind of mud plaster and coated with yellow wash".

These huts, he wrote, could not be constructed at less than £20 to £30 each, while some of the more "aristocratic order" cost as much as £35 to £40 each.

The original East London had a complex political status. Because British Kaffraria had a military government which was not equipped to collect customs revenue, the port had been annexed to the Cape Colony.

This action was limited to an area described as a "two mile rayon". The Black village fell outside this rayon and so it was technically still part of British Kaffraria.

Several merchants had opened up trade relations with the amaXhosa even during the war so that, as early as July 1847, the Graham's Town Journal reported the start of an export trade.

Indeed, the Conch -- a coasting vessel of some 85 tons -- had called in at the Buffalo River and had taken on board an export cargo of hides and horns.

Wolfe reported that the amaXhosa were also selling gum and he hoped, he said, that soon the merchants would be able to ship a few tons of it to Cape Town.

Official population figures claimed there were about 60 Xhosa men living there, together with their wives and children. Many of them came into the town regularly to supply the White community with milk.

Whenever ships arrived at the port, the Black population temporarily increased as more labour was needed to unload the vessels.

Sailors from the ships tended to take up lodgings in the Xhosa village. It might be argued that this indicates that prostitution had already started at East London, but it is more probable that the sailors simply could not afford accommodation in the White area.

Captains would have booked in at the East London Tavern and Inn, the only hotel in the town but the sailors would have taken cheaper lodgings within the Black village.

It would be naive to argue that an integrated community could have survived but what was truly unexpected was how soon segregation occurred.

Indeed, in March 1848, the Special Commissioner for British Kaffraria had already given the order that all huts close to the town be pulled down and what was known as a "location" be established.

But that story deserves a chapter of its own.

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