Port Elizabeth - History

Long before Europeans arrived in Africa early man was evident in the area around Port Elizabeth. In what the archaeologists call the " Howieson's Poort layer' that has been dated as far back as 70 000 years evidence of stone tools and implements used by these early humans have been found. The Howieson's Poort Shelter is found outside Grahamstown which is some 120 kilometers inland from Port Elizabeth. These early humans were the ancestral fore fathers of the San or Bushmen people, that were a tribe of hunter, gatherers that populated South Africa for thousands of years. People from northern Africa migrated southwards some 2000 years ago and displaced the San, these were the fore fathers of what is now the Xhosa tribe that to this day populate the Eastern Cape.

In 1488 the first Europeans arrived in Algoa Bay, he was the Portuguese explorers Bartolomeu Dias who landed on St Croix Island and Vasco da Gama in 1497 who logged a sighting of Bird Island in Algoa Bay, both of these explorers were looking for a route to India for the lucrative spice trade. Up until the late 1700's the area was marked on navigational charts as a 'landing place for fresh water' and not much else.

Image of old cannon
A old cannon from a ship wreck on display at Bayworld in Port Elizabeth

During the Napoleonic Wars the British took an interest in Algoa Bay and to prevent it from falling into French hands a fort was build overlooking what is today Port Elizabeth harbour in 1799, it was named after the then Duke of York and called Fort Frederick.

The first Europeans to form any sort of permanent establishment in Port Elizabeth outside of any military influence was a missionary from the London Missionary Society who sent Dr Johannes Theodosuis Van Der Kemp in 1801 to the area. The doctor built up a settlement on the little Swartkops River in what is now known as Bethelsdorp. There is a square stone house that is reported to have housed Dr David Livingstone in his travels through the area that is aptly called the Livingstone Cottage.

Image of the Van Der Kemp Memorial Church in Bethelsdorp Village
Van Der Kemp Memorial Church in Bethelsdorp Village

During the late 1700's and early 1800's there was great conflict between the European settlers and the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape that came to be called the Cape Frontier Wars, this was a direct results of competition for the prime farming and grazing lands of the area. In 1820 a group of some 4000 British settlers landed at Algoa Bay, this was part of a plan by the Acting Governor of the Cape Colony, Rufane Shaw Donkin, to strengthen the European presence in the Eastern Cape. It was then that Port Elizabeth was officially founded and named after Donkin's wife, Elizabeth.

On the 25th April 1804 a town was founded along the Swartkops River a short distance inland from Port Elizabeth by the district magistrate, Jacob Glen Cuyler, and named after the Cape's Commissioner-General , Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mis. In 2001, along with Despatch, and Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, was incorporated into the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality.

The Port Elizabeth harbour became the focal point of strong growth in Port Elizabeth and by the 1860's it was the second largest city in the Colony and one of the most important ports. This changed with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the South African interior and the financial centre moving to the Witwatersrand, with Durban and Maputo's port becoming more active.

Port Elizabeth was not spared the changes brought on by the Apartheid regime in the 1960's with one predominate coloured community in the South End that was on prime real estate land been demolished and the residents been force moved to other areas. Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape, was at the fore front of a trade union movement that had great impact on the political landscape of South Africa and during the 1980's the black townships of Port Elizabeth saw much violence during the struggle for equality of all races in South Africa.

On the 6th November 1995, Christopher Nceba Faku, who was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth was elected the first black mayor of a city in South Africa.