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Port Elizabeth in Literature
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| 1838 | 1865 | 1877 | 1878 | 1936 | 1994 | 1996 | 1997

1820: Thomas Pringle (1789 – 1834); Scottish settler, writer and abolitionist

“Coasting on in this manner, we at length doubled Cape Recife on the 15th, and late in the afternoon came to an anchor in Algoa Bay, in the midst of a little fleet of vessels, which had just landed, or were engaged in landing, their respective bands of settlers.

It was an animated and interesting scene.  Around us in the west corner of the spacious bay, were anchored ten or twelve large vessels, which had recently arrived with immigrants, of whom a great proportion were still on board.  Directly in front, on a rising ground a few hundred yards from the beach, stood the little fortified barrack, or blockhouse, called Fort Frederick, occupied by a division of the 72nd regiment, with the tents and marquees of the officers pitched on the heights around it.  At the foot of those heights, nearer the beach, stood three thatched cottages and one or two wooden houses brought from England, which now formed the offices of the commissaries and other civil functionaries appointed to transact the business of the emigration, and to provide the settlers with provisions and other stores, and with carriages for their conveyance up the country.

A suitable back ground to this animated picture, as viewed by us from the anchorage, was supplied by the heights over the Zwartkops river, covered with a dense jungle, and by the picturesque peaks of the Winterhoek and the dark masses of the Zureberg ridge far to the northward, distinctly outlined in the clear blue sky.
On the 6th of June, we assisted at laying the foundation of the first house of a new town at Algoa Bay, designated by Sir Rufane ‘Port Elizabeth,’ after the name of his deceased lady, to whose memory, also, he afterward erected an obelisk on one of the adjoining heights.  In the course of fourteen years this place has grown up to be the second town in the colony, both for population and for commerce; and it is still rapidly increasing.” – Narrative of a Residence in South Africa, published 1834

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1838: James Backhouse (1794-1869); Quaker missionary, nurseryman and traveller

“Port Elizabeth is situated on the foot of a steep hill, at the margin of Algoa Bay; it is much like a small, English sea-port town, and contains about 100 houses, exclusive of huts; the houses are of stone or brick, red-tiled, and of English structure.  The town is said to have been chiefly raised by the sale of strong drink.  At the doors of the canteens, groups of Hottentots and persons of other nations are constantly to be seen in a state of inebriety.  A monument in the form of a pyramid, stands on an eminence above the town; it was erected in remembrance of Elizabeth the wife of Rufane Donkin, and gives the name to the port.  The landing here is inconvenient, the anchorage being very open to the sea, and a heavy surf breaking on the beach, when there is any considerable wind.” – A Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa, published 1844

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1838: Charles Bunbury (1809-1886); Traveller, geologist and naturalist

“We remained two days at Port Elizabeth, where the Governor received a deputation of the inhabitants, and transacted other business.  I was not much pleased with this, the only sea-port of the eastern province.  It is an ugly, dirty, ill-scented, ill-built hamlet, resembling some of the worst fishing villages on the English coast; backed by low stony hills of the most barren character, while long ranges of sand-hills extend along the shore on both sides of it.  Yet is a place of considerable importance, being the only sea-port of this prosperous and improving division of the colony.  In the year I was at the Cape, the value of the exports from Port Elizabeth (of the produce of the colony) amounted to £39,768; the declared value of the goods imported into the same place in British shipping was £103,077.  The anchorage of Algoa Bay is quite open to the S.E. winds, and has been generally supposed to be dangerous; but I was assured by more than one naval officer at the Cape, that is not unsafe for well-provided vessels, if proper care be taken.  The landing, however, is bad, and often impracticable, on account of the heavy surf, and a pier or jetty is much wanted.  It is proposed, also, to erect a lighthouse on Cape Recife, which bounds the bay to the southwest.” – Journal of a Residence at the Cape of Good Hope, published 1848

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1865: W. Rodger Thomson (1832 – 1867); writer and Cape member of parliament

“MARKET SQUARE, PORT ELIZABETH.  This view is taken from within the entrance of the Town Hall, the large building in the background of the last picture, and overlooks the Square in which the demi-weekly produce-markets are held.  Here we have a plenteous display of the articles of export to which Port Elizabeth merchants owe such rapid wealth – wool bales, hides, horns, and tusks.  The export of wool has steadily risen within the last ten years from a very low figure to many millions of pounds annually.  Waggons and carts, buyers and sellers, are seen in long perspective far down the street, which winds in a rather sinuous course from the Town Hall to the Prison buildings, at the other extremity of the town.” – text for Thomas Bowler’s The Kaffir Wars and the British Settlers in South Africa. A Series of Picturesque Views from Original Sketches, published 1865
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1877: Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882); English novelist

“The town is built on a steep hill rising from the sea, and is very neat.  The town hall is a large handsome building, putting its rival and elder sister Capetown quite to shame.  I was taken over a huge store in which, it seemed to me, that every thing known and wanted in the world was sold, from American agricultural implements down to Aberdeen red herrings.  The library and reading room, and public ball room or concert hall, were perfect.  The place contains only 15,000 inhabitants, but has every thing needed for instruction, civilization and the general improvement of the human race.  It is built on the lines of one of those marvellous American little towns in which philanthropy and humanity seem to have worked together to prevent any rational want. 

Ostrich feathers and wool are the staples of the place.  I witnessed a sale of feathers and was lost in wonder at the ingenuity of the auctioneer and of the purchasers.  They seemed to understand each other as the different lots were sold, with an average of 30 seconds allowed to each lot.  To me it was simply marvellous, but I gathered that the feathers were sold at prices varying from £5 to £25 a pound.  They were sold by the pound, but in lots which may weigh perhaps not more than a few ounces each.  I need only say further of Port Elizabeth that there are churches, banks, and institutions fit for a town of ten times its size, - and that its club is a pattern club, for all Colonial towns.” – South Africa, published 1878

1878: The Illustrated London News; explanation of woodcut captioned “Kaffirs unloading a lighter at Port Elizabeth, South Africa”

Port Elizabeth, in Algoa Bay, is a British seaport, on the coast of our South African provinces, and should be the commercial outlet of a well-settled and fertile agricultural district.  Unfortunately, its roadstead is not a secure harbour, and the conveniences for loading and unloading leave much to be desired.  The process of removing a cargo, in bags carried upon men’s heads and shoulders, from the lighter which has taken this merchandise out of the ship, is both tedious and expensive to the consignees.” The Illustrated London News, Saturday, November, 1878

1936: Eric Attwell; South African traveller

“The crossing of the Swartkops River, twelve kilometres out of town, seemed to signal the real start of our journey, perhaps because we at last felt that we had successfully shaken off our imaginary pursuers.  We stopped on the other side of the bridge for a few minutes and Jack unstrapped his guitar and sang ‘Side by Side’.  The sentimental words, ‘We’ll travel the road, sharing the load, side by side’, seemed to symbolise our comradeship in the undertaking in front of us, and I felt good.  Had anybody told me then of the stresses and strains our friendship would be subjected to in the months ahead I would have laughed at them.

As we neared the top of the hill after leaving the Swartkops, I glanced back at the lights of Port Elizabeth and suddenly realised for the first time that I was making a complete break with my former life, leaving friends, family and everything familiar.  It was a strange, frightening, but also exhilirating feeling.” The Road to London, published by the author, circa 1970
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1994: Athol Fugard (1932 - ); South African playwright and novelist

“Port Elizabeth is an almost featureless industrial port on the Indian Ocean.  It is assaulted throughout the year by strong south-westerly and easterly winds.  Close on half a million people live here – black, white, Indian, Chinese, and Coloured (mixed-race).  It is also very representative of South Africa in the range of its social strata, from total affluence on the white side to the extremest poverty on the non-white.  I cannot conceive of myself as separate from it.” - Cousins. A Memoir, published by Witwatersrand University Press in 1994
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1996: Jimmy Matyu (1936 - ); South African journalist

‘Jabavu Road is still there in New Brighton – very much alive though many of its pioneers have since died or moved on to other areas of the township or suburbs. 

When I lived in Jabavu Road, the labourers of the Port Elizabeth Municipality in their brightly coloured overalls would, like an army of ants “invade” the township at Christmas time, carrying paint, brushes and ladders, and start beautifying the homes.  This was also done whenever important visitors – such as the Royal Family – came to Port Elizabeth.

Walking down Jabavu Road these days, one feels that the “old magic” which made Jabavu a throbbing place, is missing.  There are no longer political discussions under street lamps, no tea parties, and no minstrel to entertain residents on Christmas Day.

But life goes on in Jabavu Road.  Traditional beer ceremonies are held – and babies are conceived and born.’ Shadows from the Past, published by Kwela Books in 1996
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1997: Yvonne Burgess (1936 - ); South African journalist and novelist

“Whenever I felt like a breath of fresh air, when the wind was not blowing too hard and the Colonel felt fairly well (once or twice a month we both felt fairly well at the same time) we would take a stroll down the street to the Hill.

We’d try to go early in the morning, usually, before the wind and the vagrants took over, when the sea was still calm and bright, rippling with sunlight like shot taffeta, before the wind freshened and it would turn grey and choppy, crested with white foam, except in the calmer waters of the harbour.

Both arms of the Bay would be visible then, beyond the harbour wall on the right, below the cranes which stood at intersecting angles, to the sandbanks which stretched like a creamy ribbon into the grey-blue sea, and on the left, the stark ugliness of the industrial area, softened somewhat in the early morning by the clouds of smog like a filmy chiffon curtain.” Anna and the Colonel, published by Ravan Press in 1997
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