Port Elizabeth History

Port Elizabeth’s rich cultural heritage guarantees history lovers a unique insight into the Eastern Cape’s and the Metro’s diverse and remarkable past.
The nomadic San were the earliest group of indigenous people known to live in the Eastern Cape. The Khoi displaced the San into the mountains and semi-desert, early in the second millennium AD. The forefathers of the Xhosa speaking people arrived on the banks of the Kei River in about 800AD.
While on his epic voyage of discovery searching for a sea route to the East, the Portuguese, Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the “Cabo da Roca” in February 1488 and entered “Baia da Roca” – Cape and Bay of the Rock (now Cape Recife and Algoa Bay). Dias also gave the name “Ilheus Chaos” (Flat Islands) to the Bird Islands. In 1497, Vasco da Gama, successor to Dias, entered Algoa Bay and noted the Bird Islands on his voyage to India. His charts gave Cape Recife it’s name – “Cabo do Arricife” – Cape of the Reef. The “Bay” was later named “Baia de Lagoa”, by navigator and cartographer Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo in 1576, which referred to the lagoon situated at the mouth of the Baakens River.

By the middle of the 18th century, the number of ships passing the “Bay” had increased and occasionally survivors of the shipwrecks were given hospitality by Dutch Trekboers (farmers) who had trekked from the Cape in search of good farmland.

 At the end of 1799 the English, fearing that the French would render military assistance to the Graaff Reinet rebels, decided to construct Fort Frederick, overlooking the mouth of the Baakens River as a permanent military post.
4 000 British Settlers arrived by sea in 1820, to become the first permanent British residents in the Albany District. On 6 June 1820, Sir Rufane Donkin, Acting Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, named the new sea port in memory of his late wife, Elizabeth.
Before the up-country gold and diamond booms, PE developed as one of the major commercial cities in SA, trading in wool, mohair and ostrich feathers. As a result, the harbour became a bustling port. People traveled to the city in search of trade and labour opportunities.

Early Port Elizabeth was characterized by the settlement of European, Cape Malay and immigrant communities. The diverse community lived together according to economic and social status, rather than on an ethnic basis. Some folk were already residing in New Brighton since 1903. However, when the Group Areas Act was legislated in 1960, this resulted in forced relocation under the “apartheid law” among the non-white population and the so-called townships came into being.
Port Elizabeth was the first city in SA to establish a fully integrated, democratic local authority and has long been a leader in the political transformation of the country.

 Presently, Port Elizabeth is fondly referred to as “Ibhayi” by Xhosa speakers, “Die Baai” by Afrikaners and “The Bay” by English speakers.