Port Elizabeth History Facts and Timeline

(Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa)

One of South Africa's most densely populated cities, Port Elizabeth stands in the middle of its southern coast, halfway between Durban and Cape Town.

Although Port Elizabeth lives up to both of its nicknames, the 'Friendly' and the 'Windy' city, most South Africans refer to this busy seaport as simply PE. The city's surrounding wilderness areas are free of malaria, while warm Indian Ocean waters caress the clean beaches of Africa's unofficial water sports capital.

San Hunters and Gatherers

The first humans in the history of Port Elizabeth lived in the area over 100,000 years ago and were descended from the San tribe. These San hunters and gathers were eventually displaced by the ancestors of today's Xhosa, who arrived from the north slightly more than 2,000 years ago.

The earliest known evidence of these San people are some 70,000 year old stone implements discovered at the archeological site of Howieson's Poort Shelter, roughly 120 km / 75 miles from Port Elizabeth.

First European Settlement

In the year of 1488, Portuguese explorer and nobleman Bartholomew Dias became the first European to arrive in the area upon landing on St. Croix Island. Less than a decade later in the history of Port Elizabeth, another Portuguese explorer named Vasco da Gama sailed past the Bird Island group and noted his discovery.

As the Portuguese were searching for a reliable route to their Goa colony in India, they named the bay 'Algoa' or 'to Goa.' However, the land surrounding Algoa Bay remained uninhabited for many more centuries, even after the area became part of the Dutch East India Company's Cape Colony in the mid-17th century.

Fort Frederick and Uitenhage

The first permanent settlement in the history of Port Elizabeth was not established until the turn of the 18th century, when the British erected the stone Fort Frederick in the present-day city, in order to protect their new colony from French invaders. Fort Frederick still guards Port Elizabeth to this day. The Swartkops River settlements of both Uitenhage and Bethelsdorp were established shortly afterwards.

Founding of the City

Port Elizabeth itself was not founded until 1820, when approximately 4,000 British settlers arrived in this new community named after the wife of the Cape Colony's acting governor, Rufane Shaw Donkin. By the 1860s, the city soon became the Cape Colony's second-largest settlement, due in large part to its busy harbour. Port Elizabeth grew even larger after a railway to Kimberley was completed in the early 1870s.

Horse Memorial

Although the city's importance diminished somewhat after the harbours of both Maputo and Durban opened for business, Port Elizabeth became a significant Second Boer War transit point for supplies and soldiers, as well as horses on their way to the battlegrounds. Many of the war refugees who fled here were Boer children and women who had survived stays in British concentration camps. The Horse Memorial stands in the city as a tribute to the countless mules and horses that lost their lives in the Second Boer War.

Modern Times in the City

During the 1960s, the city's South End district was forcibly flattened and evacuated as part of the Apartheid policy of segregation. Famously in 1977, activist Stephen Biko was tortured and imprisoned here.

The city's black townships witnessed violent protests during the 1980s anti-apartheid movement. After apartheid was abolished, Port Elizabeth continued to experience high rates of violence, crime, and HIV / AIDS infections, problems that have plagued all of the country's cities.

Christopher Nceba Faku became the first black mayor in the history of Port Elizabeth and South Africa in the year of 1995. The city became part of the larger Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality in 2001 and proudly served as one of the 2010 FIFA World Cup venues. Today, it functions as an important regional centre and port, with a measure of tourism thrown in, being the gateway to the popular Jeffrey's Bay (surfing), Plettenberg Bay and the scenic town of Knysna - among the prettiest coastlines in South Africa.