Nov 7, 2011
In the Beginning
Six name changes and a geographical shift would be enough reason to give anyone an identity crisis. Port Alfred, however, a beacon of heritage along the Eastern Cape coastline, suffers no personality disorders whatsoever, despite being previously named everything from Port Frances (after then-governor Lord Charles Somerset’s daughter-in-law) and Albany to Kowie Town and Victoria. And, the fact that her river was redirected so that its entry point would better accommodate ships, has only given her a stronger identity as a fun-loving holiday town where speedboats and waterskiiers are able to whizz through her waters.
It was during the 1820s that the British Settlers moved into the area – an attempt by Somerset to establish a buffer between the local Xhosa community and the Western Cape. These early inhabitants shacked up in tents, tin shanties and wagons until their huts and homes were completed. They planted crops and set up trade, dealing with voyagers landing at the seaside town and travelling inland to Grahamstown. Sailors who had jumped ship also became part of the community, as did sea traders who opted to stay and make the attractive area their home too.
The popularity of Port Alfred meant that hotels had to be built.
The first one, The Cove (now Ferrymans), was established in front of a bubbling freshwater well, which still offers nature’s source today. The town’s other water attraction – the Kowie River – had its mouth widened at the time that it was redirected, allowing bigger ships to enter and dock and do their trade, giving the town greater accessibility to the outside world. This didn’t last long, however. Besides the sand banks causing too many shipwrecks (the church bell on the 1826 Settlers Church comes from one of these wrecks), a train line was completed between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown in 1881, making inland transport from the bigger coastal city much more of an attractive option for traders. And so Port Alfred lost its appeal as a harbour town.
But she didn’t let this get to her. She knew that those who wanted to experience her charm and beauty would still pay her a visit. She was right! In 1860, Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, visited the confident town. In honour of his stamp-of-approval visit to celebrate his 16th birthday, the town was renamed one last time. Port Alfred: she is who she is.