Baakens Valley Action
The Baakens River Valley

Points of Historical Interest

Dutch  origin of Port Elizabeth

The freshwater from the Baakens River and the sheltered bay are the two reasons why the Dutch sailors first came to area. Evidence of this has been found in a 1789 Dutch map, indicating the “Baakjes  Fonteyn”  which they claimed rights to with a beacon on the prominent cliffs.

The Dutch, however, were not the first residents of the Baakens Valley and the Khoisan coastal dwellers had originally hunted the wild game and gathered food from the prolific vegetation. While there are no physical remains of their presence in the Valley, there are documented reports of their bartering (and conflict) with the Dutch at the mouth of the river.

British colonisation

In 1799 the first British troops took possession of the Lower Baakens. They erected a fortification on the current site of Fort Frederick to protect themselves from the Xhosa, Khoisan and the “trekboers” (Dutch famers from the Cape who were trying to establish themselves in the area).

In 1820 the British Settlers arrived on the shores of Algoa Bay and began to establish themselves along the coastline north of the Baakens River and on the hill overlooking the mouth. They utilised the river estuary as an important natural resource, forming a laundry in the area now known as Brickmaker’s Koof and growing crops in the flood plains. This area also formed the “Baakens Lagoon” which became popular for swimming and boating.

Industrialisation of the Baakens lagoon

The turn of the century saw a dramatic change in the role of the Lower Baakens as Main Street (now Govan Mbeki Avenue) was constructed and the inner city began to develop. There are various stories about why the lagoon was filled in. One story suggests that the people swimming in the lagoon were making a noise for the residents on the hill while another indicates that more land was needed for a garden below the fort. Whatever the reasoning, the rubble was excavated for city development and dumped into the lagoon. This later formed the foundations for factories and the mouth of the river was ultimately canalised.

The changing nature of the river mouth

From the historical photos, it is evident that the mouth of the river changed many times with bridges across the mouth often being re-built as the river continued its natural flooding course. The Tramways Building was built in 1897 and although it sits in the middle of the flood plain has remained throughout.

Man’s impact on the coastline

Historically the city was completely connected with the river and the sea and on the south banks of the mouth, the Cape Malay area of South End continued down to the water’s edge. These inhabitants were mainly fisherman and thus this connection was an essential part of the daily lives. 

In 1910 the breakwater was built to protect the harbour from storms, resulting in a complete change of the coastline. Sea sand which fed the northern beaches began to collect against the breakwater, forming what is now the area of the oil tank farm and Kings beach while the northern coastline began to erode. This process continues today.

Landscaping the Valley

The early twentieth century also saw the laying out of the botanical gardens in what is now known as Settler’s Park. Exotic plants and birds were introduced and much of the natural vegetation was landscaped. Weirs and dams were also built to allow people to pass over the river and have subsequently had negative environmental impacts.

The demolition of South End

In the 1950s the area of South End was demolished and the residents were re-located as part of the Group Areas Act of the Apartheid Era.

This community, which had been so closely linked with the Baakens River and the coast were re-located inland, separating them from their cultural roots.

The influence of Modernism

In the 1960s, the municipality, fuelled by Modernist ideas began to re-plan Port Elizabeth as separate suburbs, linked by large freeways. This greatly impacted the nature of the Lower Baakens as concrete flyovers were built over the river mouth, completely cutting of the city from the sea. There was also a proposal for a highway to connect to these freeways from the suburbs, running down the length of the Valley, but was luckily met with great resistance and never came into being.