Fort Frederick and Captain Francis Evatt

With the powers at be in the Cape deciding that British interests needed to be protected in Algoa bay it was decided that a more permanent fort on a better site, other than the block house that had been erected at the ford at Baakens river was in order. So in 1799 under the watchful eye of trained engineer officers, artisans started the work of building the fort whose primary function would be to prevent enemy ships entering the Bay as England with her ally Holland were at war with France.

This new fort called Fort Frederick in honour of H R H, the Duke of York commanded the landing place at the foot of the Baakens river valley. The fort is a stone redoubt 80 foot square with an average height of 9 feet for the walls. On the inside a raised platform to allow sentries to patrol was built as well as a strong powder magazine and a blockhouse, the blockhouse once had a wooden tower with a walkabout. Heavy armament was in the form of eight, twelve pounder cannon that were situated in strategic positions both on the walls and within the fort itself. The guns at Fort Frederick are today ships cannons, the original field cannons having been returned to England was taken out of use in 1863 The garrison numbered 300 men and soon barracks were built for them as well as other military buildings needed, such as military stores, bake house, hospital, blacksmith and carpenters. The forts as well as these buildings are considered by many to be the modest beginnings of Port Elizabeth that was only to be named some twenty years later.

In 1801 the Cape Colony was ceded back to Holland and the fort was taken over by 150 men of the Waldeck Regiment under the command of Major von Gilten, this was reduced to 80 men a few months later with command being handed to a Captain Lodewyk or Captain Louis Alberti. In 1806 the Napoleonic wars resumed and England once again took over the running of the Cape Colony, the fort was put under the command of a Captain Cuyler, this was the same year that a Captain Francis Evatt was to arrive in the Cape with the 21st Light Dragoons……….”but more of him later”

Captain Cuyler was appointed Landrost at Uitenhage and it was Captain Evatt who took over command in 1817. The foundations of Port Elizabeth had been laid, but it was not until 1820 with the landing of the 1820 Settlers that history was changed. In 1819 apart from the military buildings, many in a state of decay there were only a few other abodes mainly around what is now Baakens or Main Street, the population other than the military consisted of 34 whites and 1 Malay

An interesting fact about the fort is that it never once fired its cannon in anger against foreign invaders. Even when the French warship Preneuse flying Danish colours entered the bay in 1799 and after raising the French Flag fired upon two British transporters at anchor, the Camel and Rattlesnake. The fort is also reputed to be the eastern Capes oldest stone structure.

Captain Francis Evatt was born in Ireland in 1770; his father who had been a Captain in the Monaghan militia was killed at the Battle of Ballinahinch in County Antrim, Ireland, during the rebellion of 1798. Francis as mentioned earlier arrived in the Cape Colony in 1806 with the 21st Dragoon Guards and served together with his brother for a number of years on the frontier. In 1817 he was appointed as Commandant of Fort Frederick at a salary of 90 pounds a year a post he occupied until his death.

What is probably best remembered about Captain Evatt is the assistance and concern he showed towards the 4000 British settlers that arrived in 1820 some 24 years later at a public dinner to commemorate the landing of the settlers, one of the first settlers to arrive a Mr. John Centlivres Chase paid a moving tribute to his kindness. By 1825 Port Elizabeth was fast becoming an area of increasing importance and the Governor decided that a higher official power to be resident was necessary. Captain Evatt was appointed “Government Resident” whose function was to preside over court proceedings.

Captain Evatt was proud of the growing town and guarded its best interests as best he could and was very prominent in its development. In the census of 1823 records show that Port Elizabeth had a population of 73 men, 30 women, 44 boys, 33 girls, 75 employed Hottentots, 64 slaves owned and 9 Prize Negroes in service under Captain Evatt. The Captain was also instrumental in ensuring a place of worship was built in the town and he headed a list of subscribers with a donation of 100 Rix dollars (in those days equal to his monthly salary). It was Capt Evatt that laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Church on behalf of Governor Lord Charles Somerset in 1825. In 1926 he was protesting against revenues collected in Port Elizabeth being used in Uitenhage for the benefit of those residents, rather than for the development of the port.

Captain Evatt for many years lived in a house near to the army commissary post and was only to marry late in life, to a widow, Anne de la Harpe from Uitenhage, the wedding took place on December 2 1831, while I was unable to find where they had been married I would hazard a guess at St Mary’s church. Captain Evatt died on the 21 march 1850 after a brief illness and was given a military funeral that was conducted by the Rev A Robson in the Congregational Cemetery in Russell Road.

His tombstone now in the porch of St Mary’s Church bears the following epitaph

Sacred to the Memory
Captain Francis Evatt
Late 21st Light Dragoons

34 years Commandant at Fort Frederick, Algoa Bay. He died on the 21st march 1850 aged 80 years, having served his country upwards of half a century, 38 years of which he was resident in this town. The British settlers were landed under his superintendence and treated by him with every kindness and hospitality, he found this port a military outpost and lived to see it become the second commercial town of the Cape of Good Hope
This tomb was erected by his friends

Francis left behind a wife, two children, son and daughter, named Henry and Margaret, of his son there are no records but Margaret died in England a mere two years after her father. Mrs Evatt died aged 87 in Graaff - Reniet

Capt Evatt is considered by many to be a founding father of Port Elizabeth; “If not the founder of the town at least present at its origin”, In 1956 his remains were moved to a grave just outside the Fort, a Street in Richmond Hill was also named after him.

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