Port St Johns was probably named after a Portuguese ship, the Sao Joao, which was wrecked in 1552, though some prefer the theory that the name comes from a rock formation east of the Umzimvubu which reminded ancient mariners of St John the Evangelist.
Be that as it may, the earliest known inhabitants were members of the Mthwa group of clans (extended families) who have lived in the neighbourhood from time immemorial to the present day. A turning point in the history of the district occurred in 1845 when Ndamase, a warrior son of King Faku of the Mpondo crossed the Umzimvubu river on a bundle of sticks (iinyanda.) Ndamase was greeted by Fono, one of the Mthwa chiefs, and became ruler of western Mpondoland, known as Nyandeni after the famous bundle of sticks. The Mthwa strongly supported Ndamase in all his wars and were regarded as his loyal allies. At about the same time, a small colony of white traders settled at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. They recognised the Mpondo chief and paid him customs duties.
When Ndamase died in 1876, the Mpondo Great House in Lusikisiki tried to reassert its control over western Mpondoland. Nqwiliso, Ndamase’s son, reacted by ceding the western bank of the Umzimvubu to the Cape government in return for being recognised as an independent ruler. In 1878 two British officers, Thesiger and Sullivan, raised the British flag at Port St Johns, and gave their names to the two mountains on either side of Umzimvubu river mouth. Fort Harrison was founded the same year but abandoned shortly thereafter.
In 1884, Port St Johns was formally annexed to the Cape Colony. It was governed as a white enclave not as part of the Transkeian territories. In 1963 for example, when Transkei became a self-governing Bantustan, Port St Johns was explicitly excluded. In 1976 however, the apartheid government handed Port St Johns to Paramount Chief K.D. Matanzima in order to get him to agree to Transkei ‘independence’.
During General Holomisa’s government in Transkei (1987-1994), the road from Port St Johns to Umtata was tarred. Unfortunately, due to political uncertainty and financial strangulation, the town continued to decline. The advent of the new South Africa in 1994 has opened a new chapter in our history, however. Doors have been opened to new investment and new residents, and we look forward to an era of mellow inter-racial prosperity such as Port St Johns enjoyed during the reign of the wise King Faku.
Professor Jeff Peires, Eastern Cape Government, Bisho.
Reprinted from Map of Port St Johns and Environs by Liz Tarr and Marlene Powell. Sponsored by WWF and The Green Trust.