The need for a reliable harbour to service the frontier region of the Eastern Cape began to surface during the 1830s, when the British military found that the lines of supply and communication between Port Elizabeth and the Albany settlements had become dangerously over-extended. Although efforts had already begun in 1825 to develop a harbour at the Kowie river mouth, this was found to be too shallow and liable to silting, and the attention of the military turned further east. The need became more pressing after 16 June 1835 when Governor Sir Benjamin D'Urban proclaimed a broad belt of land between the Keiskamma and Buffalo rivers as the Province of Queen Adelaide. In November 1836 a survey was made by John Rex and John Bailey of the Buffalo river mouth. Their report was positive and the area was immediately named Port Rex. However, the new province was never annexed to the Cape and plans regarding the new harbour had to be abandoned.
During the frontier war of 1846-47, better known as the War of the Axe, the British made use of Waterloo Bay, located near the Fish river mouth, but found this unsatisfactory and the military authorities ordered a second survey of the Buffalo river mouth. Again, the report was favourable and this time plans for its use were implemented. In 1847 a post, known as Fort Buffalo, was built on the west bank of the river. On 14 January 1848 the new Governor, Sir Harry Smith, formally annexed the port and its surrounding territory to a radius of about 3km to the Cape Colony and named it East London. At about the same time Smith decided to establish a second and more substantial fort only a short distance above Fort Buffalo. The structure, designed by Capt J Walpole, Officer Commanding the Royal Engineers, was built in 1848 under the supervision of Lt Ferrois, and was named Fort Glamorgan in honour of Col Henry Somerset, eldest son of Lord Charles Somerset and Commander of British troops on the eastern frontier in 1819-52.
A stone jetty was also built in 1848, and by the end of 1849 at least four streets had been laid out. By the mid-1850s the village had a population of 124 Europeans settlers and 300 troops. In 1857 members of the British- German Legion, who had previously fought in the Crimean War, were recruited for service as soldier-settlers in South Africa. They were settled in British Kaffraria, but a number of them eventually took up residence in East London, building their homes on the eastern bank of the Buffalo river. By 1873 three villages were clustered about the mouth of the Buffalo: East London West Bank; East London East Bank, and Panmure, named after Lord Panmure, British Secretary for War in the 1850s. On 22 April 1873 the three were merged into a single municipality. Construction on the main harbour began in 1872, and in 1873 work began on the breakwater.
The 1875 census indicated that East London had a population of 2,134. In 1891 this number had risen to 6,924, and by 1904 it stood at 25,220, of whom 14,860 were literate.
East London, affectionately is called Buffalo City by the locals, is situated 1000 kilometres from Cape town on the South East coast of South Africa. Lying in between the Nahoon River in the north and the Buffalo river to the South it is the only river port in South Africa. The shores are lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and with its sub-tropical climate is a sought after tourist destination for local South Africans and international tourist alike.
East London, itself, has some 400 000 residents, the metropolitan area has 1.4 million, and is the second largest city in the province of the Eastern Cape.
East London has a genuine sense of hospitality and laid back style of living. The inhabitants of East London will make you feel more than welcome. There are only a few hotels in the city which has opened up a niche for local Bed and Breakfast and Self-Catering establishments, to fill the void, where you will find great service and true South African cordiality. Overseas visitors will find the prices most agreeable. East London is at the northern end of a 300 kilometre stretch of coastline referred to as the "Sunshine Coast" which has St Francis Bay at the southern end.
The Sunshine Coast is renowned for its many kilometres of beautiful unpolluted and un-crowded beaches. Long before written history the banks of the now Buffalo River and the seashore were inhabited by early man, the Nahoon footprints have been dated at been 200 000 years old, the oldest fossilized human footprints found in the world. In more recent history the area was home to the Khoisan or Bushman tribe who were pushed out of the region by the later white settlers. It was in the area around East London that the Xhosa and white setters met for the first time and a century long battle ensured for the right to the prime grazing lands of the Eastern Cape. A British fort, Fort Glamorgan was constructed in 1847, around which present day East London developed, this was to protect the vital river port which was essential in supplying the army's and settlers in the region.
The economy of East London is heavily dependent on the motor manufacturing industry, Daimler Chrysler has a plant here. That produces for the local market and exports to England, Japan and Australia which is situated, not surprisingly, near the harbour, nevertheless the Eastern Cape remains one of the poorest regions of South Africa but with intervention by the government and the growth of the tourist industry by leaps and bounds the situation is improving.
Both Nelson Mandela and the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, have their roots in the Eastern Cape. Thabo Mbeki attend high school in Lovedale until been expelled for his participation in the struggle for freedom.
East London has a small but busy national airport that has between 20 and 30 flights a day into it and brings in 350 000 people a year to the city.
Originally called Port Rex, the port on the Buffalo River plays a huge role in the economy of the city and serviced 399 ships in the 2005/2006 period!
East London, Bhisho and King Williams Town municipalities have been incorporated into one and is now known as the Buffalo City Municipality which is in the Amatole District of the Eastern Province.