Thursday, May 24, 2012

Grahamstown turns 200

I have a son at Rhodes University and have been making the journey from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown and back on a regular basis over the past two-and-a-half years. Last Saturday, for the first time, I took a few hours to explore just a fraction of this historic Settler town or, since it has a cathedral, city. I thought I’d share a few pictures taken on a cold morning in late May, in the chilly aftermath of the first cold front of the winter. (To see the pictures larger, hold down shift and left click. Click on them again and they’re even bigger. To fill the screen with the picture, press F11. Press F11 again to escape.)

Grahamstown is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, so it was fitting that I start my journey by looking at this monument, on the middle island in High Street. But what is it all about? Well I have found a great website, , which seems to be a Makana Tourism site. It has some very useful information not only about Grahamstown, but also the history of the whole of Frontier Country, scene of eight wars between the Xhosas and the Trek Boers and, after 1820, the British Settlers. While many admire the Zulus for their courage in combating the European colonists, how much guts mustn’t it have taken for the Xhosas to resist them for over 100 years, from 1779 till 1881? Spears versus guns

This is a monument, says the website, to mark the establishment of Grahamstown. It says: “The British were determined to end the conflicts in the unwanted eastern areas, and at the behest of the Landrosdt of the area, Colonel Glen Cuyler, launched an offensive in the Zuurveld under the command of a Scottish officer of noble birth, Colonel John Graham and the deputy landrosdt of the area, Andries Stockenstroom. The object was to ‘clear the Zuurveld’ of the AmaXhosa. In 1812, the Colonial Office in Whitehall received a dispatch informing them that Graham had succeeded in his task by using ‘a proper degree of terror’.”  A time, clearly, not for the faint of heart

The bronze plaque on this memorial is remarkable. Rarely does one see relief sculpture where the figures are shown almost completely in three dimensions, like those of the Xhosa warriors on the left. The plinth, as the inscription explains, marks the point where Graham and Stockenstroom decided to establish a town where they British could establish a military base

The image is not entirely accurate, however. The website tells us: “The bronze relief-plaque on it honouring the Pioneer women depicts the legendary heroism of Elizabeth Salt, who reputedly carried a keg of gunpowder to the troops during the Battle of Grahamstown on 22 April 1819. She benefited from a noteworthy Xhosa tradition not to harm women in warfare.” Elsewhere, however, I read that she carried the keg under her bodice to make it appear that she was pregnant. So it would not have been exposed to the Xhosa warriors as it is here. While I did not get up to Fort Selwyn, next to the 1820 Settlers National Monument, this time, the website notes that the Eastern Cape frontier “has a turbulent past, with more forts than the rest of the country combined”. Indeed, a section on “The Forts of Frontier Country” gives a comprehensive history of when, why and where they were established, starting with Fort Frederick, in Port Elizabeth, in 1799

This plinth was unveiled 100 years later, in 1912, as this decaying inscription at its base reveals, by General Jan Smuts, the former Boer commander who would later become prime minister of the Union of South Africa and take the country into war on the side of Britain against Hitler’s Germany.  Smuts was a prime mover in the establishment of the League of Nations, forerunner to the United Nations. By coincidence, working not far from this memorial in the High Court is a great nephew of his who I got to know during our days with the Progressive Federal Party Youth, Advocate Izak Smuts. Since this is the 200th anniversary of the town, you’d think they’d spend a few bob on restoring this monument

The view from the sidewalk next to the cathedral, with the City Hall behind

The Cathedral of St Michael and St George was, says the website, “built in Early English Gothic, the 13th Century architectural style revived during Queen Victoria's reign. The building was started in 1824 and finally completed 128 years later in 1952.” We did not get inside this time, but admired its lovely lines from without, as it soaked up the rays of the early winter sun. The website says the cathedral contains “many memorial tablets which tell of the history of Grahamstown as a frontier post. The belfry houses the heaviest and first full ring of 8 bells on the African continent. They were cast in London in 1878 and include the metal from the three bells that hung in the original tower”

The venerable fa├žade of Grocott’s Mail which, according the Rhodes website, was established in 1870, but incorporated the Grahamstown Journal, founded in 1831. Elsewhere I read that Grahamstown was in fact the second largest town (after Cape Town) in the Cape colony for many years when, after 1823, many British settlers who had been dumped on small farms in the Zuurveld, were finally allowed to leave their farms and ply their various trades in the town

The view up the High Street

Despite the Albany Museum website telling us that the Observatory Museum is open on Saturday mornings, we found it closed. I had wanted to see its famous camera obscura. The site tells of the role of Dr William Atherstone in identifying, in this 19th century house, the first diamond discovered in South Africa, at Kimberley in 1967. The house’s owner, watchmaker and jeweller Henry Galpin, was also keen on astronomy, optics and much else besides. And it was he who set up the only camera obscura built in South Africa. It evidently displays panoramic views of the town, and is “ingenously” combined with his observatory. There is also a miniature of the clock constructed for the Royal Courts of Justice in London, as well as a painting of Father Time by Frontier artist Frederick Timpson I’Ons

A close-up view of the Observatory Building

A notice, republished from Grocott’s Mail, about the popularity of the camera obscura

A lovely old signpost outside the museum

The view back up the High Street. This area was evidently used as a market at one point, with the wide open space ideal for moving around wagons pulled by large spans of oxen

The Commemoration Methodist Church, which was completed in 1850. We did not get up close to her or go inside, but this is evidently one of the oldest churches in SA. That Makana website tells us work started on the Commemoration Chapel in 1845, when a group of Settlers decided they needed to mark the 25th anniversary of their arrival in the Cape. Indeed, the foundation stone was laid on April 10, 1845, the anniversary of the day the first party arrived in Algoa Bay. Interestingly, I read that beneath the stone was placed a lead casket containing a full set of coins from the era as well as “Specimens of the languages: English, Dutch, Kaffir and Sichuana, used by the Wesleyan Missionaries in South East Africa”

Outside the Commemoration Church is this monument to the men of the Albany district who died in the Anglo-Boer War of 1889-1902

Here again, there are interesting, well-executed bronze relief plaques. Note the ostriches in the background of the second one

As we headed back up the High Street, lo and behold, a procession. Yes, only in a student town would this occur. We had caught the end of an International Day parade by Rhodes students, which stopped outside the City Hall. It was a fun and colourful event 

The Memorial Tower of the city hall dates to 1870 and was built to mark the 50th anniversary of the settlers’ arrival. It was later incorporated into a design for a city hall, which opened in 1882

My family against a backdrop of interesting Grahamstown facades

A memorial at the back of the cathedral to the fallen of World War 1 (1914-1918)

What looks like a baptismal font, also behind the cathedral. But why is it outdoors?

A last view of the cathedral

Rhodes University's clock tower from the High Street, with the Drostdy Arch in front

Views of the arch, with another of a plaque affixed to it. That Makana website tells us: “The Drostdy Gate was designed by Major C J Selwyn in 1835 and built by the Royal Engineers in 1841 or 1842. The purpose of his gateway was to provide an entrance to the military establishment which was to be on the site of the unoccupied and unused Drostdy House grounds. At a later date sentry boxes and walls on both sides of the gateway were added.”

The gateway plaque

Well that is a very short overview of some of Grahamstown’s main architectural features. There is certainly much else to explore here, particularly as you get into the many museums. One little feature I saw but did not photograph is South Africa's oldest official letter box, which stands near St Andrew's College, on the corner of  Worcester Street and Somerset Street. A fluted red pillar box, it has apparently been there since about 1860.

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