TOWN

Next time you’re trav­el­ling to the coast or to the Cape and your jour­ney takes you through Gra­ham­stown, spend a night or two so you can ap­pre­ci­ate the town’s place in his­tory and tap into its cre­ative fu­ture.

go! - - Contents - WORDS & PIC­TURES TI­MOTHY GABB

There’s more to Gra­ham­stown than stu­dent life. Spend a night or two so you can ap­pre­ci­ate the town’s place in his­tory and tap into its cre­ative fu­ture.

It’s late af­ter­noon in the Makana dis­trict. The heat of the day has brought soft cu­mu­lus tufts to the bril­liant blue sky. Once you hit the East­ern Cape, the smells sweeten, the bush gets thicker and you know by the Al­bany thicket and the high game fences that you’re in Fron­tier Coun­try. Gra­ham­stown is on the N2 about 130 km north of Port El­iz­a­beth. It’s 37° C when I ar­rive: The fierce heat brings the streets to a stand­still. The roads in the town are look­ing dis­mal and un­kempt, but there re­main lit­tle pearls of cul­ture and his­tory, pol­i­tics and art. Gra­ham­stown holds a dear place in my heart. I stud­ied at Rhodes Univer­sity for four years and I’m re­turn­ing to a dif­fer­ent town to the one I knew. The di­chotomies of the prov­ince are ob­vi­ous: Cat­tle graze on the pave­ments as BMWs over­take don­key carts and colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture mixes with ru­ral poverty. It’s a post­colo­nial potjie. Gra­ham­stown was founded in 1812 by Lieu­tenan­tColonel John Gra­ham as a gar­ri­son town, in an at­tempt to se­cure the east­ern fron­tier from the ap­proach of the amaXhosa, whose land was be­ing in­vaded by the Bri­tish Em­pire. In a quest to know more about what hap­pened here so long ago, I track down the per­fect guy to take me on a sto­ry­telling jour­ney into the past…

The fol­low­ing af­ter­noon I make my way up to Fort Sel­wyn, a gun bat­tery built in 1836 on Gun­fire Hill, just be­hind the univer­sity. I look north-west over the basin of Gra­ham­stown and up the hill to­wards Makana Kop, where the vast town­ship sprawl be­gins. The N2 is be­hind me. The for­mer fron­tier ahead. I’m meet­ing Basil Mills, a lo­cal his­to­rian, an­i­mal res­cuer and sto­ry­teller. He pulls up in a 1980s Toy­ota Hilux, painted a crude cam­ou­flage by his son, with a buf­falo skull mounted on the bon­net. Basil jumps out wear­ing a wide-brim hat (mop of white hair stick­ing out), a beige jacket dec­o­rated with nu­mer­ous sewn-on badges and a rusty white goa­tee. He re­quested that we meet here be­cause the land­scape looks like a giant map. It’s easy to point out the devel­op­ment of the town and ex­plain the events that be­came known as the Bat­tle of Gra­ham­stown. On 22 April 1819, an army of some 10 000 Xhosa war­riors ap­proached the Gra­ham­stown basin from the north. The Bri­tish were in the basin: a mere 300 men await­ing the ap­proach. But im­pe­rial projects in In­dia and else­where had taught th­ese sol­diers how to deal with such an at­tack, and they were led by an ex­pe­ri­enced colonel called Thomas Will­shire. The Xhosa army was led by the prophet Makana. Be­cause of their num­bers, Makana was sure of vic­tory, but his spir­i­tual cer­tainty was no match for the vi­o­lence of gun­pow­der. The Bri­tish dev­as­tated the Xhosa and the bat­tle was over in a very short time. This was thanks largely to a wo­man called El­iz­a­beth Salt, who le­gend has it car­ried a keg of gun­pow­der dis­guised as a baby through the Xhosa hordes, to as­sist the Bri­tish troops be­sieged in the bar­racks. The Xhosa al­lowed her to move un­harmed, to their own detri­ment. “The his­tory here in­volves al­most ev­ery group in South Africa,” Basil says. “Xhosa, Zulu, Khoi, Boer and Brit.” Makana even­tu­ally sur­ren­dered and he was sent to Robben Is­land, where he tried to es­cape later that year. He drowned dur­ing the at­tempt and the Xhosa had their land taken from them.

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