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.
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.