Welcome to Grahamstown- the history of the town

By Ithuteng Mashabela

College House 1922

If asked to describe Grahamstown in a few words, the common Rhodent or Grahamstown resident would probably choose a variety of words all relating to its size; such as small or tiny. Those who do this could be forgiven for being inclined to over-look the significance of Grahamstown in South African history.A military outpost, run by Lieutenant Colonel Graham, was established in the Cape Colony by the British Imperial Empire. This was to force to force the Xhosa communities, often with aggression, off their land and then to secure the best fertile land for white settlers. This outpost of colonial expansion would develop into what we presently know as Grahamstown. After the first settler ship, the S.V Chapman, made berth at Algoa Bay, the first settlers officially attempted to stabilise the frontier. The 1820s Settlers Monument, seen on the right from the N1 towards Port Elizabeth was built to honour of the efforts of the Settlers towards instituting Press Freedom in the country.

There are many ‘myths’, misunderstandings and misdirected information on ‘The Battle of Grahamstown’ or ‘eGanzini’ and rarely do historians concur. Grahamstown began to develop into a town whereby peaceful trade was practiced between white settlers and the Xhosa communities. Trading fairs were held three times a week till 1817. Divergences between the white settlers and the Xhosa communities began to emerge due to a conflict of interests. This increased friction between the different community interests and soon resulted in violent actions committed by both parties, notably in ‘The Battle of Grahamstown’ or ‘eGazini’,, which took place in 1819 between the British Imperial army and the Xhosa people, violently pushed off the area originally settled years before. Over 6000 Xhosa people, lead by Makana, attacked the British garrison but were beaten back by the British artillery. Makana, having failed, gave himself up to the British forces were he was sent to prison on Robben Island. Makana drowned in 1820 in attempt to escape the island.

Recently, attention has been directed towards the debate regarding changing Grahamstown’s name. Richard Marshall, a Rhodes University History student, with an honours thesis is titled “Social and Cultural History in Grahamstown (1812-1847)”, candidly commented on the issue saying, “Graham isn’t exactly a man we should want to commemorate, but that isn’t the historian’s most pressing priority”. Marshall relays his belief that Grahamstown’s history requires attention in far more fundamental areas.

Grahamstown’s history, like much of South Africa’s own, is riddled with unanswered questions and questionable ‘facts’. Professor Julian Cobbing of the History Department believes that Grahamstown’s history is not recorded correctly at all. “[It] is heavily distorted in the direction of the white settler’s perspectives and preferred version of the truth,” he explains. “Despite some new and enlightening research by historians, such as Julia Wells, much has to be done to provide reasonable corrective.”

Although Rhodes University’s establishment in Grahamstown, nearly a century into the town’s formal establishment, was plagued with difficulties and stumbling blocks, it still became a world-renowned institution which boasts being the place where leaders learn. In the early years, classes were held at St Andrews College and later at the Drostdy building. Many of the University’s residences, such as Allan Gray and De Beers, were named after companies whose financial investments contributed significantly towards the infrastructural growth of Rhodes University.

Few may know that the most popular nickname for Grahamstown is ‘The City of Saints’. This is because Grahamstown hosts more than fifty religious meeting places, including those for Christians, Muslims and even Scientologists (though we can’t promise you’ll be seeing Tom Cruise in these parts any time soon). Other buildings of interest include the Drostdy Arch, which used to be a guard house. Old buildings whose functions have changed include the Maths department which was a barracks and dining halls which used to be mess halls.

Small as Grahamstown mat be, it still has a lot to offer. So hop on Rhode Trip soon and get to know your town!

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3 Responses to Welcome to Grahamstown- the history of the town

  1. David. says:

    It is not clear why the correct perspective on history is that of the White settlers. But it is equally unclear why the correct perspective is that of the Black settlers.

  2. Isebelle Krauss*Lloyd says:

    any history of the early schools and teachers in Grahamstown? It seems as if it was the educational centre of some settlers,

  3. d.s scott says:

    how do u enter entire history, if deprivation of land recognition of father to child is absent and accounts which is non European ,does not exist. Yes i am also a Scott from Grahams town….with a lot of conflicting stories from my father,,,, I am a so called colored…EVEN IN MY RESEARCH,
    TO MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS.

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