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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Pietermaritzburg

Maritzburg, as its known for short (although PMZ is even shorter and common in print) has a bit over 200,000 people, which makes it hardly more than a suburb of Durban, which is an hour's drive away and has 10 times that many. Still, Maritzburg is and has always been the capital of KwaZulu Natal, which explains why it's more monumental than the label "suburb" connotes.

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On the grounds of the Voortrekker Museum in central Pietermaritzburg, this is a 1981 replica of the house given in 1841 to Andreas Pretorius by his neighbors in thanks for his command of the Boer force that had proved victorious at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. That was a crucial moment in South African history, partly because it severely weakened the Zulus but perhaps even more because it convinced the Afrikaners that they had a God-given right to their own country. The original house was a few miles from here, but Pretorius didn't live in it long: when the British took over the Boer Republic of Natalia, he moved north into the Transvaal, where Pretoria was named for him a few years later. For all that, the house remains austerely handsome.

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Adjoining the house is this, the Church of the Covenant, built in 1840 in thanks for the same victory at the Battle of Blood River. The gables are a 20th century pretension: the original church was very plain. It was superceded in 1861 by a bigger church and was then desanctified and sold to house various businesses. When the Voortrekker Museum was created in 1912, the church was acquired and restored and gussied-up. Curious detail: the first minister in 1840 was an American missionary, Daniel Lindley.

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Perhaps the oldest government building in the city is this, the Tatham Art Galley. It was built to accommodate the visit of Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, but was converted to house the Natal Supreme Court in 1875 and then, in 1990, an art museum.

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Of the same era, this is the desanctified Old Presbyterian Church of 1873.

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This legislative assembly building opened in 1889, while Natal awaited self-government. The builders skimped on detail but spent the savings on a statue of Victoria.

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Self-government came in 1893 and created the need for a legislative council, for which this building, next to the legislative assembly building, opened in 1902. The brick of the earlier building is replaced here by sandstone, but the fancy portico facing the street is blind. In compensation, it sports the royal arms.

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A departmental administration building, the Colonial Building, opened in 1894. The third floor was added in 1901.

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Gandhi was famously tossed from a train near Durban, which partly explains his statue here. He looks more athletic than in his usual Indian images and seems as confident as the building behind him, which is probably a fair representation of the man himself.

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And then comes the town hall, often described as the largest face-brick structure in the southern hemisphere. It was opened in 1901 by no less than the Duke of Cornwall and York and the future George the Fifth.

Why this burst of monument building? There are several answers: the wealth of the Rand, the growth of Johannesburg and Durban, Pietermaritzburg's status as the capital of Natal, and the railway which stopped here on its journey between the two big cities.

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The tower is grand, especially because it's located at the intersection of the town's main streets. Inside, there's a hall seating 2,000 and fitted with a tremendous organ.

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The emblem is one form of the coat-of-arms of the city. The central elephant echoes the Zulu name for the place, which translates as the abode of elephants, or royal capital.

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A war memorial arch from 1922 is drastically fenced off from a construction site.

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There's an Anglo-Zulu War Memorial, from 1907.

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The Natal Volunteers fought on the British side in the Anglo-Boer War. Unveiled in 1907 and executed by George Wade of London, the monument is crowned by an angel of peace, with four panels below. The panel on the left shows Britannia reading the Boer ultimatum, which is shown here as responsible for the war. The figure to the left is Natalia, hoping that Britannia will come to her rescue. The supporting figures are of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, while an African crouches at the lower corner in a way that seems inconceivable today but says a great deal about attitudes a century ago. The panel on the right shows St. George slaying the dragon, in this case the Boers. The panels on the other side show a dying hero and Justice with Mercy.

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A block away is this statue of Theophilus Shepstone, Natal's longtime secretary of native affairs. His native name,"Sontseu," hints at Shepstone's upbringing on missionary stations, where he acquired a native fluency in Xhosa. It fits with his policy of supporting native customs through traditional chiefs, as well as his belief that reserves should be created from which European settlers should be barred. Historians have argued, however, that these policies were ultimately a strategy for maintaining British rule and the separation of races.

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However you feel about these colonial relics, you can't consider the Natal Society Library an improvement.

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It's the perfect library for people who don't read.

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And things just get better. On the right is the lovely Moses Mabhida Building, which houses the offices of the prime minister of KwaZulu Natal; to the left are the twins called Natalia. They opened in 1974. Dennis Radford, in his handy Guide to the Architecture of Durban and Pietermaritzburg (2002), calls them "an alien presence" and says that they mark "the high tide of the post-1945 belief in modernism as an agent for progress." Let's walk over there.

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The name harks back to the short-lived state of Natalia, proclaimed by Boer settlers in the 1839 but annulled by the British in 1843.

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How's this for the entrance to a public building in a democracy? Not that an American these days is in a position to criticize.

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Across the street: the barren ground of Freedom Square.

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Stepping back into a more comfortable past, we've walked half a dozen blocks to St. Peter's Church, formerly the Anglican cathedral. The architect was a women, Sophia Grey, wife of the colonial governor in 1857. The walls are a hard-to-work shale. The roof was originally Welsh slate, but it's been replaced with iron. Good thing Sophie's not around.

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The interior is surprisingly simple.

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Up in the choir loft, so dark that the walls are almost invisible without a camera flash, there are a few plaques, including some elegant ones.

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Another, invisible to the naked eye. The quotation is from "The Song of Songs."

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The old commercial center stretches from about St. Peter's to the town hall. Here, just outside that zone and across the street from the church, is F. Perry & Co, built in 1902 and now Geen & Richards.

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Cast-iron supports.

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How's this for fitting into the neighborhood? It's the Davis Alexander Building, an office tower from 1972. Originally, it was the Trust Bank Building.

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The architectural jumblies.

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Ouch! You're on my toes.

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Can you slide over an inch?

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Ditto.

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Here's a building we know something about: it's Reid's Cabinet Works, from 1901. It was the town's first 3-story commercial building.

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Easy to ignore, the Standard Bank building of 1882 is considered by Brian Kearney to be "a splendid building, probably the best in Natal and [Philip] Dudgeon's own masterpiece" (Architecture of Natal, 1973, p. 49).

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And here's "almost certainly the grandest veranda house in the city and possibly in Natal." The words are Radford's. The architect was the Dresden-trained Albert Halder. The client was Richard Harwin, a merchant and property owner in the city.

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The floor plan is very simple, with a long hallway opening into rooms on both sides. The oddity is that the entrance is under neither of the Greek temples, which are truncated, with their lower halves missing.

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The building, named Sans-Souci as the fanlight says, remained a private property until very recently. Then in poor shape, it was purchased and restored by the Ingonyama Trust.

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The trust operates out of a modern office building next door and is responsible for managing almost three million hectares still owned by the Zulu king.


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