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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Grahamstown

Grahamstown is the first big town on the road east from Port Elizabeth to Durban. Now an educational center with Rhodes University and several private prep schools, it has plenty of bits of what guidebooks call Victorian charm. More striking than those buildings is the fact that the town, despite being 90 percent black, is filled with monuments to the tiny white minority's fight to establish itself. There's this justification: Grahamstown was the first town established by the British in the Cape Colony. Cape Town is much older, but was established long before the British took it over.

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South Africa: Grahamstown picture 1

We're standing on the windy, windy grounds of the hulking 1820 Settlers National Monument. Just left of center and a bit above, you can pick out the dark spire of the cathedral at the town center.

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Close to that church, a monument marks the town's founding. It antedates both Port Elizabeth and Durban and was intended to secure the eastern Cape against the Xhosa.

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Stories grew up about the subsequent struggle. Here, Elizabeth Salt, wife of a British soldier, walks past dismayed Xhosa warriors who yield to her as she carries an infant. It's trickery: in the blankets she actually carries gunpowder for the tiny British force facing the vastly more numerous enemy. This was 1819, by the way, a year before the arrival of the main wave of settlers. And the monument? It portrays the Xhosa as a ravening pack and dodges the question of whose honor was greater.

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The railroad didn't arrive until the 1870s, and quit carrying people a century later.

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Instead of a railway museum, the station instead has a falling-apart Garratt engine.

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This hotel was in business from 1820 at least until the 1950s but now (2014) operates as a bar.

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High Street, leading from the station into town is exceedingly wide but lined with simple shops whose only concession to style is fancy parapets masking corrugated metal roofs.

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The streets can hardly get wider, but the buildings fronting them become more substantial, and the monuments begin.

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This one is a monument to the Boer (or, as phrased here, the Anglo-Boer) War. The inscription suggests that the builders wanted to celebrate only one side in the conflict.

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The view grows somber with the dark Cathedral of Saints Michael and George and the town hall. Its clock tower was conceived as a memorial to the town's settlers and was intended originally to stand alone. As work progressed, the decision was made to attach a town hall to the tower. The cathedral tower and chancel (seen here) were designed by Britain's champion of the Gothic, Gilbert Scott.

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This is the second foundation stone of the town hall, the one laid after the decision was made to add a town hall. Frere was not only governor of the colony but had earlier had a major career in India, where his name is attached to some of the grandest buildings of Bombay. The town hall here was completed in 1882.

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The commercial buildings facing the town hall seem modest in comparison, though they are not exactly self-effacing.

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One facade.

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Here's the entrance side of the cathedral. An earlier church stood on the site but was rebuilt with Gilbert Scott's help after 1878. The chancel came in 1889, and parts of the nave are later still.

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The nave was designed by Scott's son, Oldrid, and was completed in 1912.

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Inside the church there's a monument to the town's founder, who died a year after the arrival of the main contingent of settlers.

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Local troubles continued, and this monument recalls a farming expert killed in 1835. Blocks of marble have been added to this memorial to mask, with the upper slab, the words "by kafirs" and, with the lower, "to punish the calamitous and unprovoked irruption of the kafir tribes." Was this masking of offensive words done before black-majority rule? Good question: no answer.

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Later conflicts elsewhere in South Africa took men from the town.

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An especially handsome memorial.

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The town's Wesley Commemoration Chapel, now simply the Methodist church, opened in 1850. The minister at that opening, William Shaw, wrote a description that probably tells us more than we want to know: "The building is in the pointed style, well sustained in all its parts. The front, from the level of the floor, is seventy feet (21.34m) high to the top of the central pinnacle, and it is about sixty-three feet (19.2m) wide, including the buttresses. The interior dimensions are ninety feet (27.43m) long by fifty feet (15.24m) broad, and from the floor to the ceiling it is thirty-four feet (10.36m) in height. There are two side and one end galleries; and the building is capable of accommodating in great comfort a congregation of about fourteen hundred persons. Altogether, this place of worship is probably the most commodious and handsome of any building of the kind occupied by any English congregation in Southern Africa."

See http://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=4543

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Looking down from the west end of High Street is the clock tower of Rhodes University, designed by no less than Herbert Baker. As the university's name suggests, the school was conceived as a memorial to Africa's best-known and, in some quarters, its most notorious imperialist. The funds to build it came with a grant of 50,000 pounds from the Rhodes Trust, which was administered by Leander Jameson. The school sits on the grounds of the town's old military station, which had been established in 1819.

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This is the Provost Building, built in 1838 as a prison to house 20 mutinous khoikhoi or, in the language of the time, Hottentots. They had killed their British officer, and they were eventually executed on the parade ground adjoining this building. Until that moment, they enjoyed the very latest incarceration technology, for this prison was built as a panopticon, in accordance with Jeremy Bentham's principles. The cells, in short, were always visible from the round towers. About 1970 the building was restored to serve as a campus coffee shop especially suited to customers in a pensive humor.

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By the time of the university's founding, Grahamstown had plenty of nice houses. Here's one, probably with imported cast-iron fencing.

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A third. Pity about the bars on the windows.

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Here's an oddity: it's the house built in 1850 by Henry Galpin, a surveyor turned watchmaker. His shop was in front; his residence behind and above. The remarkable feature is the little round and capped tower, which is part of a camera obscura casting a color image of the surrounding country onto a table in a darkened room below. Because Galpin had a hand in certifying the first South African diamond, DeBeers eventually bought and restored the building before donating it to the government, which now operates it as a provincial museum.

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A banker's house? This is Crossways, built before 1858 to a design by an architect, John Wood. It is now the residence of the headmaster of St. Andrew's College, a boy's school.

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