Adapted from De Rietfonteyn: Founding of Grahamstown By Elron Kleinhans

Q: How did we get a place called Grahamstown?

A: Before there was a town, the place was called Egume by the local people. Then the British came and named it after their military hero, John Graham.

The area around what is today Grahamstown was home to all types of indigenous people for thousand’s of years. Rock art in caves and cliff overhangs can be found in all directions from the town, showing how the places were revered by ancient hunter-gatherers, known as abaTwa, San and Bushmen. The Howisonspoort archeological site just outside of town dates back ???? years. An unconfirmed oral tradition claims that Chief Ndlambe once had a cattle kraal where the Cathedral now stands. The place would have been best known for the convergence of four streams which form the Kowie River catchment area, as well as for the rich deposits of kaolin clays.

From 1770, the Dutch East India Company laid claim to land on the western and southern sides of the Fish River. A farmer named Lucas Meyer received permission to settle on the site on 28 October 1784. He chose the name De Rietfonteyn because the valley passing through the farm was charcterised by reedy growths of fluitjesriet and papkuil. Meyer built a house at the place which is now the Cathedral in the centre of town. This first house was described as “A venerable pile with an air of respectability which well became the future High Street of the future city. It might have stood for centuries, so thick were its raw mud walls, hard and rocklike in consistency.” But Meyer did not stay for long. During the early frontier wars of the 1790s, he abandoned his farm and headed westwards for security. The house was later burnt down, leaving only a shell.

The British government took nominal control of the Cape Colony in 1806, but did not secure its eastern regions until the fourth frontier war in 1812. This conflict ended when all indigenous people were expelled across the Fish River under the command of Col. John Graham. The British army needed new headquarters and chose the site which is known as Grahamstown today. The town was founded for the purpose of keeping the Xhosa’s out of the Cape Colony beyond the Fish River. It served as a military post and permanent barracks for the soldiers who formed part of a system of posts along the Fish River established to secure the boundary of the Cape Colony.

When Col John Graham of the Cape Regiment and his assistant Captain Andries Stockenstrom were considering a site for their headquarters, they had initially chosen the Noute River at what is today Table Farm. But the better water supply at the abandoned farm De Rietfonteyn helped make up their minds.

Stockenstrom recorded how they chose the site:

Col. Graham ordered me with a party of my men to escort him over the vicinity. I took him direct to an old farm called Lucas Meyer’s (de Riet Fonteyn), which had been abandoned by the owner, and burnt by the kaffirs; thence he ascended the Southern Ridge, whence he had a complete view of the west and the lower part of the Fish River to its mouth. We next returned to the old kraals, examined the springs, then galloped across the flat to Governor’s Kop, then called Rand Lop, where he had a most extensive view of the Keiskama, the Tyumei, the Kat, Koonap and North Kowie Mountains, as well as the Upper Fish River as far as Esterhuis Poort. I pointed out to him the exact position of Trompetter’s Drift and Hermanus Kraal, but humbly suggested that Meyer’s was a more commanding position. He objected to the weakness of the water. I knew none stronger in the country. We galloped back to Meyer’s then off saddled under a tree (in what is now High Street by the Cathedral). Once more we started, again ascended some high land overlooking the country and the coast, and after some discussion with the members of his staff, the Colonel said: ‘I prefer this to Nontoo (Noutoe). It is a pity so much has to be done there. At any rate, here we must have our headquarters immediately, and let those old walls, (the ruined burnt remnants of the Boer’s house near the tree mentioned above noticed) be covered in for the officers’ mess.’ ”

On 14 August 1812, the Cape Governorproclaimed the establishment of a town at De Rietfonteyn and gave it the name Graham’s Town “in testimony of His Excellency’s Respect for the Services of Lieut.-Colonel Graham, through whose able exertions the Kaffir Tribe have been expelled from the valuable District.”

As a military post it became one of three such defence posts guarding the Zuurveld, the second being at Commandant Piet Lombard’s farm ‘de Twee Fonteyn’ on the upper Kasouga River, later becoming known as Lombard’s Post. The Third post was at Noutoe (Table Farm), about 11km away from Grahamstown where half a company of the Cape Regiment was stationed.

Lord Charles Somerset became governor of the Colony in 1814 and he proposed a plan to do away with the need for more soldiers to maintain the frontier. At that time, unemployment in Britain was a major concern, following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Soldiers were jobless and the Industrial revolution was in full swing, driving people off the land and into overcrowded cities. Somerset suggested that unemployed soldiers and other British people be sent to the Cape Colony to populate the areas on the banks of the Fish River, and serve as a human boundary to stop the Xhosa from returning.

For the British Government, Somerset's frontier scheme seemed an ideal solution to both the problems existing in Britain and the Cape Colony. Adverts used to attract settlers gave a very unrealistic description of the life they would have on the Frontier. The scheme offered 100-acre land allotments for each family, which sounded very generous to people accustomed to land uses in England. But it was totally inadequate for similar successful farming under African conditions.

Starting in ?? 1820, the first of thousands of English settlers started to arrive in the area. They were given seed, farming tools and dumped in the virgin bush. They had to make temporary shelters or live in tents provided by some of the Dutch farmers, while they built a house to live in. The area where they settled in was not a crop farming area. It was called the Zuurveld, which means sour ground as the soil was not suitable for crops. But most were not of farming stock and had earned their living as artisans and craftsmen.When planting failed, the British settlers began drifting into towns, where they reverted to their former trades. The authorities at first tried to stop them from leaving their land as that defeated the whole object of sending them, but eventually granted the settlers building plots in Grahamstown, thus making it also a settler town from the early 1820s.

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