Museum name denies our history

2007-11-26 00:00

I AM the great grandson of John David Holliday who came to Natal in 1850 from England and settled in Pietermaritzburg where he made his home and raised his family. A man of integrity, he contributed to the betterment of the small Settler society at that time and was often mentioned in The Natal Witness. Service to the community has been a characteristic found in future generations of our family, myself included. I was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1930 and as a teenager I first visited the Voortrekker Museum because I was interested in museums and history, a field eventually to become my profession.

There in that small historic building, I learnt about the “Trekkers”, my guide a homely custodian who told me their history in Afrikaans, a second language and unfamiliar that I was learning at primary school.

Through her the Voortrekkers became pioneers I respected. She exposed me to a part of the history of our nation’s tapestry I never fully appreciated from lessons at schools.

Your readers are no doubt aware that the Voortrekker Museum, originally the Church of the Vow, was built as a promise made by the Voortrekkers to thank God for protecting them and for leading them to their victory at the

Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1838.

Their vow was honoured and consecrated in 1841, the church having been built by public subscription and donation of materials. The Voortrekkers were a poor community, still struggling to establish their homes and farms, so building the church was a considerable sacrifice. But they honoured their vow. However, with time the church became too small for the growing needs of the community.

In 1861, a new church was erected next door in Market Square and the Church of the Vow was used as a school.

My great grandfather had learnt to speak Dutch and, I gather, Zulu. He had made his way in life and was respected in Pietermaritzburg and in Natal as a leader in the community. He believed that the Church of the Vow should be returned to the Dutch-Afrikaans community. My father told me that he was one of the donors who initiated an appeal to restore the church and to honour the vow.

He maintained that “a vow is a promise” and in 1908, along with others who supported his initiative, steps were taken to collect funds and preserve the building for the descendants of the Voortrekkers.

In 1912, with new gables, the church was handed back to become the Voortrekker Museum I knew as a child. This building has been part of the history of the city of Pietermaritzburg for nearly a century and a church from 1841.

I was appalled to hear in the news, that the name of this historic building has been changed to Msunduzi Museum. This name has absolutely nothing to do with the Voortrekkers, the church or the wonderful historical collections housed in this unique museum. I am aware that the museum was transferred to the government as a national museum and later became a national monument. But changing the name is an abuse of power and privilege, blatant racism and a deliberate distortion of tradition, history and trust. This needs to be resisted at every level.

Soon there will be no names associated with our past and the history of this country. As a Holliday I raise my voice in a howl of affront and protest. I retain this right out of respect for my great grandfather’s wishes and for all those Voortrekkers who found the city named after Piet Retief and Gert Maritz. Soon that name may also disappear unless a stand is made. A vow is a promise, time does not change or absolve this.

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