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Grahamstown named for 'butcher'

2005-05-26 18:27

Cape Town - Grahamstown was singled out in parliament by President Thabo Mbeki on Thursday as an example of a contentious South African place name.

It was named, he told MPs, after a particularly brutal and vicious military "butcher" who had starved the Xhosa people into submitting to colonial authority.

Responding in the national assembly to wide-ranging debate on the president's budget vote, Mbeki said that while listening to discussion on the issue of place names, he had thought of the Eastern Cape town.

"Grahamstown... is named after Colonel (John) Graham, a Scotsman, who was part of the British forces at the time of the so-called Frontier Wars, in the process of the colonisation of South Africa.

"In Xhosa, the place is called iRhini, but it's officially known as Grahamstown.

"Colonel Graham was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, a soldier.

Scorched earth policy

"And what was particular about Colonel Graham was that he was the most brutal and most vicious of the British commanders on that frontier.

"He introduced, in the course of those wars, the practice of a scorched earth policy.

"He didn't fight only the soldiers on the other side, but burnt their fields and killed their cattle, and starved them into submission; he killed them into submission.

"Yet we have a town - Grahamstown - named after him. The question must arise: why do we celebrate a butcher? This place has got a name; it's called iRhini. But, we celebrate a butcher!"

Graham had been praised by the British authorities of the time for "breaking the back of the natives".

Mbeki said there might well be people of Scottish descent in the Eastern Cape who would feel aggrieved if the people of the region decided to change the name of Grahamstown to iRhini.

"And they would say: 'This was a national hero; this was Scottish aristocracy.'.

"I mention this to say we do face many challenges in this country," Mbeki said.

How best to move forward

His comments on Grahamstown and place names were made in the wider context of challenges and tensions facing South Africa, and how to build a non-racial and non-sexist society.

He told MPs that change created tension - and in order to give to one, another had to do without - and decisions were needed on how best to move forward.

Grahamstown was established in 1812 as a military outpost by Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham.

It served as the headquarters for a system of forts along the Fish River, which was the boundary of the former Cape Colony at the time.

In 1820, Grahamstown became the administrative centre for thousands of British settlers pouring into the region.