/ 14 June 2019

The Portfolio: Cedric Nunn

The Pyramid
The Pyramid (Cedric Nunn)

Memorialisation was a fairly important theme throughout the Unsettled project, published in 2015 as Unsettled: One Hundred Years War of Resistance by Xhosa Against Boer and British. Memorials such as monuments are a way of marking place. The colonialists have always been good at doing this. The travellers, even before they were colonising, marked the various places they went to. For instance, the Portuguese in the 1500s put down stones and crosses along the routes they travelled. Memorialisation has been a constant theme and, of course, it continued post-1994.

So I went out looking for memorialisation. For instance, in Port Elizabeth you encounter the Pyramid, built within 20 or 30 years of settler presence in Algoa Bay, which then became Port Elizabeth.

You’ll find many pyramids in South Africa. Pyramids are associated with, in my mind at least, the secret brotherhood of the Freemasons, which had its origins in Europe and were part of the Age of Enlightenment and were a major part of the colonising project. These people were building infrastructure. They were the actual builders and private property was important to them. Private property hasn’t been with us for too long either. It is seen as sacrosanct, but it is a fairly new concept in terms of the age that we live in. It is probably 400 to 500 years old.

So here you had this person in what is present-day Port Elizabeth building this fairly substantial monument to his deceased wife, [Elizabeth], and you wonder, would a deceased wife warrant such an enormous edifice? But one can’t question that without having studied this particular individual [Sir Rufane Donkin] in great detail, which I didn’t do. I didn’t have the luxury to do that. I just noted it as the oddity that it is and the fact that somebody thought it important enough, in this very new settlement, to make that kind of marking. He was like a governor figure at that point, when the 1820 Settlers arrived.

There are interesting things about Port Algoa at that point. There was a character called Johannes van der Kemp. He was sent out in about 1795 by the London Missionary Society as a recruiter, and set out for the frontier of the Cape colony. He was very successful in the Port Algoa area. He essentially worked among the Khoi (around the area of Bethelsdorp), who at this point had been divested of all their land. It is a settlement halfway between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage.

It is a harsh environment in one sense, but right next to Bethelsdorp there is a nature reserve. If you go there, you will realise that this was the oasis of that region. There is a spring and a stream. The spring emerges out of a very sheltered area, like these high mountain ranges — a very beautiful place if you can look past the degredation that modernity has brought.

When Van der Kemp encountered the Khoi, they had lost the western Cape, and had been pushed up against the border with the Xhosa. When the Afrikaners were settling in the area, they called it Zuurveld before British conquest.

This pyramid on top of the hill overlooking the harbour symbolises the British conquest of that area.