Port Elizabeth

Donkin Memorial, Port Elizabeth / Image via Wikimedia Commons

A story of love and loss: How Port Elizabeth got its name

“In the memory of one of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the name to the town below.”

Port Elizabeth

Donkin Memorial, Port Elizabeth / Image via Wikimedia Commons

In light of a mooted name change, it’s important to remember how Port Elizabeth originally earned its title.

Since the birth of democracy in 1994, many towns and streets have abandoned their colonial titles in favour of more inclusive and considered names. This initiative, which is mandated by the Constitution of South Africa and overseen by Provincial Geographical Names Committee, is aimed at redressing Eurocentric exclusivity.

The argument for and against name changes in South Africa

Yet, the issue surrounding name changes has inflamed the discussion around practical redress. Government has been blasted for directing state-funds to this form of cultural transformation while struggling to curb dire socioeconomic struggles.

In the Eastern Cape especially, which has the highest provincial unemployment rate and a much-publicised lack of adequate service delivery, is the government acting irresponsibly by diverting funds towards renaming instead of mitigating tangible social ills?

The counter-argument to the misplaced spending rhetoric, is that redress, no matter the cost, needs to permeate every aspect of South African society. This includes cultural reappropriation in the form of name changes.

In reality, whether through stubbornness or habit, South Africans are slow to adopt ‘new’ names. Grahamstown was recently renamed Makhanda – will South Africans, in general, stop referring to the historical university town by its original name? It seems unlikely. Maybe in time future generations will be able to escape the social conditioning which is wound into the fractured fabric of South Africa.

It’s important for South Africans, across all cultural and socioeconomic spheres, to understand the historical significance, not only of the proposed ‘new’ names, but also the original titles of towns. The county’s history is one of intrigue. As a nation of many ‘tribes’, it’s vital to interrogate and embrace our cultural differences with an objective view. Ironically, it’s our uniqueness in diversity which binds us together.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how the city of Port Elizabeth got it’s name hundreds of years ago.

The story of Port Elizabeth

The story of how Port Elizabeth got its name begins 200 years ago, at a time when British settlers began the arduous journey to the southern tip of Africa. In 1820, 4500 settlers landed at Algoa Bay. Many had left their homes in search of a better future; immigrants captivated by the government’s promise of a new life on fertile South African land. The harsh reality of colonisation soon burnt away the idyllic dreams of peace and prosperity.

The British government subsidised the settlers into deceit. These families were placed on the South African frontier, in the Eastern Cape, to form a human shield between the Cape and the Xhosa tribes.

Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin was acting governor of the Cape Colony when the settlers first landed. How he ended up in South Africa is a sad tale of love lost and forms the foundation for Port Elizabeth’s own story.

Elizabeth Donkin

While still in Yorkshire, Donkin fell madly in love with Elizabeth Markham. They married young and became inseparable. This was not the custom for high ranking military officials; traditionally, their wives stayed home while they travelled the world.

However, Elizabeth followed her husband during his tours of duty.

In July 1815, a newly married Major-General Donkin received a posting to India; he was joined by his doting wife. Unfortunately, it was here that Elizabeth became gravely ill, with what some researchers believe to have been an upper respiratory infection.

Elizabeth Donkin died in August 1818, leaving behind her first-born son, George David.

Rufane Donkin was shattered by his wife’s passing. In fact, his heartache was so severe that he was placed on leave from his post.

His wife was buried in India, but Donkin had her heart embalmed.

Two years later, and still suffering from the traumatic effects of his wife’s untimely death, Donkin found himself in Algoa Bay, organising the 1820 settlers. He was officially the first governor of PE from the 6 June 1820 – 1821.

Donkin, wholly aggrieved and suffering from depression, named the small settlement near Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth, in honour of his deceased wife. The governor went further to immortalise the memory of his wife by building a pyramid-like structure called Donkin Memorial. The structure includes a plaque which states:

“In the memory of one of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the name to the town below.”

Donkin Memorial / Image via Facebook: Kin Bentley

Donkin returned to England in 1832 and attempted to love once more, remarrying Anna Maria Elliot. However, the depression resulting from Elizabeth’s death lay heavy on his heart. Donkin was, by his own admission, unable to overcome the sorrow.

In August 1841, Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin committed suicide. He was buried alongside his wife, Elizabeth, in India – still holding her embalmed heart.