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The history of King William's Town

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

King William’s Town owes its establishment to 19th century warfare between the Cape Colony and the AmaRharhabe Xhosa and the tenacity of the Scottish missionary, Rev John Brownlee of the London Missionary Society.

Brownlee established the Buffalo Mission Station in January 1826 to serve the people of Tshatshu, chief of the amaNtinde. An 1832 sketch of the mission shows five substantial, but unpretentious buildings including two mission houses, with a new church under construction.

However, during the War of Hintsa (1834-1835) the Xhosa attacked and burnt the mission station. John Brownlee, his family and a trader, Mr Kirkman, narrowly escaped with their lives. Brownlee and his party set out on foot for Wesleyville and after meeting up with other refugees, reached the safety of Grahamstown.

When Colonel Harry Smith of the Rifle Brigade and veteran of Waterloo arrived on the scene in charge of military operations, he pitched tents "... near the garden of the old missionary station".

Smith had Brownlee’s ruined house rebuilt, making it a snug little box for his Spanish wife, Juana. Anecdote has it that John Brownlee confronted the Colonel and demanded his house back. Smith claimed it was his by "rights of conquest".

The governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, subsequently proclaimed King William’s Town the capital of the Province of Queen Adelaide, stretching from the Kei to the Keiskamma Rivers, on 24 May 1835. The town was named after King William IV (r. 1830-1837), the then reigning British monarch.

The new colonial secretary in London, Lord Charles Glenelg, was to prove critical of Harry Smith’s efforts on the Eastern Frontier, particularly his part in the cold blooded shooting of the Xhosa King Hintsa, whose body was dismembered by troops in search of grisly mementoes.

Hence, in terms of Glenelg’s dispatch dated 26 December 1835, the AmaRharhabe Xhosa were re-instated in the annexed territory. Thus the Province of Queen Adelaide was abandoned by the British and King William’s Town, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

Brownlee regained possession of his mission station and home and he continued his labours among the amaNtinde for the next 10 years.

With the outbreak of the War of the Axe (1846-1847) the mission station buildings were, for the second time, burnt to the ground. Once again, Smith was back on the scene, this time as the hero of Aliwal and governor of the Cape Colony.

On 23 December 1847, Sir Harry Smith proclaimed the Crown Colony of British Kaffraria with King William’s Town as its capital. Thus, within a space of 12 years, King William’s Town was established twice and has served as the capital of three different provinces – the Province of Queen Adelaide, the Crown Colony of British Kaffraria and currently, together with Bhisho, as the capital of the Eastern Cape province.

Sir Harry ordered the lay out of the town in squares and streets on the banks of the Buffalo River. When Brownlee returned, he obtained ground on the northern outskirts of the town where he re-established his mission near the present-day Brownlee Congregational Church. The artist and explorer, Thomas Baines’ 1849 sketch of the town reveals a small town dominated by the military garrison.

Many famous imperial regiments were stationed in what was to become known as the Military Reserve and there is a special association with the famed local force, the Cape Mounted Riflemen (Colonial).

The Frontier Armed and Mounted Police (FAMP), then stationed in Grahamstown, moved their headquarters to King William’s Town in 1871. In 1878 the FAMP became the Cape Mounted Riflemen, resuscitating the name of the old CMR (Imperial) regiment which dates back to 1806. The Military Reserve represents the largest cantonment of military buildings in the Eastern Cape.

Smith Street became the main road of King William’s Town. By 1866 the town was incorporated in the Cape Colony.

The civilian population lived in what was known as Old Town (encompassing Smith, Berkeley and McKinnon Street) and New Town (including Louisa Street, Thomas Street and Cambridge Road). Apart from living in the town itself, the town’s so-called coloured and Xhosa inhabitants also lived at Brownlee Station, Bidhli, Tsolo (later Ginsberg), Gillam’s Drift (subsequently Schornville) and Breidbach.

Such colonial settlements, established by the London Missionary Society and the military authorities, consisted of crown and municipal land respectively. Although the latter did not belong to the residents, they were free to erect their own homes and municipal control was limited.

By the 1880s the town included several buildings of note, such as the government offices, Grey Hospital, several educational establishments, the Public Library, the Town Hall and the Botanical Gardens. There were also seven churches, five banks and four newspapers.

As King was the seat of the magistracy and had a court and deeds registry, it was naturally an important legal centre. The town had an established air of bourgeois solidarity, "…with well-laid out streets, many of which are lined with trees". There was an ample supply of good water from the Buffalo River.

According to one observer: "The shops in the main thoroughfares are exceedingly well built, and those of the principal retail traders have elegant frontages, with displays of imported manufacturers."

In May 1880 King was connected by rail via Blaney Junction, with the centres of East London, Kei Road, Kubusie, Cathcart and Queenstown. This was a tremendous boost to the commercial interests of the town.

By 1889 King had become "one of the largest trading districts in the Cape Colony" which was largely due to trade with the Xhosa. In fact, at this King was rightly described as ‘the wholesale emporium of East London.’

By the turn of the century however, the town was beginning to stagnate in relation to East London, largely because of their harbour facilities. King William’s Town remained a garrison town until 1913 and the military presence contributed greatly to the social scene and to entertainment and sport.

With a growing population the town expanded southwards and later eastwards to higher residential areas catering largely for the white residents of the town. In the process, vacated homes in Old and New Town were let to Xhosa and coloured residents.

Unfortunately, owing to the lack of formal housing, the situation was inherently exploited by white slumlords and in a relatively short time, some structures had become notorious slums. In an effort to safeguard white civilisation and entrench segregation, the municipality supported a consistent policy of removal to the municipal locations, which were separated from the town itself.

In 1901 bubonic plague broke out in Cape Town and spread to King William’s Town. The plague, among other factors, gave impetus to efforts of segregating the town. Ginsberg, which in time incorporated Tsolo, was founded as a direct response to the outbreak of bubonic plague in King William’s Town.

Its residents were drawn from a predominantly rural background, and were attracted to King William’s Town by the prospect of finding work and accommodation. Xhosa-speakers living in the centre of King were forced out of King and resettled in Ginsberg by the 1930s.

In 1939 the residents of Brownlee Station were removed to Ginsberg (for the Xhosa) and Leightonville (for coloured residents).

Although the residents were compensated for the loss of home ownership and the new dwellings constituted a less congested environment, the same rights and privileges were not offered at Ginsberg.

Segregation was further imposed on the landscape with the establishment of townships like Zwelitsha (1946) Schornville (1959), Dimbaza (1968), and Phakamisa (c. 1982) and determined, to a large extent, the development of the town.

Economic recovery only occurred in the late twentieth century due to homeland politics. The ‘independent’ republic of the Ciskei was established in December 1981. The self-proclaimed ‘President for Life’, Dr Lennox Sebe, first tried to incorporate the town as the capital of the Ciskei. When this move failed, Sebe threatened to economically strangle the town, however, this move did not materialise.

Together with Bhisho, King William’s Town accommodated many Ciskei workers and contributed to the establishment of a service economy in the area.

Famous local personalities were active in King William’s Town during the struggle for liberation. They include well-known personalities such as Steve Biko, Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, Rev David Russell, Steve Tshwete and Charles Nqakula.

The Bhisho Massacre took place during a period of increased tension between the Ciskei homeland supporters and the ANC alliance. Although it occurred at the tail end of the struggle it personifies, in many ways, the struggle of the 1980s and early 1990s.

On 7 September 1992 a 80,000 strong ANC-led crowd marched to Bhisho demanding the resignation of Brigadier Oupa Gqozo, then president of the Ciskei, as well as free political activity in the homeland which formed part of a national ANC campaign in the homelands. Oupa Gqozo, refused to let the marchers into the Ciskei; the ANC refused to stop at the barricaded Ciskei border.

It seems that the shooting started on the far side of the stadium. The main body of marchers had gone into the stadium and a group, including Ronnie Kasrils, ran out of the stadium towards Bhisho through a gap in the fence.

This breakout was the ‘catalyst’ of the shootings. The shooting was picked up by the rest of the soldiers down the lines. No warning of intent to fire was given and no other methods of crowd control were used. Some of the marchers were killed near the gap in the fence, others were killed inside the stadium or near the razor-wire barrier.

Ballistics confirmed that all the victims were shot while fleeing the scene of the shooting. Twenty-eight marchers and one Ciskei National Defence Force soldier died during the massacre and an unspecified number were wounded.

Violent clashes occurred between the Ciskei and ANC supporters in the massacre’s aftermath and included killings, attempted killings, severe ill treatment and damage to property. Terror had provoked counter-terror. The shocking events which occurred at Bhisho in September 1992 did, however, contribute to an increased determination to find a peaceful settlement on the part of most political leaders.

Source: Amathole Museum, from the original article here.

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