Grahamstown’s Bible Monument

Depicting an open bible, the monument faces the direction the Voortrekkers departed in

Grahamstown has some very well known monuments and historic buildings. The 1820 Settlers Monument on the hill, the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, the Angel Statue, Observatory Museum with it’s camera obscura and many more. One I didn’t know about was the Bible Monument on the outskirts of town and I would never have known of it if it wasn’t that I went in search of a Geocache at the site.

The story of the monument is one of Brits and Boers coming together at this spot. In April 1837, a Voortrekker party led by Jakobus Uys was encamped just outside Grahamstown on their way into the interior. At this spot they were met by a group of British settlers from the town who presented them with a Dutch bible. The monument represents an oversized open bible and is said to face in the direction which the Voortrekkers departed. The monument itself was unveiled by the State President C R Swart on 17 December 1962. The bible is now kept at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.

Edited – Pete Wentworth commented on Facebook – The bible is displayed in glass case in the lower floor of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Also in the glass case is the local press article describing the event (I think the newspaper may have been the Graham’s Town Journal).

Plaques on the monument depicting the story

By Ralph Goldswain: ‘DID YOU KNOW that relations between the frontier Boers and the British settlers were excellent in spite of marked differences in their ways of life? The Settlers never forgot the ‘roughly kind carriers’ who had taken them to their locations. After the 1835 war, during which frontier Boers and British were particularly close, the Settlers became increasingly alarmed as they heard the word ‘trek’ on the tongues of their neighbours. They were particularly shocked and concerned to see one of Grahamstown’s most distinguished, respected and popular citizens, Pieter Retief, getting ready to lead the Boers out of Albany.

As a building contractor, Retief had played a central role in developing the settler town, and had distinguished himself as northern commandant through the difficult time of the 1835 war. So distinguished had his service been that the governor himself named the main defence point in the Winterberg ‘Post Retief.’

The Boers had too many grievances to outline here but more than enough to make them determined to leave the jurisdiction of the Cape and British governments. The Settlers were concerned because the absence of the Boers was going to create a dangerous vacuum on the frontier. Many of them, too, were going to lose close friends. Led by two prominent surgeons, the Atherstones – father and son – they tried to dissuade Retief, but could not.

On the day the Boers left the trekkers and Settlers gathered on the northern outskirts of Grahamstown to hold a farewell ceremony. Thomas Phillipps presented the Boer leader, Jacobus Uys, with a bible and W.R.Thompson made a speech. He said: ‘We regret, for many reasons, that circumstances should have risen to separate us; for ever since we, the British settlers, arrived in this colony, now a period of 17 years, the greatest cordiality has continued to be maintained by us and our nearest Dutch neighbours; and we must always acknowledge the general and unbounded hospitality with which we have been welcomed in every portion of the colony….’

And then the Settlers watched for a second time as the Dutch wagons trundled away from them, into the distance, leaving only a cloud of dust….. ‘

Unfortunately three of the bronze plaques on the monument were stolen in 2017 with the fourth one being removed for safe keeping. The plaques were replaced in 2018 with stone one and the inscriptions were lazer cut onto them.

Aloes growing around the monument

It’s easy to bypass the monument as it blends in quite nicely with the countryside, but it’s really worth a stop at this spot that is linked to both the Afrikaner (Voortrekker) and English (British settlers) heritage in South Africa.


I have received a number of comments that contained additional information that I would like to add to the post for reference purposes:

Marion Mangod(Bowker) commented the following – The bible monument was erected at the behest of my grandfather Dr Tom Bowker. I attended the unveiling with my parents and descendants of the Voortrekker leader and of Phillips who handed over the bible, were presented to CRSwart.

John Turner commented on Facebook – Hockly’s book “The story of the British Settlers of 1820 in South Africa” has two plates opposite p129 with reference to presenting this Bible to Jacobus Uys in 1837.
Poor copies are attached for purposes of reference.

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Rob Smith posted the following as a comment on Facebook – THE PRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL BIBLE

In April 1837 patriarch Jacobus Uys was found with his followers camped near Grahamstown making tracks out of the colony, heading north. This profoundly affected the British settlers who, knowing Uys, could not be dissuaded, thought they should mark the event in some way. They commissioned an extremely large leather bound Bible, paid for by public subscription, and, en masse, proceeded to the temporary Boer encampment to make a ceremonial presentation. The following inscription was printed inside the front cover:

‘This Sacred Volume is presented to Mr. Jacobus Uys and his departing fellow-countrymen by the inhabitants of Grahamstown and its vicinity, as a farewell token of their esteem and heartfelt regret at their departure. The anxiety they have evinced of an endeavour to obtain a Minister of Religion and their strict observance of its ordinances are evident proofs that in their wanderings in search of another land they will be guided by the precepts contained in this Sacred Volume and will steadfastly adhere to its solemn dictates—the stern decrees of the Creator of the universe, the God of all Nations and peoples.’

Prominent settlers handed over the book with a full explanation expressed by William Richie Thompson:

‘We offer this book to you as a proof of our regard and with expressions of sorrow that you are going so far from us. We regret for many reasons that circumstances should have arisen to separate us, for ever since we, the British Settlers, arrived in this Colony, now a period of seventeen years, the greatest cordiality has continued to be maintained between us and our Dutch neighbours; and we must always acknowledge the general and unbounded hospitality with which we have been welcomed in every portion of the Colony. We trust therefore that although widely separated, you will hold us in remembrance, and we wish that all will retain for each other the warmest sentiments of friendship.’

In response Uys said:

‘I thank you gentlemen, most heartily for the gift you have presented to us and still more for the very good wishes with which the present has been accompanied…’

and his formidable and popular eldest son, Pieter:

‘…begged to thank the deputation for the very kind manner in which they had expressed themselves. He felt the deep regret at parting with so many kind friends, but he hoped that as long as they all remain united in heart.’

The Settlers Family in Grahamstown

Grahamstown has two monuments to the 1820 British Settlers on top of Gun Fire Hill overlooking the town.  The most prominent is the Settlers Monument building, heart of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, with its huge auditorium.  I prefer the second one a few hundred meters away from the building a lot more.  It depicts a British Settler family as they arrived on our shores.  When I look at it I can actually hear the little girl ask her mother if this is their new home now.  Standing there looking at the monument I wondered how many people would be able to give me a correct answer if I had to ask them what year the 1820 British Settlers arrived in Algoa Bay…

Carlisle Bridge and the Fish River

Road tripping means discovering new places, often places you will never see otherwise.  This was once again the case when I had to drive to Bedford for a meeting and decided to take the scenic route via Grahamstown.  About halfway between the two towns I passed over the mighty Fish River and pulled over to have a closer look.

This spot really is in the middle of nowhere with not much to see yet beautiful in it’s own way.

The original bridge was built in 1863 but washed away soon after in 1874.  Two years later a steel bridge was built on the same spot and this one stuck around a little longer but was once again destroyed in a flood in 1932.  The current bridge was built in 1933.  The plaque doesn’t say who the bridge was named after, but according to the South Africa Heritage Online website it was probably named after John Carlisle who, in 1822, led a party of thirteen settlers from Staffordshire to settle in the area.
Just something I left out in the intro.  Discovering places like this isn’t just about road tripping.  It’s stopping along the way and not just rushing to your destination.

Random Grahamstown buildings

To end off the series of posts on Grahamstown I decided to do a “Random …” post on buildings in Grahamstown that wasn’t featured in the other posts.  Mainly because I had photos of them and nothing else to post them with.
Situated between Rhodes University and the Grahamstown Botanical Garden is the old Provost Prison building.  It was completed in 1838 after the Sixth Frontier War as a fortified barracks and military prison on the Drostdy grounds.  Use of the Provost declined with the removal of the military headquarters to King William’s Town in the mid-1870’s, but it was again in use during the Anglo-Boer War.  Today it forms part of the Albany Museum Complex.

The Cock House is one of Grahamstown’s most-loved landmarks.  It was built in 1826 by Benjamin Norden, one of the British Settlers, and was named after the Hon. William Cock, another settler who initially created the Port Alfred harbour.  Some of the well known people who lived here were Dr John Atherstone and the famous South African author, André Brink.  A guest house was opened in the building in 1991 and the best known visitor who have stayed there is Nelson Mandela himself.

This very interesting historic facade can be seen in Church Square next to the Cathedral of St Michael and St George.  Along with a number of other old buildings the town boasts some exquisite examples of Victorian architecture.
St Andrews College is one of Grahamstown’s most prominent schools.  The St Andrews Memorial Clock Town stands very close to the College chapel overlooking the playing fields and was erected in 1923 in memory of Old Andreans that fell in the First World War.

Cathedral mice

The Cathedral of St Michael and St George is the most prominent building in Grahamstown and is visible from just about everywhere in town.  The church is an Anglican Cathedral and this is where the Bishop of Grahamstown keeps his throne.  Construction on the building was started in 1824 and finally completed 128 years later in 1952.
The reason for the double name of ‘St. Michael and St. George’ dates back to the early days of the church when the Dean excluded the Bishop from St. George’s Church and the congregation split between St. George’s Church and St. Michael’s Pro-Cathedral, where the 4th Bishop set up his throne.  The breach was healed in 1885 after the death of the Dean when St. Michael’s congregation moved, with Bishop Webb, back to St. George’s.  It was decided to keep both names as part of the healing process.

The building is Victorian neo-gothic in style, with a granite and sandstone exterior, plastered interior walls and marble pillars. The building of the cathedral was finally completed in 1952 with the addition of the Lady Chapel and can accommodate about 500 people.

The cathedral contains many memorials to fallen soldiers of the conflict between the European settlers and the Xhosa.  Many of these memorial refer to the Xhosa using terms which are no longer acceptable in the Rainbow Nation of South Africa.  This lead to one of the interesting features of the cathedral where certain offensive words and frases on these memorial plaques are covered as an acknowledgement of the diversity in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
But now for the dilemma of the day.  How do you go to an historic cathedral like this with a 9 year old boy and keep his interest?  Well, you tell him to find the church mice… Is that a puzzled look on your face?  Let me explain.  The cathedral has two carved memorial plaques done by the well known North Yorkshire furniture maker Robert (Mouseman) Thompson.  He got his nickname from the fact that he carved a mouse in every piece he did.  
Chaos Boy found the first one…
… but the second one was hiding too well and I had to show him.

South Africa’s oldest letter box

The oldest official letter box in South Africa stands on the corner Worcester Street and Somerset Street in Grahamstown.  The box is painted in the traditional Post Office red (Although there was some ugly blue graffiti on it during my visit.  That is why the picture was taken from the wrong side with the sun in front of me) and is a fluted pillar box type which was manufactured between 1857 and 1859. 
It bore the letters “VR” in curling script, denoting the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, but sadly some of the insignia was removed by vandals at some unknown stage.  To establish its true origins would require digging at the base of the post box, but disturbing the soil that has built up around its base since the 1860’s could cause the whole receptacle to collapse.  It must surely rank among the top twenty of the world’s traditional “red box” survivors.

The Drostdy Gate

The Drostdy Gate forms the main walk in entrance to Rhodes University from the High Street of Grahamstown.  Originally built in 1841, it was the entrance to the military establishment which was to be on the site of the then unoccupied and unused Drostdy House grounds. 

Framed in the Drostdy Gate’s arch is the clock tower of the main administration block of the university which was based on a design by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Kendall.  The building incorporates the site of the old Drostdy which it replaced in 1910.

Birch’s money chute system

T Birch & Company is one of the oldest outfitting and tailoring businesses in South Africa and opened up in Port Elizabeth in 1860.  They expanded to Grahamstown in 1864 and has become the designers and official robe makers to most of the tertiary institutions as well as courts and churches in the country.  But that isn’t why I took Chaos Boy to have a look at their historic building in Grahamstown.

I took him there to see their old  money chute and cable system with which money was sent from various spots in the shop to a central cashier in the past.  Although the system isn’t in use anymore, its still in working order.
As I was explaining to Chaos Boy how the system worked, one of the shop assistants stood closer and asked him if he would like to see how it works.  Do birds have wings? I picked him up and he pulled the lever closest to us in the photo.  The front section pulls back to spring load before it shoots off along the cable to the central cashier point.  Just more proof that its always possible to find something interesting to show a child, doesn’t matter where you go.