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Pietermaritzburg, South-Africa History

Umgungundlovu – Place of the Elephant

The symbol of Pietermaritzburg is the elephant. The Zulu King, Dingaan (died 1843), was known to his people as “The Elephant”. As a result, his residence was called Umgungundlovu (“The Abode of the Big Chief”) the literal translation being “The Abode of the Elephant”. When the Location System was established in Natal by the Colonial Government in the 1840s, each location was placed under the control of a Zulu chief, who was directly responsible to Lieutenant-Governor Martin West in the capital, Pietermaritzburg. By a natural transition, the capital became known to the Zulu’s as Umgungundlovu, the place where the Big Chief (Martin West) resided. This, then, is the significance of the elephant symbol of Pietermaritzburg, which features on the city’s crest. The azalea is the city’s floral emblem.

Pietermaritzburg is one of Africa’s most important historical cities. Contrary to its strong British Colonial architecture, the founding of the City of Pietermaritzburg had nothing to do with the British. In 1838, the Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers moved into Natal from the Cape and laid out a town between the Umsunduzi River and the Dorp Spruit (stream). They named it after their leader, Pieter Retief. At the time of the town’s centenary in 1938, it was decreed that the leader of the second trek into Natal, Gert Maritz, should also be commemorated and the city’s official name became Pietermaritzburg.

Here is a city proud of its heritage and determined to conserve buildings of character. Outstanding among the many Victorian and Edwardian buildings of red brick is the City Hall, built on the site of the old Voortrekker Raadsaal (meeting hall) in 1900 and declared a National Monument in 1969. Notable for its domes and fine stained glass windows, it is the largest all-brick building in the Southern Hemisphere and an ideal starting point for tourists. 
The city also has strong links with the French Royal House, through The Prince Imperial – Louis Napoleon. Pietermaritzburg has one of the most significant liberation histories in the world. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have extensive links with the city and the great liberal author Alan Paton was a Pietermaritzburg citizen. Another one of the city’s 39 historic (national) monuments, Publicity House, is only 100 metres from the City Hall. The international “I” (for information) sign ensures visitors a warm welcome. Maps and brochures are available, plus unique Pietermaritzburg and Colonial Natal souvenirs, postcards, and even video programs to show the folks back home.

On the morning of June 1, the troop set out, earlier than intended, and without the full escort, largely owing to Louis’s impatience. Led by Carey, the scouts rode deeper into Zululand. Without Harrison or Buller present to restrain him, the Prince took command from Carey, even though the latter had seniority.

At noon the troop was halted at a temporarily deserted kraal while Louis and Carey made some sketches of the terrain, and used part of the thatch to make a fire. No lookout was posted. As they were preparing to leave, about 40 Zulus fired upon them and rushed toward them screaming ……

A few hitching rails in the central area are reminders of the city’s romantic and leisurely past. One is outside the Imperial Hotel, from whence Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial of France, rode to his death in a Zulu ambush in 1879.

Another stands near the entrance to The Natal Witness, South Africa’s oldest daily newspaper, founded in 1846 by David Dale Buchanan, a Scottish immigrant. Opposite the newspaper offices are the soaring columns and copper domes of the old Natal Parliament buildings, where tourists catch a glimpse of the splendor of colonial days.

These buildings, and the old Supreme Court (Tatham Art Gallery) completed in 1871, are linked to the central network of quaint pedestrian lanes – a charming attraction for visitors. Upon the hill overlooking the city there is much evidence of the settlement’s transformation into a garrison town. Fort Napier was founded in 1943 when the 45th Regiment (Sherwood Foresters) camped there and remained for 15 years – a record in the British Army for the length of overseas service.

The fort’s St. George’s Church, built in 1897 by troops as a memorial to their comrades, and the nearby cemetery with its military graves dating back to the 1840s, are favorite spots for tourists who like to soak up the atmosphere of a bygone era. Because of its founders, Pietermaritzburg played an important role in Afrikaner history, and the few tangible reminders of the trekking pioneers attract thousands of visitors every year.

After Pieter Retief’s death at the hands of the Zulu’s early in 1838 and the subsequent massacre of more than 600 Voortrekkers in the Weenen district, a vengeful commando under the leadership of Andries Pretorius defeated the Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1838.

At a prayer meeting before the action, the Boers vowed to build a church if they were granted victory, and the Church of the Vow was completed in 1841 in Pietermaritzburg. It is now a fine museum.Andries Pretorius’ house and statues of Retief and Maritz complete this popular tourist complex.

Also evident is the later contribution of the city’s Indian population, descendants of indentured labour brought to Natal in the 1860s to work in the sugar cane fields. They added a distinct Eastern blend – Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, colourful saris, spice shops and the annual fire-walking ceremony on Good Friday.