The Eastern Cape, birth and burial place of President Nelson Mandela – Dr Dawn Gould

The Eastern Cape is associated with the late South African President Nelson Mandela, a man who was born and buried there and whose name would be stamped on South African politics.

Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, is one of the country’s largest cities and one of its major seaports. One will sometimes hear it referred to as: “the windy city”or the “friendly city” while at other times it will simply be called PE.  When the Portuguese explorers arrived in 1488 and in1497 it was noted on a map as “a landing with fresh water.”  The reason for their exploration was to find the sea route to India  and  to attempt trading with countries along the Indian Ocean coast. It is possible that the explorers may have observed the pastoral Khoi, the hunter/gatherers San and the Xhosa agriculturists moving along the Eastern Cape Coast. Today the city of Port Elizabeth forms part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality.


In 1799 after Britain had wrested the Cape Colony from the Dutch East India Company British troops tried to take occupation of the Port Elizabeth coastline.  This was the time of the Napoleonic wars and the British feared French troops would try a take over. Fort Frederick a stone fort was built to discourage any foreign troops from trying to land, an event that did not happen.  But in 1820 further colonial expansion took place when 4000 British settlers arrived by sea hoping for improved living conditions after the depressed British economy and the lack of employment.  It was also hoped that the settlers would help to form a barrier against the frontier wars. But after four years many had moved to other parts of the country.


It was about this time that the idea of a seaport came into being and would achieve port status in 1825. Port Elizabeth was founded by Sir Rufane Donkin acting governor of the Cape Colony, 1820-1821 and would name it after his late wife, Elizabeth.  There is a certain romantic air to the name Donkin.  His wife had died in Meerut, India in 1818. She was buried there except that her heart was embalmed. During the period when he oversaw the landing of the 1820 settlers , he bought land, built a pyramid in her memory. He died in 1841 in England but his body was buried in the pyramid with the heart of his wife.


Port Elizabeth citizens today are Xhosa speakers, descendants of the slaves from the East and other parts of the African Continent and those of the  British, Dutch, German  settlers.