A link between Clarens and Port Elizabeth

Over the last couple of Christmases that we visited PE I noticed a monument on the beachfront but either never had the time or the inclination to stop and see what it represented. I was under the impression it was a Cenotaph to PE citizens who had died in the First or second World Wars……….as usual I was wrong.

I stopped there a few days ago only to find out that it was not a monument to Port Elizabeth’s war dead but that the monument had been erected 16 December 1939 to celebrate the Battle of Blood/Ncome River some 101 years before. It became apparent that it had been moved from its original site to Summerstrand in 1975 so I decided to look into this and see if I could find any more information; this is what I managed to find.

The four-metre high sandstone monument is actually dedicated to Piet Retief and was designed by Gerard Moerdyk and this is where the link comes in as the pastorie in Clarens was designed by Gerhard Moerdyk in the 1920’s.........but I digress. Moerdyk was the eldest of nine children and born in Nylstroom, his dad was a teacher and had come to South Africa from Holland in response to a plea from Paul Kruger who realised that his new Republic needed teachers.

I also found that Coert Steynberg the artist who created many of the Voortrekker Monument sculptures was also responsible for two panels on this monument. For those who are also not aware the Voortrekker monument is also a Moerdyk design. Other works that Coerts panels have been associated with are

1) Andries – Pretorius monument in Graaf Reniet
2) Karel Landman monument near Alexandria
3) Peace of Vereeniging monument in Vereeneging

The Piet Retief monument was initially erected in Coega Saturday 16 December 1939 with close to 5000 people, mainly Afrikaans speaking in attendance. Te monument was erected at the side of the R335 as this was believed to be the route used by the Voortrekkers during their trek North. Its said that the crowd that day was the largest in the country and the proceedings were broadcast on radio. The veld around the monument was transformed into a tent town with hundreds of tents and an ox wagon or two setting up camp. Many people dressed in traditional Voortrekker clothing. Dr D F Malan the then leader of the National Party gave an hour long speech on the importance of unity amongst the Afrikaaner.

In 1950 there were concerns that the monument was getting damaged and could be vandalised and it should be moved to Summerstrand another of the reasons was that Port Elizabeth was expanding but not towards Coega. The reason Summerstrand was chosen for the monument to be moved to was that Piet Retief himself had been one of the original tenants of a farm called Strandfontein, the land which Summerstand now stands. While the decision was made to move the monument in 1950 it was only 25 years later in 1975 that the dream became a reality. The monument was re dedicated on December the 16th by Mr. W A van der Merwe and Professor Marius Swart gave the festival address were he pointed out the similarities of the monument to the Voortrekker monument in Pretoria, those being the chiselled shapes on the corners as well as the placing of the foundation stone.

As mentioned one of the reasons for moving the monument was a fear of it being vandalised and in 1991 four copper and bronze plaques were stolen (probably sold to an unscrupulous scrap metal dealer and melted down). One of the plaques was a Coert Steynburg scene of Voortrekker ox-wagons on the move. These have now been replaced with an etched and polished granite panel; the bas-relief of Piet Retief by Steynburg was not stolen and still looks down on the odd tourist or history researcher.

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