The city of Port Elizabeth, South Africa commemorates a beautiful young woman who never got to see the place which bears her name.
Our story starts in Exeter, England where Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin was born in 1772. It seems his exact birth date is not known but he was baptized at St David’s Church, Exeter on 9 October 1772.
He joined the military at a young age according to his family tradition and only found time and inclination for romance a little later in life than most. He met the lovely Elizabeth Frances Markham, daughter of the Dean of York, and they were married on on 1 May 1815 at Stokesley, Yorkshire.
As so often happens with those who meet their soul mate in their 30s or 40s, their love was intense and despite an eighteen year age difference the happy couple was inseparable. Their relationship exhibited true and abiding love from both sides – something beautiful in a world where such devotion is often lacking.
Unlike most women of the time who preferred to remain in England when their husbands went abroad on duty, Elizabeth opted to join Rufane when he was posted to India in July 1815. Tragically, their time together would be brief.
While in India Elizabeth developed a fever from which she never fully recovered and she died tragically young on 21 August 1818 exactly one week short of her 28th birthday, leaving a grief stricken husband with their eight month old only son George.
Elizabeth was buried at Murat, India and her tomb can be seen below.
Young George was sent to England to be cared for by his grandfather, the Dean.
Sir Rufane was totally shattered by her untimely death and couldn’t handle his duties. He was placed on extended sick leave. On his way back to England, he was asked to become the acting governor of the Cape Colony. He accepted this task as a way of dealing with his grief through keeping busy. One of his main tasks would be to assist with handling the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. Assuming his new challenge on 6 June 1820 he immediately chose to name the new settlement after his beloved wife.
An able administrator and far more popular than the autocratic and disagreeable Lord Charles Somerset, he served the Cape Colony and the new city of Port Elizabeth well, as if to commemorate Elizabeth’s memory with his devotion to ensuring the future city would be off to a good start.
Shortly after the 1820 Settlers arrived, Sir Rufane set aside a prominent parcel of land in the city upon which he had a pyramid constructed in Elizabeth’s memory. According to his will, the Donkin Reserve is open to everyone for all time as a monument to the one whom he described as:
“To the memory of one of the most perfect of human beings, who has given her name to the town below”.
This pyramid, about 10 metres high and with sides at the base of about 8 metres each, was declared a national monument on 8 July 1938.
Back in England, Sir Rufane threw himself into military and political activities and also became a founder member of the Royal Geographical Society. He distinguished himself in all these fields.
He remarried in 1832, to Anna Maria Elliott, but he was not happy. She did her best to make things work but just couldn’t replace his first love. He could never get over her loss, and committed suicide by hanging himself on 1 May 1841, which would have been their 26th wedding anniversary.
He was interred together with Elizabeth’s embalmed heart.
Elizabeth’s grave in India was lovingly restored in 1988 with the assistance of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth.
Had she ever seen it, it is certain Elizabeth would have fallen in love with the city which bears her name and ensures that she will never be forgotten.
This tender tribute to undying love can teach us a lesson in this world of constant upheaval and change.