In 2019 we were lucky enough to visit India.
About halfway into our 4 hour road trip between Delhi and Agra, I saw a turnoff sign to city of Meerut. At the time I thought it sounded very familiar but didn’t think much of it.
The next day we visited one of the main reasons for visiting Agra: the Taj Mahal. Built as an emblem of undying love by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz.
It dawned on me that a very special lady was laid to rest there and that she is linked to a city in South Africa and its very own memorial to undying love.
At the time I was inspired to write about this love story that spans continents. It has everything, a dashing (slightly older) military man, a beautiful woman, exotic destinations, set in the era of King George III.
Hollywood blockbusters have won awards with less of a storyline.
So here is that story (…hope you have tissues……)
Rufane Shaw Donkin was born in 1772 into a military family based in Exeter. He actively served in the West Indies and in Europe with the British Army. He was the rank of Major-General when he married Elizabeth Markham, the daughter of the Dean of York. She was 25 and he was 43. By some accounts, this was a sort of arranged marriage which was the ‘in’ thing between social classes of that time, but it made no difference really as Rufane was completely smitten with his young wife and it seems she felt the same about him.
Two months after they were married, Rufane accepted a posting to India and Elizabeth accompanied him. While posted there, Elizabeth gave birth to their son, George in December 1817 but never really fully recovered from the birth. In August 1818, Elizabeth fell gravely ill with ‘fever’ and passed away a week later.
The impact this had on Rufane was profound. He was distraught to put it mildly.
In a move that was unprecedented at the time, the British Army granted him a leave of absence (in official records they use the term ‘invalided’) and he left India with his 8 month old son to return to England indefinitely.
However, as fate would have it, he didn’t return to England immediately but was asked to act as Interim Governor of the Cape (South Africa) as Lord Charles Somerset (actual Governor) had taken a leave of absence (about 3 years) and someone had to oversee the arrival of British and Irish settlers, due to arrive in early 1820.
So, Rufane and George took a detour.
The point where the settlers were due to disembark was Algoa Bay, on the south east coast of South Africa. There was an existing British fort there built in 1799 called Fort Frederick. The fledging tented town developed around the fort and it was called Elizabeth’s Town by Rufane in honour of his beloved Elizabeth. As the port developed following the arrival of the settlers a few months later, it was renamed Port Elizabeth.
Rufane commissioned a pyramid (all the rage at the time) to be built as a memorial, on a hill overlooking the sea. Soldiers from the fort built it. The stone came from a local quarry.
There are also 2 iron plaques on the sides of this pyramid.
One says: “To the memory of one of the most perfect of human beings, who has given her name to the town below.” (bring the tissues please…)
On the other says:
On returning to England, he must have tried to move on. He was knighted, he remarried and proceeded to have a successful political career as an MP but he was forever ‘wrung by undiminished grief’.
In 1841, he descended into a severe depression where he had 24 hour supervision. He managed to evade his care givers and committed suicide on 1 May 1841, what would have been his and Elizabeth’s 26th wedding anniversary. (oh my god, I’m bawling!)
Sir Rufane Donkin was buried in Old St Pancras churchyard in London along with an urn containing the embalmed heart of Elizabeth, which had travelled with him from India.
If you are ever find yourself in Port Elizabeth, South Africa – visit Elizabeth’s pyramid.
It’s quite moving.
Sir Rufane was knighted after Elizabeth died, so she isn’t technically a ‘Lady’, but for him she always was.
Note: The city of Port Elizabeth has recently had a name change to Gqeberha but the legacy of the Donkin story still remains.
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