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Historic settler items to go on web auction

22 January 2014
Xolisa Phillip

A LETTER that tells an intriguing story of murder, betrayal and sabotage is up for grabs tomorrow when a slice of Eastern Cape history goes under the hammer.

Grahamstown's Fables Bookshop owner Ian Balchin is auctioning the letter on a rare-book website on behalf of a family who want to remain anonymous.

And foreign and local bidders are lining up to get their hands on other letters that offer a glimpse into the shenanigans of influential figures in colonial South Africa, Balchin says.

Writers of the letters include Sir Rufane Donkin, the acting governor of the Cape Colony from 1820 to 1821, and activist and entrepreneur John Fairbairn, the founding father of Old Mutual.

One letter detailing the then-colonial office's refusal to provide special assistance to a party Benjamin Moodie had proposed to settle in the Zuurveld, west of the Fish River, is of particular significance.

This is the site where 1000 soldiers and settler militias displaced some 20000 Xhosa and Khoikhoi people and destroyed their homes, forcing them to flee their land.

Benjamin was a member of a prominent settler family, the Moodies of Melsetter on the Orkney Islands in Scotland.

Other items that might pique Eastern Cape residents' interest are the Donkin and Fairbairn letters.

These letters are owned by the same family.

Port Elizabeth is named after Donkin's wife, Elizabeth.

Fairbairn was instrumental in establishing press freedom in the Cape under governor Lord Charles Somerset.

Fairbairn also played a key role in ensuring the convict ship Aurora was sent packing from the Cape in a signal that South Africa did not want to become a colony for convicts, like Australia, according to Balchin.

The family selling the letters feel that the items will be of better use in others' hands, the sprightly 72-yearold says.

He added that foreign buyers had to apply for export permits. Heritage authorities also review sales.

The auction opens at 6.30pm SA time. For more information visit

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