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The South African who twice escaped Robben Island

David Stuurman statue

David Stuurman, who has just had an airport named after him, was one of the first leaders of resistance to colonial expansion in South Africa, yet few people in the country know much about him, as Mohammed Allie reports.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational grey line

To the colonial establishment of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, David Stuurman was a criminal and a threat, but to the Khoi and Xhosa people (or amaXhosa) he achieved hero status for his brave and continued resistance to forced removals and subjugation.

Stuurman also has the distinction of being the only person to have twice escaped from Robben Island – later known as one of the places where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated – off the coast of Cape Town.

In 1809 he was among the first political prisoners to be banished there.

First escape

“He was arrested and charged for resisting colonial rule as well as opposing the conscription of the Khoi into militias that were created to defend the colony and to attack the San and amaXhosa,” cultural activist Stephen Langtry told the BBC.

“By December of 1809 Stuurman and a few others were the first to escape from the island using one of the whaling boats that was anchored in the harbour.

“He made it out of the colony and was given refuge amongst the amaXhosa. He was recaptured [a decade later] and put to hard labour on Robben Island. On 9 August 1820, he escaped again,” Langtry added.

Even though the getaway boat capsized, Stuurman survived only to be caught once more and sent back to the island in December for a third stint.

Death in Australia

This time he was chained to a wall until he could be transported in February 1823 to Australia.

Stuurman was then put to work at the military barracks in Sydney for six years before he was granted a ticket to leave. But by that time he had become lame in his right leg and was unable to return home, according to Sydney Living Museums.

He died in Australia in 1830 and was buried in a cemetery which was later redeveloped as Sydney’s central railway station, meaning that Stuurman’s remains could not be located.

Khoi activists, Khoi San community members, relatives and government officials attend the symbolic burial ceremony of Khoisan Traditional leader and freedom fighter David Stuurman on June 16, 2017 in Hankey, South Africa

David Stuurman’s spirit was laid to rest back in South Africa in a ceremony in 2017

After negotiations with the Australian authorities that lasted several years, a traditional ceremony was conducted in Sydney in 2017 to repatriate the spirit of Stuurman. Three days later a second spiritual repatriation was conducted at the Sarah Baartman Heritage Centre in the South African town of Hankey, Eastern Cape province.

Born around 1773, near the Gamtoos River in what is now Eastern Cape, Stuurman took over the leadership of his Khoi clan from his brother Klaas who died in 1803.

He got involved in the anti-colonial fight after his people were dispossessed of their land by the Dutch and British colonisers, forcing him and other indigenous people to live and work on their land as labourers.

‘Tied up and beaten’

Stuurman himself worked for a farmer, Johannes Vermaak, but his brutal treatment led him to abandon his job.

At one point it was alleged that he had threatened Vermaak.

“[After the disagreement] Vermaak had first demanded that he be shot but settled for having him tied to a wagon and beaten with sjamboks [whips],” historian Vertrees Malherbe has written.

“After that he was salted and left in the burning sun, for some hours.”

Key dates in Stuurman's life.   [ Early 1770s Stuurman born in what is now Eastern Cape ],[ 1795  British forces seize Cape Colony from the Dutch, then return it in 1803 and finally gaining  control in 1806 ],[ 1799 Khoi rebellion, which Stuurman helps lead, begins ],[ 1809 Stuurman arrested and held on Robben Island but later escapes ],[ 1820 Stuurman recaptured  after second escape ],[ 1830 Stuurman dies in Australia after being transported there in 1823 ], Source: Source:  SA History Online, BBC Monitoring, Image:

Key dates in Stuurman’s life. [ Early 1770s Stuurman born in what is now Eastern Cape ],[ 1795 British forces seize Cape Colony from the Dutch, then return it in 1803 and finally gaining control in 1806 ],[ 1799 Khoi rebellion, which Stuurman helps lead, begins ],[ 1809 Stuurman arrested and held on Robben Island but later escapes ],[ 1820 Stuurman recaptured after second escape ],[ 1830 Stuurman dies in Australia after being transported there in 1823 ], Source: Source: SA History Online, BBC Monitoring, Image:

Stuurman’s active career as Khoi leader spanned a tumultuous period in the first two decades of the 19th Century, when the Xhosa, Boers, Khoikhoi, San and the British clashed intermittently in the Eastern Cape.

The conflict was largely due to colonial expansion which dispossessed Xhosa and Khoi people of their land, cattle and other belongings.

In 1799 the Khoi on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony rebelled. Hundreds left the farms which, in many instances they were forced to work on, and went to live with the Xhosa, according to South African History Online. Together the Khoi and the Xhosa attacked the colonialists.

Stuurman helped lead the expeditions to recapture cattle from Dutch colonists between 1795 and 1803.

By all accounts, Stuurman was a thorn in the side of both the frontiersmen and the new British authorities in the Cape as he refused to be coerced into giving up his clan’s independence.

‘For us, he’s a legend’

“He was important for his contributions in resisting colonial occupation. He was also a formidable resistance fighter,” cultural activist Shepi Mati told the BBC.

“At one point he received refugees – people who ran away from slavery and forced conscription into farm labour and offered them a safe haven among his community who resided in the area now called Hankey in the Eastern Cape.

“Stuurman himself was highly regarded in the community. He was not afraid to take on the colonialists. He took back land and cattle that was forcibly taken from his people.”

People carry the coffin as Khoi activists, Khoi San community members, relatives and government officials attend the symbolic burial ceremony of Khoisan Traditional leader and freedom fighter David Stuurman on June 16, 2017 i

Khoi activists and Khoi San community members took part in the symbolic burial in 2017

Mati added that Stuurman also played an important role in fostering unity between the Khoi and the Xhosa.

“For us he’s a legend. He’s one of the Khoi and San heroes who was the first, together with his brother Klaas, to fight colonialism, land dispossession and slavery at the time,” says Christian Martin, an Eastern Cape-based Khoi and San activist. In 2016, he proposed that Port Elizabeth’s airport should be named in Stuurman’s honour.

“Stuurman was way ahead of his time when it comes to unity and nation building.

“There’s a white people’s version of Stuurman where he is painted as a murderer. Remember some people also thought of Nelson Mandela as a terrorist – but to millions he was a hero.”

The colonists saw him as a bandit and unwilling to cooperate and in 1809 Stuurman was arrested and held on Robben Island.

‘First revolutionary’

Martin reveals that he received several messages from white South Africans after the renaming of the international airport in Port Elizabeth (which itself has got a new name – Gqeberha).

One, written in Afrikaans, called Stuurman “a notorious robber and murderer” who had settlers killed, stole their cattle and “chased their women and children, barefoot and wearing only their nightclothes into the field in the bitter cold”.

Perhaps part of the source of the anger was that the airport was once named after former Prime Minister HF Verwoerd, considered to be one of the architects of apartheid, which legalised racial discrimination.

According to Errol Heynes, a former deputy mayor of Port Elizabeth, Stuurman, by opposing forced removals, became “one of the first revolutionaries in the country”.

“It was important to highlight those who had fought the first settlers and fought colonisation before the advent of apartheid,” he adds.

Stuurman has been honoured in other ways. In 2015 a life-size bronze sculpture of him, created by Cape Town-based artist Keith Calder, was erected at the National Heritage Monument in Tshwane.

Despite this and having played a key role in resisting colonialism it has taken the renaming of the airport for many South Africans to learn more about him.

With this move and the tales of his heroism, including the double escape from Robben Island, there is now likely to be more interest.


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