South Africa seeks Sydney burial place of anti-colonial 'hero'

David Stuurman statue at Bloemfontein's Oliewenhuis Arts Museum

An effort is underway to try to repatriate the remains of a South African chief transported to Sydney in the 1800s by British authorities. 

(Transcript from World News Radio)

Somewhere in Sydney lie the remains of a man many South Africans regard with the same kind of reverence as Nelson Mandela.

David Stuurman was a Khoi leader, who was vocal in his fight against colonialism.

To end his activities, the British colonial authorities transported him to Australia almost 200 years ago.

Now, a repatriation effort is underway to try to return his remains.

For many in South Africa, if successful, the repatriation will help honour a man widely considered a national hero.

It is also seen as an opportunity to rewrite a country's history, nearly two decades after the end of apartheid.

But as Santilla Chingaipe reports, there's serious doubt about whether it will be possible to get the remains back.

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Danny Goulkhan is from the National Heritage Council in South Africa.

He says as a leader of the Khoisan people, David Stuurman was strongly opposed to British colonial rule.

"He was one of the people that were able to stand against the oppression by the British in the Cape coastal areas, which we at the moment call the Western and the Eastern Cape. And he was in the process of his protest against forceful oppression and also refusing to be part of the labour force that was under the British rule, he was taken to Robben Island and he is one of the people who was able to successfully escape from the island on three occasions. On the last occasion where he was recaptured, he survived, that was in 1820 and when after all these attempts, he was taken together with other prisoners, to Australia, to Sydney."

Danny Goulkhan says David Stuurman is an important figure in the Khoi community, as well as an iconic freedom fighter in South Africa's history.

Mr Goulkhan says returning Stuurman's remains to South Africa bears much significance.

"In our African culture, it is always an acceptable northern tradition to bring closure, especially to departed souls that accidentally did not depart at their homestead, or I would say at their home."

Stuurman was transported to New South Wales in 1823, along with several other South Africans convicted of breaking colonial laws.

He's recorded to have died seven years later, aged 51, at the Sydney Infirmary, in Macquarie Street.

Keith Johnson is a historian who has written extensively about Sydney's burial grounds in the 19th and 20th centuries.

He says it's likely Stuurman was buried at a nearby cemetery.

"At what was called as the Elizabeth and Devonshire Streets burial ground, depending on his religion, he was most certainly at the Elizabeth Street burial ground. So that's at Surry Hills facing Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills."

However, Keith Johnson says at the start of the last century, the state government decided to relocate all the remains from the Devonshire Street cemetery, because the site was wanted for what's now Sydney's Central Railway Station.

He says families were given the opportunity to choose a reburial sites for their loved ones.

But any unclaimed or unidentified remains were sent for reburial at the Botany cemetery in Sydney, now part of the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park - and that's likely to be where David Stuurman's remains ended up.

"The remains in 1901 when they were moved, unidentified remains were put 10 to a box and sent off to Botany. So it's only where they were identified or claimed by people that there's any likelihood that they were remains. But we're dealing with a period .. it was a long while ago."

And Keith Johnson says David Stuurman's remains almost certainly ended up in a mass grave with hundreds of others - and the likelihood of them ever being precisely located now is virtually impossible.

"Unidentified remains are difficult to find where they are // So the chances of anyone recovering these remains are very slim? // Absolutely zero // Zero // They'd be absolutely no chance of them doing that."

Despite the difficulties, back in South Africa, the Khoi people and their supporters remain optimistic that David Stuurman's remains will be repatriated.

A South African delegation recently visited Australia, to try to begin the process.

The South Africans were advised that the repatriation of the remains was not an Australian government responsibility - and it would be best to hire local historians to try to help.

Cecil De Fleur is the Chairman of the National Khoisan Council.

He told a recent hearing of the National Heritage Council that should South Africa be successful in repatriating the remains, other countries may be able to learn from the process.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to a genuine national hero. I happen to have been researching this area for some time and every way you look at this, he's a genuine South African national hero and it gives us an opportunity to put into practice what we talk about in our policies in government about promoting social cohesion, promoting national building, promoting reconciliation. We have to teach the world something. When we speak to them about even with the reburial of ?? and Klaas, they were going to put the remains and put them in a diplomatic bag and send them here and it was the intervention that said 'no, he's a human being, they must be brought back in a coffin.' So I think as South Africans, based on this collective experience, there is something we could teach the world about humanity, about what it means to be human and how you deal with these issues that emphasise their humanity."

Xamtgoab Maleiba is a chief of Damasomqua Khoi Khoi people.

He says having David Stuurman's remains returned will bring closure to his legacy.

"And now we as Chiefs, we see ourselves as a continuation in the modern time of his legacy of what is referred to as the last of the Khoi Khoi Chiefs and we want to respect his memory."

However, Danny Goulkhan from the National Heritage Council concedes that optimism in finding the remains is waning.

"Because the actual remains were not been traced, it has called the team to look at a best approach."

But he says they have not given up.

"Well hope is another thing, reality is a different matter. I would say that the search has not been called off, but the remains cannot be traced."



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