Nelson Mandela in a cell on Robben Island has become one of the most emotive mental pictures anyone can come up with when the story of Black South African push against white domination is told. But what if you were told that two hundred years before Mandela, a Black African broke twice from the Dutch penitentiary?
The man was a chief of the Khoi people, a group from one of the oldest, if not the oldest traceable lineage on earth. He has for long been called David Stuurman but that is not his real name. He is thought to have been born around 1773 and details about his upbringing are not known to us. The name he was identified by is of Dutch extraction, with the first name sometimes spelled Dawid.
What we do know is that he was born near the Gamtoos River in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. We also know that while a teenager, Stuurman was a farm laborer on the farm of the Dutch Vermaak family, who lived in Gamtoos. The Khoi, as well as their tribal kinsmen the San, were mistreated, a fact recorded by Christian missionaries in Bethelsdorp. The patriarch of the Vermaak family, Johannes extended the cruelty to Stuurman. All of this was happening while the European settlers dispossessed the native Black population of their lands.
Indeed, the relationship that existed between the Europeans and many of the Khoi people was one of indentured servitude on the part of the latter.
Dispossessing the Khoi and the San of their lands expectedly brought about tensions between the locals and the white settlers. These tensions are what collectively are called The Xhosa Wars. After 1790, Stuurman, along with his family. like many others, had to relocate to avoid the violence. But he was leaving the place of his birth a man permanently scarred by the events of his childhood.
Those who fled were welcomed in association with the Xhosa people, the main enemies of the Europeans. Having found security the Khoi who fled like Stuurman and his family refused to return to indentured servitude. This obviously incensed the white people who had usurped ownership of the lands.
But from this vantage point, Stuurman distinguished himself by leading the Khoi composite of the Xhosa opposition to Dutch and British settlements. He led expeditions, as a warring chief, against the Europeans and made life imaginably unpalatable for them. His efforts momentarily paid off when in 1802, he was granted land to settle on by the British governor, Francis Dundas. This was only to quiet Stuurman down because soon enough the British attacked. And so did the Dutch.
In 1809, Stuurman was arrested and according to cultural activist, Stephen Langtry, “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”. He was essentially an enemy of settler interests since he would not go to war against other natives. He was taken to Robben Island.
That year, in December, Stuurman and a host of others escaped from the island using a whaling boat. When he arrived on land, Stuurman sought and found reunification with the Xhosa with whom he had enjoyed a camaraderie for two decades. But he was rearrested ten years later, only for him to escape again in 1820.
But the second escape was only short. He was recaptured as he tried to swim his way to shore. When he was taken back to the island, he was chained, unlike previous times. He was kept there for nearly three years and then transported to Australia where Stuurman would die in 1830.
In South Africa, Stuurman has been immortalized with a statue in the National Heritage Monument Park in Pretoria. The international airport formerly known as Port Elizabeth is now also the Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport.