When the story of Black South African struggle against white dominance is told, the image of Nelson Mandela in a cell on Robben Island is often one of the most emotive mental images someone can conjure up. But what if you were told that a Black African escapee freed himself twice from a Dutch prison two hundred years before Mandela?
Who Was David Stuurman, the South African Escapee?
Stuurman was a chief of the Khoikhoi; a people believed to have descended from one of the world’s oldest, if not the oldest, traceable lineages. He has been known as David Stuurman for a long time, but that is not his real name. He is believed to have been born around 1773, and little is known about his childhood. His nickname is of Dutch ancestry, with the first name sometimes spelled as Dawid.
According to sources, David was born in the Eastern Cape, near the Gamtoos River. During his early life, Stuurman worked as a farm laborer on the farm of the Dutch Vermaak family in Gamtoos.
According to the Christian missionaries in Bethelsdorp, the Khoi and their tribal relatives, the San, were mistreated by the colonials. Stuurman was treated cruelly by Johannes Vermaak, the Vermaak family patriarch. Much of this occurred as European settlers were evicting the indigenous Black people from their territories.
Indeed, much of the Khoi people’s relationship with the Europeans was one of indentured servitude on the latter’s side. Tensions between locals and white settlers arose due to the Khoi and San being ejected from their territories. The Xhosa Wars are the common name for these conflicts. Stuurman and his family fled after 1790.
“To escape the brutality, I, like many others, had to relocate,” said David.
However, he was leaving his birthplace as a man forever scarred by the events of his youth. Those who fled were received by the Xhosa people, who were the Europeans’ key enemies. Therefore, the Khoi fled, like Stuurman and his kin, found safety, and refused to return to indentured servitude. The white people who had usurped control of the lands were enraged by this.
However, Stuurman distinguished himself from this vantage point by leading the Khoi-Xhosa coalition in opposition to Dutch and British settlements. As a warring chief, he led expeditions against the Europeans, making life unbearably difficult for them. In 1802, his efforts were rewarded when the British governor, Francis Dundas, granted him land to settle on.
In 1809, the Europeans arrested and charged Stuurman for resisting colonial rule and opposing the conscription of the Khoi into militias that were formed to protect the colony and attack the San and amaXhosa. Since he refused to go to war against other natives, he was simply an opponent of settler interests. He was imprisoned on Robben Island.
Stuurman Breaks Free
In December of that year, Stuurman and others used a whaling boat to flee the island. When Stuurman, the South African escapee, arrived on land, he searched and reunited with the Xhosa, with whom he had shared a two-decade friendship. He was apprehended again ten years later, only to flee again in 1820.
The second escape, however, was just a brief one. As he attempted to swim to shore, he was recaptured. He was chained when he was returned to the island, unlike in the past. Stuurman was then imprisoned for nearly three years before being transported to Australia, where he died in 1830.
In South Africa, Stuurman is commemorated by a statue in Pretoria’s National Heritage Monument Park. Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport, previously known as Port Elizabeth International Airport, is now known as Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport.