Governor on Blackout Tuesday: New memorial for exiled Zulus who died in St Helena must also honour British troops

12 June 2020 By Andrew Turner & Emma Weaver

On the same day that Blackout Tuesday took over the internet, Governor Dr Philip Rushbrook said that a memorial to the Zulu prisoners who died in exile at St Helena must also honour British troops.

This remark was made in the Executive Council (ExCo) meeting Tuesday, June 2 when ExCo granted planning permission for the Zulu memorial to be placed at the viewing platform at the top of Jacob’s Ladder.

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The memorial had been 11 years in the making, and had marked a newly positive connection between St Helena and the Zulu.

Now, cultural experts and others close to the project have spoken out against the new wording request.

The memorial was intended to honour the 25 Zulu chiefs who were exiled to St Helena from 1907-1910, after the Bambatha Rebellion.

The Bambatha Rebellion took place during the final years of British colonial rule over what is now South Africa. The Zulu were resisting new taxes imposed by the British. More than 2,300 Zulus were killed by the British, while 24 British soldiers were killed. More than 5,000 Zulu were imprisoned, and 25 chiefs were exiled to St Helena. Seven of the chiefs died during their exile to St Helena, but the locations of their graves were never recorded.

St Helena Tourism began pushing to erect a monument after a visit in 2009 from 13 Zulu delgates who came to conduct a proper memorial ritual for their ancestors.

At the ceremony, the delegates placed 13 small stones in a cairn at the viewing platform to mark where the substantive memorial should be placed.  Throughout the following 11 years, the memorial plans were carefully discussed and drawn up – with the memorial to be the first proper remembrance of the seven chiefs whose gravesites were never recorded. The Zulu people would finally have some form of physical memorial for their ancestors, and St Helena could welcome the visitors to the memorial.

The memorial would feature a plaque. At the June 2 ExCo meeting, the Governor queried what wording would be put on the plaque.

According to a representative from St Helena Tourism, the wording was being drawn up by South Africa’s Ministry for Arts & Culture.

Despite this, the Governor insisted that the memorial wording must honour British troops, as “we are a British Overseas Territory.”

ExCo members gave support to the Governor’s recommendation.

According to Cllr Russell Yon, this recommendation is not a planning condition but is the official advice of ExCo .

"The applicant would now have to come back, and if they feel that this is not the right way to progress, they could appeal against the advice given by ExCo," he said.

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Cultural experts and historians have voiced very strong opposition to the newly requested plaque wording.

“Honouring the soldiers who massacred thousands of Zulu people during the Bambatha rebellion on the monument at Ladder Hill to me feels highly inappropriate and would dilute all meaning of the monument, given that it’s supposed to represent a downtrodden people who died standing up against an unjust tax placed upon them by their colonial overlords,” Adam Sizeland, Director of the Museum of St Helena, told The Sentinel.

“The Governor's desire to honour or celebrate Britain's narrative in the context of this history appears to render the effort uninformed and disingenuous,” said Peggy King Jorde, an expert on cultural projects who has been involved in African memorials across the globe. “It's a little bit like Holocaust Memorials throughout Germany simultaneously honouring the Nazi government and military.”

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Sizakele Gumede is a master’s degree student in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. Her research includes Zulu exiles/prisoners at St Helena 1890-1897 and 1907-1910. She is a World Member of the Friends of St Helena and has contributed Zulu-related articles to the Wirebird and The Sentinel.

Sizakele provided the following text regarding the Governor’s statements, after learning about the June 2 ExCo meeting:

“The eagerly anticipated decision of the Executive Council on June 2 granted permission for the installation of the Zulu Remembrance Monument at the Jacob ’s Ladder Viewing Platform.

It has been long coming; the proposal was made in 2009, and through the years the unceasing voices of Mr Cyril (Ferdie) Gunnell and Mrs Barbara B. George have kept all reminded about it.

The Executive Council’s decision has heralded that the time has come for the island to do the right thing, retrieve part of its mysteriously disappeared history of the seven Zulu prisoners whose moments of perish vanished with the past generations.

Through the years the proposal was about the Zulu prisoners, but then according to the last week’s decision the monument must include “all who died in the period related to the Zulu conflict period.”

Apparently, it was also specified that the monument’s plaque “must also honour British troops.”

Will the installation continue being referred to as the Zulu Remembrance Monument or that will also change? How will the British troops and Zulu prisoners co-exist on the same monument? One group will be of members of regiments and garrisons with their majors, colonels and lieutenants dripping with credentials and decorations. The other group will comprise the likes of Hlangakeza the Zulu prisoner who died on Feb. 22, 1908; whose surname is not even known because it was deemed unimportant to have his personal identity fully recorded. Adding historical context to all that, what will that monument of schizophrenic identity be perpetuating?

Mrs George has repeatedly told of “a moving and solemn ceremony” performed in 2009, whereby each of the 13 members of the Zulu delegation placed a stone and formed a small cairn at the top of Ladder Hill. The proposed monument is supposed to replace that cairn of stones. Should in future Zulu people arrive on this island and wish to communicate with their ancestors and heroes at that level, how will that happen in the midst of the British garrison that will also be on the same monument, watching over them just as it did in the past? Would that be a show of empathy and conciliatory gesture?

The Zulu prisoners who died in St Helena are held in high regard by their people. Ntelezi Msani, who was the last to die on Nov. 1, 1910 (just 28 days before the group was pardoned and returned to Natal), was from the area in the south of Durban called Umzumbe. In that area today stands a Ntelezi Msani Monument, the Ntelezi Msani Heritage Centre, and an annual commemoration and festival is held in his name. On a yearly basis those people take time to grieve that Ntelezi was treated with such disdain that he was not even afforded the basic human respect of burial, as St Helena cannot point to where his bones lie. In the first instance those Zulu prisoners were pardoned, but what is more important is that history exonerated them: But here we are, more than a century later, and the Governor’s words now make St Helena look like it is on a mission to eternalise them as prisoners of the British troops.

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Draft plans for the Zulu Remembrance Monument at Ladder Hill viewing platform.

The Open Agenda No: 36/2020 and the Executive Council Top Lines of Tuesday 2 June summarise the proposed monument as being about some broad topic of the island’s historic past (ticking off some checklist), under the guise of being named the Zulu Remembrance Monument (lip service), with all that being done for tourists (economic purposes). These are secondary objectives and on their own are inappropriate for the erection of a monument, especially so in this context. Monuments are not just architectural pieces but symbols and receptacles that represent and contain something. What that ‘something’ is for this proposed monument will be gauged by the message it will convey, and the feelings and reflection it will evoke to a passer-by, be it islander or tourist, over time and across different cultures.

Through this proposed monument, beyond the Zulu prisoners St Helena will also be making a long overdue statement about the island’s stance on its African heritage and connections. How the Zulu prisoners who died in St Helena are treated now, will tell the world what Africans are on St Helena today. To clarify, let us look at Napoleon and the Boer prisoners of war.

St Helena’s stance on Napoleon is well-known and unambiguous, he is French but the island’s undisputed most famous and celebrated resident. The island’s instant rapport with the Boer prisoners of war is widely documented; it was Governor Robert Armitage Sterndale’s proclamation that greeted them when they landed on April 10, 1900. The Governor was pleading with the islanders to treat them well, for they were a people fighting bravely for “what they considered the cause of their country.” That spirit has prevailed up to today. The eye-catching, manicured cemetery of the Boer Prisoners of War at Knollcombes is one of the island’s leading tourist attractions; and yes, the South African government contributed to that site, but that does not absolve the island from being unable to point at the spot, no matter how overgrown, where Ntelezi’s bones lie. While the Boer prisoners were afforded the dignity of military funerals, it is very tempting for one to believe that possibly the Zulu prisoners were never buried but dumped down some gorge.

There is no ambiguity about the intangible aspect St Helena holds in relation to Napoleon and the Boers. Can the same be said about this island’s stance on its African connections? The proposed Zulu Remembrance Monument is right now the most powerful weapon available to decisively redeem and redress this situation. This is not the time to drop the ball, the stage is set, St Helena must rise to the occasion.”