The last man executed for sodomy in Australia in 1863 was an indigenous black South African soldier. He was one of hundreds of mainly African and Asian indigenous and enslaved people transported from Africa’s south and its surrounding islands to the new settlement in New South Wales and Tasmania. Also in Australia was his compatriot, a renowned indigenous South African political leader, David Stuurman, who led a fierce resistance against the British and whose remains were buried in what is now Sydney’s main railway terminal.1 It may seem an improbable tale, yet each of their distinct stories broaden our understanding of Australia’s colonial settlement, and their histories live on through their descendants who now form part of both white and Aboriginal communities, even as Australia still tightly clings to the myth of white founders.
Most of the black South African soldiers who were banished to Australia came from an army regiment that included indigenous Khoi and “Bastaard” men. The soldiers included a group who were part of the anti-colonial resistance in South Africa, who killed their ensign in a mutiny. Hendrik Uithaalder, who was hanged for the sodomy conviction, came from this group.
Bastaards, also Basters, was the Dutch term for various mixed-race people in South Africa, whose numbers were so numerous, and whose parentage was so diverse, that by the 1800s there were numerous social groups and communities recognised as “tribes” across the country, made up of largely mixed-race people. The Basters were one distinct grouping amongst many differently named mixed-race people. The colonial references to them as “tribes” also noted that each of the groupings had distinct and very different heritages, encompassing South Africa’s indigenous communities, Asian slaves and slaves from across Africa.
Immigration and enslavement in South Africa meant that heritage was truly mixed, as opposed to being biracial. This included descendants of indigenous South Africans along with people from the rest of Africa, white Europeans, Middle Eastern people – including Arabs, Persians and Central Asians – and Asian people stretching from India, Sri Lanka, Timor, to the Philippines and China. In various modern studies on DNA and genetic inheritances, black descendants in South Africa’s south are recognised to be the most genetically mixed in the world – and often to a much larger degree than found in studies conducted in other places.
The issue of complex heritage holds true in the Americas and the Caribbean as well, but the complexity and diversity is to a much greater degree in South Africa because its slave history is much more diverse. This includes social groupings that emerged from mixed-race people fleeing slavery in the country’s south and heading inland to freedom. They also escaped to Namibia, where their descendants continue to live. Colonial and then apartheid governments classified them as “coloured”, meaning they were a “non-European, non-African ‘race’” – as opposed to being seen as an indigenous ethnicity, or more accurately, different ethnicities. Even today, people classified “coloured” have very distinct regional cultures which are often alien to each other.
Across the records and in writings by historians, Hendrick Uitnaalder / Witnaalder’s name has been recorded in different ways: as Henrik or Hendrick; Witnalder or Witnaalder; and in some writings his surname is given as Uitnaalder. I will follow the spelling of historian V.C. Malherbe who has written on Uithaalder and has standardised the spelling of his name to Hendrik Uithaalder when writing about him.
Uithaalder was an indigenous Khoi man from South Africa’s south, who was sent to Australia in 1840 as a prisoner on the transportation ship Pekoe, with a group of other Khoi soldiers who had mutinied and fired into the officers’ mess, killing an ensign. He was part of a group of Khoi soldiers who staged a mutiny in Grahamstown, in the country’s east, during a period when rebellion against British colonial expansion had reached a critical period. Besides the South Africans, the Pekoe was also carrying 190 Irish male convicts2, in one of several instances where South African and Irish political history intersects.
Uithaalder and his comrades were sentenced to death, which was then commuted to transportation, and he landed up in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land, present-day Tasmania.
Historian V.C. Malherbe also mentions that during his time in Australia he and a fellow South African, Stuurman Jantjes, were sent to present-day Brisbane (then named Moreton Bay) and drafted into the Border Police.3 Part of their job in the police force was fighting the Aboriginal people who were mounting an increasingly fierce resistance against colonisation and land dispossession. In Australia and later under South Africa’s white minority security forces, the descendants of Khoisan and other aboriginal people in South Africa were prized for their tracking skills and knowledge of the bushveld. In the 1980s they were used as trackers by the apartheid government to find liberation fighters in remote areas. Malherbe writes that,
“Jantjes was about 1.55m tall, twenty years of age, married, illiterate, and marked with a number of blue dots and scars. Uithaalder was twenty-eight, also married, illiterate and, at just over 1.4m., was so short that he could neither saddle nor mount a horse unaided. They were put to work chasing runaways, tracing stray horses, escorting prisoners, keeping aborigines (sic) at bay, serving notices, and carrying letters.”4
Uithaalder formed part of a group of black men and women sent from South Africa to Australia. These include enslaved African and Asian people, including those from surrounding areas like Madagascar and Mauritius, as well as soldiers and civilians, classified as Khoi, San, slaves, Free Blacks and coloured, according to colonial records.
Uithaalder escaped a death sentence for the second time while in Australia. This was during a dispute with a farmer for whom he was working and Uithaalder was convicted of raping the farmer’s wife. He subsequently turned up in Van Diemen’s Land, present-day Tasmania.
After that he becomes a figure of local colour and renown across Hobart, where he was repeatedly arrested for being “disruptive”. This was a common charge against political prisoners and the formerly enslaved who were traumatised and exiled.
Uithaalder’s role in political resistance and his part in gay history, however, does not preclude him from being a problematic historical figure, nor does it diminish his rape conviction, or the circumstances around his sodomy conviction.
He did not escape being sentenced to death for the third time in his life when he was hanged in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1863, becoming the last man hanged for sodomy in Australia. The controversy of his life followed Uithaalder to his death, as a 14-year-old boy was charged alongside him, but the teenager was eventually freed. The diminutive5 Uithaalder was eventually executed with weights tied to his feet, as his body was too slight to break his neck.
But Uithaalder was not the only indigenous South African who left behind an iconic, if politically ambivalent, legacy in Australia. Captain David Stuurman makes for a more traditionally heroic story: a major anti-colonial resistance figure of his time, he was banished and escaped from Robben Island twice before being sent to Australia (possibly to prevent him from orchestrating another escape from the South African penal island).
Stuurman was also a political leader, with the title of a captain. He is recognised by historians as one of the most significant resistance leaders fighting colonialism in South Africa’s south during that time period, and also one who formed alliances with different indigenous communities, thereby broadening and strengthening local resistance.
Stuurman was sentenced in South Africa in 1820, and deported to Australia in 1823 with other prisoners, including another indigenous Khoikhoi man, Jantje Piet,6 on the transportation ship, the Brampton.7 The ship was almost exclusively carrying Irish men, including a number of men convicted for acts associated with being Whiteboys, a term generally applied to “a secret Irish agrarian organisation in 18th-century Ireland” which used various tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence farming.8
Stuurman was spared the death penalty in South Africa because he saved the life of a European sailor during his last escape. After his exile to Australia, Stuurman’s family launched a high-profile, vigorous campaign to have him freed and returned to South Africa. The campaign drew in support from British journalists and other figures, but ultimately they were unsuccessful.
Stuurman died in Sydney on 20 February 1830. Where he is currently buried is not clear, and the South African government has been in talks to repatriate and rebury his remains in his homeland. His remains were likely boxed together with those of others when his burial ground was turned into the Sydney Terminal.
It is only when researching the history of the Indian Ocean slave trade that I came across Stuurman’s story: centuries of racist policies that deliberately distorted history have wiped his name from memory and public record, particularly in South Africa, where he is generally not known, except by a handful of people.
The power of the Khoi history is augmented because in South Africa, it is widely believed that the Khoi people have died out: the popular history is that they were wiped out by smallpox epidemics introduced by European colonizers in the 1700 and 1800s. While Khoi people suffered heavily during the smallpox epidemics, along with South Africa’s Free Black and enslaved populations, it is only in recent years that small pockets of people are recognising their Khoi heritage. Successive colonial governments started classifying Khoi people under the term “coloured”, which was then continued under apartheid. Sara Baartman, who was displayed across Europe, was Khoi, and in South Africa today, it is not unusual to see women who have similar facial features to hers. Nelson Mandela was found to have significant Khoi mitochondrial DNA, as that was his mother’s heritage. The power of the Khoi people in Australia is that we have complex stories, of named individuals, belonging to a people who are erroneously believed to be “extinct”.
The Khoi Australian history extends to the lore of Australian bushrangers. Historian Kristyn Harman writes about Peter Haley (also named as Caley), a South African Khoisan man who worked as a groom in Sydney from about 1839. Records show him as being from Symonds Bay – more likely Simons Bay or Simonstown – in Cape Town. She refers to him as arriving “free” in Sydney, although there are little other details. Haley became a notorious horse thief in South Australia, nicknamed “Wolf” or “Heddy” and was eventually sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land, where he had constant run-ins with the law, including for instances of being drunk. Eventually he took to the bush and joined a group of bushrangers, where he survives in records as “Black Peter”. The gang became notorious and were active in Van Diemen’s Land for many years before eventually being caught. The lore of the bushrangers is a particular Australian source of pride, often closely associated with “convict” history: Ned Kelly’s notoriety as a vagabond is firmly enshrined in Australian history, and the gang that Haley belonged to enjoyed a degree of notoriety. Haley was hanged in Tasmania with his comrades on 16 February 1859, and was eventually buried at Campbell Street burial ground.9
The names of South African Khoi men in Australia are numerous, including Arnoldus Jantje and Scipio Africanus who gained notoriety not only for their brushes with the law, but also because they teamed up and went to live in the bush, where they lived by their wits. Scipio is interesting because historians write about him as a Khoi man, but his name “Scipio” was usually given to a slave in South Africa and elsewhere, thereby raising the possibility that he was not Khoi at all, but possibly a slave from somewhere else in Africa. He arrived in Sydney in June 1837. Scipio was small in stature and his age was initially recorded as ten years old, although at a later court appearance he is said to have given his age as 19. Scipio showed a particular disdain for the colonial system through his constant brushes with the law and throughout his life in Australia, he resisted and absconded from the colonial system.
There are no reports on whether any of the Khoi people in Australia left behind children. A number of the men mentioned died destitute. Like colonial Australia’s Aboriginal prisoners, exile and banishment were a de facto death sentence for them. At the same time, the reason why the Khoi men survive in the records and that so many of them can be traced is because they resisted colonialism throughout: from their banishment from South Africa, many of them kept fighting throughout their lives in Australia. As with Uithaalder, at times that resistance was problematic. But where historians see men mentioned in court records, charged with being outside without permission, being rowdy, absconding, for taking to the bush and refusing to engage with the colonial order and violence, I see fighters and resisters who stood up right to the end.
V.C. Malherbe, Khoikhoi and the Question of Convict Transportation from the Cape Colony, 1820-1842.
Kristyn Harman, Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles, New South Publishing, UNSW Press, 2012.
1 Stuurman’s remains are believed to have been moved when the station was built and is now believed to be buried elsewhere in an unmarked mass grave in Sydney.
3 Malherbe p.33.
4 Malherbe p.33.
5 He was reported to be about 1.42m tall.
6 Malherbe p.22.
7 Malherbe p. 19.
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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.
Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.