David Stuurman was born around 1773, probably near the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape. From the 17th century onwards, the Khoi and San people were systematically dispossessed of their traditional lands “on ordinance by the colonists”, who pressed them into service on farms. Thus, Stuurman found himself working for Johannes Vermaak, a farmer. The brutal treatment meted out to Stuurman by Vermaak led him to abandon his role as a farm labourer. For instance, on one occasion, he was tied to a wagon wheel, whipped with sjamboks, salted and left in the sun for hours after a disagreement with his “baas”. When Vermak died several servants, including Stuurman, deserted his farm.
In 1799, the Khoi, on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony, rebelled. Hundreds left the farms, which in many instances were forced to work on, and went to live with the Xhosa. Together, the Khoi and the Xhosa effectively attacked the colonists. The Khoi were valuable allies as expert shooters and trained soldiers, who instructed the Xhosa in marksmanship and were relied upon for the maintenance of captured weapons. They drove many whites from their farms and claimed a great many sheep and cattle, horses, guns and wagons.
At that time, the Dutch East India Company rule had ended. In 1795, when the British took the Cape, the new rulers had a serious problem on their hands, as the Khoi took their fight deep into the colony. The British tried to lure the Khoi back onto settler farms and servant hood, promising protection and better treatment from the Boer farmers, but the Khoi wanted their freedom.
The Khoi were weary of war and many of their captains and chiefs had been killed. The Governor General, Janssens, promised to protect the Khoi, but instructed them to return to farms and work as servants to the colonists.
However, many Khoi refused to meet the Dutch and remained with the Xhosa. In fact, many from the Stuurman group did not go back to the farms but went to live at the Bethelsdorp Mission Station, near Algoa Bay. After the death of his brother Klaas, David assumed leadership of the Khoi.
However, the surrounding farmers felt threatened by the presence of the Stuurman clan and constantly complained that the Khoi, there, were in alliance with the Xhosa and were sheltering bandits, runaway servants and boosdoenders (evildoers).
Eventually, after Stuurman had refused to give up two Khoi who had deserted Boer farmers, and also refused to appear before Landrost Cuyler in connection with the issue, the authorities bore down on the settlement, bound many of those into service, confiscated land and livestock, arrested David and three others and transported them to Cape Town.
Chief (Kaptein) Stuurman had an additional grievance over which he wrestled with the authorities headed by Lord Caledon. This was the increasing recruitment of young Khoi men into military service. In 1808, antagonisms flared at Chief Stuurman’s village, an outstation of Bethelsdorp, near the Gamtoos River. The landdrost (magistrate) complained that Stuurman declined to fetch his staff of office due to differences with a recruiting officer.
His “crime” recorded on his return from prison was “Suspicious conduct, living in a kraal near the boundaries of the colony”. Without the benefit of a trial, Stuurman was sent to Robben Island. In December 1809, Stuurman and others escaped, probably using whaling boats to reach the mainland. Most of them were recaptured, but Stuurman made his way back to the Eastern Cape.
Cuyler attempted to entice Stuurman away from the Xhosa, promising him grazing, cattle and a peaceful life near Cape Town. Stuurman refused several offers, asking that his wives and children – who were being held in Cape Town – be sent to live with him among the Xhosa.
In 1811 it was reported that Stuurman was seen participating in a cattle raiding party near the Gamtoos River. From this, it was inferred that Stuurman had a hand in other “crimes” in the area. Landdrost Stockenstrom, of Graaff-Reinet, described him as “an enemy more dangerous than the Kaffirs.” Indeed, Stuurman had become a formidable opponent and despite huge military efforts, which dislodged many Xhosas, Stuurman and his troops remained at large until 1819 when he was captured again and put to hard labour on Robben Island.
In the late 1820s, a convict named Johan Smit overpowered and disarmed a sentry on Robben Island. He freed others who gained access to the armoury. In the confusion, several soldiers were injured and one killed. Whaling boats owned by John Murray were seized and a group of about 30 prisoners made their way to the mainland in three boats.
The Xhosa prophet, Makana, was in one boat, which capsized in the surf off Blouberg. Many, including Makana (Nxele), drowned. Of the prisoners 14 drowned, 12 were recaptured (including Stuurman), two killed by commandos and three made good their escape.
As Stuurman had saved the life of Murray’s overseer, John Bryant, Murray gave instructions for Stuurman not to be harmed. He was sent back to Robben Island for the third time to await transportation to New South Wales, Australia.
In April 1823, the convict ship, Brampton, reached Sydney. Among the convicts on board were Stuurman and 11 other South Africans, including another Khoi, Jantjie Piet.
His wife drew up a petition to Queen Victoria of Britain for his release, but to no avail.
After six years in compulsory government employ, Stuurman was given permission to work for wages for himself. On 22 February 1830, Stuurman died in the General Hospital in Sydney.