Muslims living in the Cape were granted religious freedom by July 1804 as Dutch authorities attempted to enlist their support in the face of a looming British invasion. Muslims had thus far been restricted from practicing or propagating their religion in public. Governor of the Cape J.W Janssens and Commissioner General of the Cape Colony Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist published Ordinance 50 which declared equal legal protection to all religious societies. By 1805, Muslims living in the city, particularly those residing in the Bokaap area had been allocated a piece of land – the Tana Baru Cemetery – for burial purposes. The "Tana Baru" (meaning New Ground) was situated at the top end of Longmarket Street in Cape Town.
In 1882 a severe smallpox epidemic broke out in Cape Town and the municipality resolved to close to inner city cemeteries. Subsequent to the outbreak, in 1886, the Tana Baru cemetery was closed under the Public Health Act of 1883. This left the Muslim community with no alternative burial ground, but also the closure of the cemetery prevented access to sacred shrines within the burial grounds. The Act also disallowed the Muslim rite of carrying the dead in wrapped shawls to the burial grounds. On the 15th January 1886 the cemetery was officially closed despite strong protests from the Muslim community.
On 17 January 1886, the Muslim community revolted against the closure of the Tana Baru cemetery by burying a child at the cemetery. About 3,000 Muslims followed the funeral procession with the police keeping a close watch on the procession. After the burial 12 policemen attempted to take names of perceived offenders were pelted with stones forcing them to abandon the area. For three days Cape Town was locked in great tension. Subsequent to the revolt, the government arrested 13 people perceived to be ring leaders and sentenced them to the Roeland Street prison. Amongst those arrested was Abdol Burns, a cabdriver of partly Scots descent, who had been the spokesmen for the Muslims by courageously confronting the authorities.
In 1920 The Moslem Cemetery Board fenced the Tana Baru marking a demarcation of the entire area including the private plots that were once regarded as a Muslim burial ground. The cemetery uprising was probably the most significant expression of civil disobedience of the Cape Muslim community of the nineteenth century.
In an attempt to preserve the heritage of the Tana Baru uprising and its scared burial space, a Committee for the Preservation of the Tana Baru was formed in the early eighties and in 1998 the Tana Baru Trust was formed. The uprising has continued to form an important part of the heritage of Cape Town’s Muslim community.
17 January 2011 marked 125 years since the uprising.
• P, Martin, (1995), Living faiths in South Africa, (Cape Town), p. 130.
• Mountain A, (2004), An unsung heritage: perspectives on slavery, (Cape Town), p.94
• Anon, Cape Muslim Revolt in 1886, from Cape-Slavery- Heritage, [online], Available at https://cape-slavery-heritage.iblog.co.za [Accessed: 25 January 2011]
• Anon, THE TANA BARU TRUST from the Tana Baru Trust, [online], Available at www.tanabaru.co.za [Accessed: 25 January 2011]
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