Rediscovering St Helena: A gathering of Saints in Cape Town
St Helenians – or Saints – came to South Africa after the abolition of slavery, seeking employment opportunities and a different quality of life. Initially of European, African and Asian descent, when they landed here they integrated wholeheartedly into all South African populations, including African and European, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian, and also with the local and newly freed and settled slaves. Today, St Helena descendants can be found across the span of people that make up South Africa.
Brenton Maart of the Archival Platform was at the celebration, and spoke to a number of people about their ancestral links to the island. This is what they said.
My ancestors, my great-grandparents and even one grandmother, were born on the island and came to South Africa back in the 1870s to 1890s. When I was a kid, the family always talked about St Helena, and none of them – my parents nor my grandparents that I’d been closest to – had ever been to the island. As I got older I became more interested in knowing what the family history was, and the background to it. So I decided that one day when I retire I’d go to the island. In 2001 I was able to do that. During that time I spent most of my days down in the archive digging through the records that they’d accumulated from the various churches, and finding the family links… dates of birth and death, parents’ names, and so on. Birth records were only started in 1853, so I was depending on church records for baptisms. I was able to trace some ancestors back to the 1750s… But more of the family stories have to do with South Africa.
I think Merle [Martin] has done a tremendous job thus far. I think it needs to go forward even more by being organised into some sort of society or association that’s going to have a proper format and, with some sort of negotiating power, start pulling together the threads of the St Helena heritage.
My mother was St Helenian. She was born on the island [and came to South Africa at the age of 19 and has] always kept her roots alive, always. As long as I can remember [my Mom] and her friends would get together and they would refer to St Helena as home. Even till the day she died, it was home. That I find quite fascinating. Although she has a family here – she married a South African, she has her children here – St Helena was always home. That for me is very telling.
She went back to the island after 33 years, for the first time. I was probably about 16 years old, and my sister and I had the privilege of going with her. That stuck with me. I visited the island again in 2004 [and] actually felt so at home; in fact someone said to me at the time that it looked as if I belonged. People are friendly; its virtually crime free… It was over the festive season, so I didn’t have an opportunity to go into the archives. But I have someone looking into [my family history] at the moment, someone on the island. I think, perhaps yes, there is place for it … to investigate bigger issues…
I am here just to find out about what this event is for. I am hanging around, checking out what people are saying about the island, or how they are linked.
My grandmother arrived in Cape Town at the age of 18, and just never went back. She passed away in May 2004. And because she came here when she was so young, I only know her life [from] when she was here.
I didn’t ask her much about the island; I asked her about her life while she was here. I think it’s because you are only interested in your grandmother from when she was your grandmother… I think that’s a common thing here, in Cape Town. I don’t know if it’s a general thing in South Africa, [but] not a lot of people talk about their roots and where they came from… I can only tell you that if it wasn’t instilled in you, and you didn’t grow up with it, and there wasn’t a lot of talking about it in your presence, maybe that’s why we don’t ask questions. You know the very old, old, old school didn’t even like you talking about their age. “But granny, how old are you?” They don’t even like that kind of question, so you wouldn’t go any further and ask: “So why did you come here?”
I think if more people spoke about it, they would probably feel more secure in their roots, and where they come from, and I think they would get a greater sense of belonging, knowing where you fit in … We’ll probably find, if we talked more, that we are all interlinked, somehow…
Mustapha Yusuf Solomon
I was born in the Cape. My ancestors, [my grandmother and my] great-grandmother, came from the island of St Helena. She’s buried in Steenberg’s Cove, what today they call St Helena Bay. The old graveyard is still there. My great-grandmother is buried in that grave, right in front of the front door of her old house. And I am fighting to try and rebuild that graveyard. I want to sort the whole graveyard. I’ve got pictures here only of two graves that’s still there. The rest is completely wrecked. I’m asking where can I go for help, so that we can recover the grave, put a fence around it and try and rebuild, put a remembrance board up. That is a history for the young generation… Then they can uphold the Saints, and the people of the island of St Helena.
My dad always made reference to the St Helena ancestors, and that the Joshuas are from there, but we’ve never known how we’re connected to the island. So it’s really just to be able to leave behind, for the other generations, a heritage that they won’t have to look up, or go to the archives to find. That they actually have something on-line, where they can just click a button and see the Joshua heritage. We already have the family tree online. We’re having a Joshua reunion on Saturday, our first one, and hopefully we will be able to fill in the blanks and expand the tree that we have already.
I don’t think everyone’s interested [in pursuing their heritage research]. For some people it’s not a priority, but also I think our ancestors were not as open about a lot of the information around their roots. People are a lot more open today, and the information is a lot more accessible. Whereas those years you were told a story and you believed it. But because information is so readily available now, it’s easy to confirm whether the information is accurate.
I believe that the Joshua family is now really an international family. With the press of a button you can see, for example on social networking sites, a Joshua in America, a Joshua in Australia ... I think it would be great for someone who is a Joshua to be able to go onto the internet, put in their surname, and they can see their lineage from as far back as when that family was first established. It gives you a sense of identity; it broadens your world; you begin to see yourself as not just a Capetonian or a South African; you realise that you are a mixture of cultures, nationalities, etc. So I think it adds a new dimension to who you are, as a person.
As a mixed race there is a certain grey area in terms of “What is our culture? Who are we?” And so for me, as a coloured young woman wanting to know where I come from, there is an aspect of “Wow! I’m not just coloured.” There are facts to prove that I am from St Helena and [from] the various other cultures that make up who I am. And so now there is a definition for who I am. I’m not just “mixed”. [I] can now say, “This is who I am, and this is where I come from.” And not always be just a coloured, from somewhere in the middle, “mixed”. What this does is it creates some kind of clarity.
The South African St Helenian Heritage Association
The South African St Helenian Heritage Association is an ancestral heritage awareness project. Its objectives are to:
- Research the untold history of the link between St Helena and South Africa.
- Collate a register and database of people with St Helena ancestry.
- Construct a website in order to share its research internationally.
- Identify places with associated oral traditions, including settlements, graves and burial grounds, and to work with government agencies in contributing to heritage resource conservation.
- Collaborate with organisations to commemorate important dates.
- Promote heritage awareness by giving community talks.
- Implement job creation projects through the tourism industry.
Brenton Maart is an Archival Platform correspondent.