/ 12 April 2019

Robben Island bones require a deeper dig

The Moturu kramat is a sacred site for Muslims on Robben Island
The Moturu kramat is a sacred site for Muslims on Robben Island, built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu. (Gallo Images / The Times / Anton Scholt)

An archaeological find on Robben Island could unveil long-lost secrets of the former prison’s colonial past.

The Robben Island Museum has put out a call for an excavation to shed more light on human remains found on the grounds of the former apartheid-era prison.

“These remains were discovered at the maximum security prison precinct, next to the kramat [a shrine to Muslim holy men],” the museum said in a statement.

“The preliminary assessment found that the human remains belonged to multiple individuals or at least two human beings as there were three femoral bones discovered on the scene.”

It said there is no decisive evidence as to whom the remains belong to.

“Preliminary inspection of the exposed bones by specialists from these competent bodies suggests that the bones were buried more than 50 years ago,” the statement said.

The island was declared a prison by the apartheid government in 1959, with the first prisoners being sentenced to the prison in 1961 after the Sharpeville massacre and subsequent protests.

Cape Town history and cultural activist Patric Tariq Mellet says Robben Island has a more than 500-year history as a trading post, a mail collection post, a leper colony and a place for the mentally ill. The island had also been used to house banished religious leaders.

The Moturu kramat “is a sacred site for Muslims on Robben Island, built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu … who was exiled to the island in the mid-1740s”, according to Cape Town Heritage.

“One can see how many possibilities exist as to whose human remains these may be after half a millennium of recorded history. Even accurate dating of the remains will, unfortunately, leave questions unanswered. There are likely to be human remains deposits all over the island,” Mellet said.

“By the time Jan van Riebeeck had come to the Cape [in 1652], 230 years of foreign engagement with Robben Island had already taken place, including short settlement periods of the Portuguese; a French seal and whaling factory; a refuge for English settler convicts who had fled the mainland; and banishment for Dutch mutineers,” Mellet explained.

The museum said a full-scale archaeological survey could possibly uncover more secrets.

“Robben Island Museum has a multi-layered history that dates back as far as the 1400s. Essentially, what this means is that there are undocumented and documented human remains on the island cross-cutting these different historical layers, hence the need to conduct an archaeological survey on the island to establish whether there are more exposed/at-risk human remains,” the statement read.

But Mellet warned that too many sites on the island could have been compromised by decades of destructive development and construction.

He also did not close the door to suggestions that the remains could be those of political prisoners.

“I would not quickly close the criminal forensic cold-case investigation without first calling in the National Prosecuting Authority’s missing persons task team under Madeleine Fullard. Too much terrible human rights abuses took place in the 1960s under the apartheid police state to leave this site to just the regular forensic services,” he said.