Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

Self-Empowerment: Cape Muslim Cemetery Riots (1875 – )

Posted by tahirfarrath on February 16, 2010

(History of Muslims in South Africa)

1875 – Muslim Population Statistics

The 1875 census reported:

13 930 Muslims [10 817 `Malay’] in the Colony; [8 948 Muslims in Cape Town]. ??

Distribution of Muslims at the Cape [1875]

Place: Total / Muslims

Cape Town: 17 004 / 6 772

Green Point: 796 / 61

Papendorp: 624 / 108

Rondebosch: 1 019 / 180

Newlands: 2 363 / 775

Wynberg: 1 308 / 310

Klassenbosch: 612 / 157

Simonstown: 1 002 / 292

Noordhcek: 432 / 57

1875- Abdol Burns and the cemetery dispute

Abdol Burns an educated man, a superb letter writer and taxi driver by profession, was a member of the Auwal Masjid in Cape Town. He was at the same time an astute `politician’ and negotiator and played an important role on behalf of the Cape Muslims in their dispute with the authorities on the cemetery issue from 1875 to 1886.

Burns was indefatigable in his efforts to right what he conceived to be an injustice inflicted upon the Cape Muslim community by the authorities when the Government policy was implemented to close the urban cemeteries – including Tana Baru – “for health reasons”.

As early as 1875 he had indicated to the authorities that to the Cape Muslims “their religion was superior to the law” and would resist Section 65 of the Public Health Act No 4 of 1883. He worked enthusiastically for ten long years in this regard to avoid open confrontation with the authorities. The promulgation of the Act left Abdol Burns no alternative but to organise protest meetings and solidify Muslim unity on this issue. This he achieved through the establishment of theMalay Cemetery Committee on which he served as the secretary, under the chairmanship of Imam Gamja [Hamzah] of the Auwal Masjid, and later under Imam Shahibo of the Jamia Masjid.

With the Cape Government implementing the Cemetery Bill, Friday, January 15, 1886 was set as the final day for burials in the municipal areas of Cape Town. Thereafter the dead were to be interred at the Maitland Cemetery which was administered by the Maitland Cemetery Board. There were no Muslim representatives on this Board – a fact which Abdol Burns came to criticise with great bitterness, pointing out that the Cape Muslims constituted one-third of the total population of Cape Town but had no representatives on this important Board.

On June 12, 1885 Abdol Burns chaired a historic protest meeting in the Council Chamber of the Town House which was attended by about 500 Muslims. The meeting appointed Imam Gamja, Imam Shahibo, Imam Abdol Kariem and others, with full powers to act on behalf of the Cape Muslims on the cemetery issue. This was a great event in the history of the Cape for it was the first time that a community group was allowed the privilege of using the Council Chamber of the Town House for a communal meeting.

When the Maitland Cemetery Board refused to grant Muslims any concess ions, Abdol Burns arranged an interview with the Colonial Secretary on November 13, 1885 to intervene on their behalf, requesting for an extension to the closing date of the cemeteries. This was also refused. On January 08, 1886 Muslims elected a delegation at the Auwal Masjid to see the Premier regarding the issue.

On the evening of January 15, 1886, the Cape Muslims were left without a burial ground, their existing cemeteries having been officially closed by a Government decree. On January 17, 1886 a child of a Muslim fisherman, Amaldien [`Amal al-Din]Rhode , died. More than three thousand Muslims walked to the Tana Baru cemetery and buried the child. The twelve policemen who were sent on duty to take down the names of the offenders were pelted with stones and were forced to flee. Cape Town had never experienced anything like this. A tense atmosphere, in anticipation of rioting, prevailed.

On January 20, 1886 the authorities stationed the Corps of Volunteers at Green Point. Ten Muslim leaders were arrested and charged with contravening Section 65 of the Public Health Act No 4 of 1886, and for causing a riot. The arrest did not curb the defiance of the Cape Muslims for they buried another Muslim at Tana Baru. On January 21, 1886 Abdol Burns was arrested, charged for throwing stones and striking a policeman. He was immediately released on bail. Burns approached the British commanding officer, General D’Ogley, stationed at the Cape to intervene on behalf of the Muslims but the request was refused. Burns was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour and a fine of ten pounds sterling.

Meanwhile, the Muslims were still without a cemetery. The Malay Cemetery Committee , founded and excellently organised by Abdol Burns for ten years, was dissolved. A Muslim Cemetery Board with Hadjie Ozier Alie [Haji `Uzayr `AIi] as secretary was established, and purchased a burial ground at Observatory, from the authorities. Abdol Burns had previously refused this ground and it was probably because of this that he did not become a member of the Muslim Cemetery Board.


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