AL-AMEEN KAFAAR, a seventh generation descendant of Omar of Ambon, tells the story of how his progenitor had been traced, and remembered, 251 years after his banishment, in chains, to the Cape.
‘We inherit from our ancestors gifts so often taken for granted. Each of us contains within us this inheritance of soul. We are links between the ages, containing past and present expectations, sacred memories and future promise.’
I always valued these words by writer and academic Edward Sellner. But it had special meaning on February 4, 2023, when Abdud Dayaan Petersen, chairperson of the Cape Family Research Forum, showed me the gravestone of Omar of Ambon, my forebear of whom I am the seventh generation, in the oldest Muslim cemetery in South Africa, the Tana Baru, in Cape Town. For nearly two decades information about him eluded us. And to have stood at his grave was a rewardingly indescribable feeling.
On September 24, 2023 the Tana Baru Trust unveiled a plaque at the gravestone, or messang, of Omar of Ambon, or Omar Saval, as he was known by the time of his death. For more than 15 years we as a family tried to find out who Omar Saval, listed along Emile, on the death notice of Savahl Omar as his parents, had been. It was like repeatedly walking into a dead-end street; like chasing a ghost. Until we received help from Abdud Dayaan Petersen whose deductive research led to the discovery that Omar Savahl had been Omar of Ambon.
Starting at the premise of his name, an Arabic name, that implied he had been a Vrye Zwarte or Free Black, as opposed to those enslaved who had to use names given to them by their enslavers, Abdud Dayaan examined all the list of Free Blacks documented by the Dutch. The only Omar featured in all the lists of Vrye Zwartes was Omar of Ambon. Two other documents proved compelling enough for Omar of Ambon to be the father of Savahl Omar. One is a document in which his one son, Raban, is identified as the son of Omar of Ambon. The other document links Raban and Savahl Omar as brothers.
The location of the grave of Omar of Ambon came as a complete surprise and again it was the indefatigable research of Abdud Dayaan that led to its discovery. Being familiar with the Tana Baru and the background of many of its inhabitants, the location of their graves, history of the site and how it expanded, Abdud Dayaan, after discovering who Omar of Ambon had been, recollected the inscription on a mesang or tombstone in the oldest part of the yard, next to tomb of Tuan Said Alawie, and metres away from his contemporaries ,Tuan Guru and Paay Schaapie.
Based on his extensive knowledge of early Muslims and families at the Cape, his knowledge of Arabic and the Javanese spoken at that time (this enables him not to only read the inscriptions on gravestones but also to grasp the tradition and culture of inscriptions on mesangs), and based on the name ‘Omar’ written as the occupant of the grave, Abdud Dayaan was able to conclude that the grave would be that of Omar of Ambon.
The Tana Baru Trust, based on the research presented by Abdud Dayaan, concurred the grave would be of Omar of Ambon. The Trust commissioned the erection of a plaque at the grave which reads: ‘Omar of Ambon, or ‘Omar Saval’ as he was known at the time of his death, was banished by the Dutch for ten years to the Cape Colony in 1772 after his sentence on 25 September the same year’.
Ambon is an island in the Moluccan archipelago located to the east of the islands of Sumatra and Java. As the most important port in the clove trade in the 17th century, Ambon was known as the ‘Queen of the East’ and valued by Dutch not just for commercial purposes but also for maritime importance.
Omar of Ambon’s banishment preceded the Nuku Rebellion, an anti-colonial movement that engulfed large parts of Maluku Islands between 1780 and 1810 and was initiated by the prince and later sultan of Tidore, Nuku Muhammad Amiruddin.
The Dutch allowed him limited movement after his arrival at the Cape. But he was again incarcerated, on Robben Island, in 1786, the reason not known. His imprisonment time was spent with luminaries such as Taun Guru and Paay Schaapie.
He was classified as a Free Black after his release in 1790 and was allowed to keep his original name, unlike those who had no choice but to use the names given to them by those who enslaved them.
Little is known about his life at the Cape from the time of his freedom until his death in 1799.
One significant feature of his life was his title of Moulana. One of his sons signed an official document in the Arabic fashion of ‘Raban ibn Moulana Omar’ (Raban, son of Moulana Omar). This religious title conferred in central Asia on Muslim mystics (Sufis) during the Turkish Caliphate only became widely used in the fifties and onwards in South Africa.
Omar of Ambon was one of, if not the first at the Cape, to have had the title of Moulana. Omar of Ambon was the progenitor of the Savahl, Kafaar and Manan families and their descendants who are to be found across South Africa.’
The start of the journey to trace my ancestor
My interest in my family history started as a child with my paternal grandfather, Abdol Receit (a 20th century English official’s spelling of Abdurashied) Kafaar who told me about his father, Abdul Al, his mother Gayratie (nee Sadan) and his childhood in Uitenhage. This he did during the last days of his life, as a widower, while confined to a bed in his sunny garden cottage in van Huysteen Avenue Worcester, at the back of the house of my uncle, Moegamat Kafaar.
For years that information laid dormant. There were several reasons for that. Firstly, communication was not as advanced as 20 years ago before the explosion of digital communication. Secondly, the extended bond within my family was very strong, to the degree that interaction with cousins and second cousins, all 209, was frequent and often, until today.
Being familial-tight and bond-keeping created a lack of desire, a rather insular view, to find out about anyone outside that bond, even if we shared a surname. It was not that we were unaware of others. We met them when one would occasionally visit my grandfather or when we saw their listings in telephone directories of other cities and towns. It was during my first years of marriage, which coincided with the advent of the internet, that I started to develop a curiosity, incubated by my wife Razia, an excellent researcher with an insatiable inquisitiveness. The departure point was oral history.
One repeated anecdote among my family was that we are related to the Savahls, a family with a diasporic print just like ours. The first clue that led us to unraveling our early origins at the Cape came through an archival document my wife came across on the internet in which one Kafahr Savahl was linked to a property in Campground Road, Claremont. By then our bond and links with the ‘distant’ Kafaars had become much closer. Through joint research with Zuhayr Kafaar, the grandson of my grandfather’s second cousin, we discovered Kafahr Savahl’s father had been one named Savahl Omar.
The names of Sawal (sic) and one of his wives Salea (it appears he had two, the other one being Sophia of Tulbagh) appeared in the Uitenhage Slave Register of July 3, 1816. Sawal is listed as about 23-years-old, born at the Cape, and occupation ‘taylor’ (sic) and Salea, a 21-year-old ‘housemaid’ who was born at the Cape. Their names appeared along with Mandoor, a ‘houseboy’ approximately 35-years-old whose origin had been Java, and Louisa, a ‘housemaid’ approximately 30-years-old and who had been born at the Cape. They were registered as the ‘property’ of Petrus Johannes Heugh.
The Heughs was a family of businessmen and women. Antonio Chiappini, after whom Chiappini Street in Cape Town had been named, was a brother-in-law of Heugh. Heugh was a carpet bagger who, together with fellow English hustler William Fleming, sought their fortune in the eastern frontier of the colony. They had businesses in Uitenhage, Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha), Cradock, Grahamstown and Graaff-Reinet.
The slave lodge that Heugh owned at 166 Caledon Street, Uitenhage, still exists and is currently used as a hairdresser and a sports bar.
One academic paper surmised Savahl Omar had been involved in the Caledon Street mosque, Masjid Masjidul-Qudama, in Uitenhage. Masjidul-Qudama is the fourth oldest masjid in South Africa. It was the first masjid to be built on a site officially dedicated as a place of worship for Muslims and designed as a free-standing building where prayer would be performed. It was also the first in the country with a minaret.
Savahl Omar died about March 9, 1876, or 12 Safar 1293, in Jeddah, Arabia, either on his way to or back from hajj; cause of death unknown. His age, written on his death notice, had been 82 years, two months and 28 days. If correct, his birth date would have been December 12, 1794, or 19 Jamad-ul-Awwal 1209. His children were Kafahr, Tiffy, Galiema, Gamila, Mateta, Hadji, Sabria. His condition in life was ‘Mohamadan priest’. He left moveable and immovable property. Savahl’s death notice gives his father as Omar Savahl, and his mother as Emilie. Then, that was the only information we had about his parents.
According to the Uitenhage slave register of April 17, 1823, a child named May was registered in Uitenhage as the ‘property’ of Petrus Heugh. May’s mother’s name, according to the register, was Satea (sic). May had been one of ‘Sawal’s’ sons, namely Abdul Ghaffar, distorted as Kafahr.
The 1823 the Uitenhage slave register gave May’s birthday as March 5, 1823. Both Kafahr Savahl and May would have been about 57-years-old (his death notice states his age as 56) when he died in Cape Town at ‘Abdol Kassie’s’ house, on May 9, 1880; cause of death unknown.
His occupation was omnibus driver, according to his death notice. His wife was Arifia Gabilla, who bore him two sons and five daughters. The sons were Abdol Receit and Abiet. The daughters were Morgamieda, Wasseila, Asma, Moeida, and Rasieda. All seven were majors when he died. But the notice lists four other children: Mogeboa, Omar, Fatima and one that appears to be Aismu.
The names of the last four children were written apart from the others. It is likely that Kafahr Savahl had a second wife who lived in Cape Town and lived at the residence of Abdol Kassie, the place of Kafahr’s death.
Besides being a transporter, Kafahr Savahl also delivered the mail between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. J J Redgrave in his book Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days writes the first passenger conveyance or ‘omnibus from Port Elizabeth was owned by the worthy Japie Kaafaar, who was the driver’. According to Redgrave, ‘Japie used a battle bugle to announce that it was time to leave’. There is a dossier of documents in which his name appeared, ranging from a litigation, his bank account, advertisements for his service, a culpable homicide case in which he was later declared innocent, and his will which indicated that he had been fairly well off at the time his death.
I will be focusing on one Kafahr Savahl’s sons, Abdol Receit, him being the father of my great grandfather. He was born in 1847 after the abolition of slavery and died on June 17, 1897, aged 50, according to his Form of Information of a Death. He was born in Uitenhage and died there. He was a mason and lived in Malay Street, or ‘Slams Street’, before it became known as Durban Street. He was buried in the Malay burial ground in Uitenhage, Jubilee Park. He died of a stomach ailment and exhaustion and was ill for three months. His brother, Abiet Kafaar, was the informant.
Abdol Receit was married to Garia, nee Lilla, who died aged 72, on December 26, 1915, at her residence in Malay Street, Uitenhage; cause of death unknown. He eldest son, Abdul Al, was the executor of her will. Abdul Al was my great grandfather. My grandfather told me he named his youngest son after his father. Abdul Al was a painter and died of a lung disease. He died at his residence in Malay Street.
There is a bit of a twist to his name. His legal name, as it appeared in documents, was Falaal, the distorted version of Fadl, meaning favour, grace, or rewards. The reason for two names is not known. One could be that the official who recorded his name at birth heard it wrong and wrote it as Falaal. Falaal/ Abdul Al had, incidentally or more by design, a cousin also named Abdul Al. He was the son of Abiet Kafaar. The reason for using Falaal for legal purposes instead of Abdul Al could have been to eliminate confusion.
Abdul Al was 62 when he died on September 18, 1928 (as written on his gravestone). His birth-year would have been 1866. My grandfather, ‘Abdol Receit’, was the informer of his death. He was buried in the Malay cemetery in Uitenhage. Abdul Al was married to Gairatie (nee Sadan from Mostert Bay) according to this death notice, issued 17 years after his death. Gairatie was present when he died. The notice gives his date of death as September 18, 1930, at 219 Malay Street, Uitenhage. Ausiti (Abdol Receit) and Kariena (Garia) were his parents.
His children were ‘Abdulkarim’ (a former Imam in Worcester), ‘Galima’ (deceased), ‘Abdurashied’ (my grandfather), ‘Mymona, Aeysha, Ebrahiem, Maariam, Abdurahman and Mogamut Salie’. He left movable property and a share in land in Cuyler Street, Uitenhage. ‘Gairatie, Abdulkarim and Abdurashied Kafaar’ were his executrix and executors. All his children were inheritors.
My grandfather was Abdol Receit (Abdurashied) Kafaar and my grandmother Gava (nee Jaylarnie). There children were Moosa, Fatima, Achmat, Moegamat, Galiema and Abdul Al. My grandfather was a tailor, born in Uitenhage. My grandmother was born in Port Elizabeth. My dad, Achmat, was the second eldest son of Abdol Receit. My mom was born Marjorie Pietersen, later known as Magmoeda Kafaar. I had two siblings, Ashraf and my late sister Zaytoon.