Is this the country’s oldest tombstone?

2014-09-23 00:00

A GRAVESTONE which could be South Africa’s oldest has been found in a Durban suburb, triggering a dramatic shipwreck theory.

And the 335-year-old marker states that the apparently English child died on September 24 — a day which would become Heritage Day three centuries later.

Recording the death of Elizabeth Fowke in old English — “borne 1678” — the stone was found in a residential complex in Waterfall.

The date is 150 years before Durban itself was founded, and only 26 years after Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape.

Anne Lok said residents at the Forest Glen complex had been walking on the stone for 20 years, using the smooth side as a paving stone to reach post boxes.

Experts agreed that if a European baby did die in KwaZulu-Natal in 1679 she must have been a shipwreck survivor.

UKZN professor Donal McCracken said the headstone should be investigated and preserved by heritage authorities.

He said it was “conceivable” that the Fowke family were shipwrecked off the Transkei coast, and were walking to the next available port, Lorenco Marques (Maputo), when Elizabeth died. “The fact that the name is English is even more remarkable,” he said.

McCracken said old gravestones were sometimes “thrown away” when English graveyards were cleared and that the Fowkes stone could “equally have been from discarded ship’s ballast … in the 1850s”.

Lok said she noticed the clear inscription when it was removed for landscaping work.

Today, it is sitting in Lok’s garage, having been scrubbed clean of its dirt and weathering stains.

But the grandmother-of-six laid flowers on the headstone yesterday to commemorate the 335th anniversary of the little girl's passing.

The oldest surviving tombstone in Simonstown — home to the country’s oldest cemetery — details the death of Adriaan de Neijs in 1756.

Experts said indigenous South African communities laid stone cairn grave markers, but that none had been dated to the 17th century.

Cathy Salter, curator of the Simonstown Museum, said: “It’s fascinating; a real mystery. It may have been a death at sea and the baby was buried ashore.

Having consulted experts at the University of Cape Town, Salter said: “UCT also felt the tombstone may have been deposited in that area from another site, for use other than as a grave marker.”

South African resident Alan Fowke (55), a possible descendent of Elizabeth’s family, was astonished.

“But my birthday is also September 24. Is this a joke?”

The horse sales agent said his family only came to South Africa in 1966, adding he would try to visit the stone to pay his respects when he next came to Durban.

Ros Devereaux, with the Amafa heritage agency, said the English name “Fowke” was recorded in India in the 1700s, and that it was possible that Fowke family members had passed present-day Durban on journeys between England and India. It was also possible that there had been no death and that the inscription could reflect “practice” on a flagstone by a 17th century stonemason’s apprentice in England.

Anne-Maree Smith, director at the Family History Centre in Hillcrest, said she was concerned that “there is none of the weathering or deterioration one would expect to see in a genuine headstone of the period”.

But, “Given the long sea voyage it is entirely possible that the child died at sea and the memorial was carved here”.

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