More than just a plucky lad

2008-04-25 00:00

The town of Fraserburgh sits on the shoulder of Scotland that juts out into the North Sea, an area known to the locals as World’s End. It boasts a unique connection to KwaZulu-Natal as it was here in 1815 that Charles Rawden Maclean was born. If that name doesn’t ring bells it’s because he is better known, erroneously as it turns out, as John Ross.

In Durban there is a statue of the young Ross in the forecourt of the John Ross building on Margaret Mncadi Avenue (Victoria Embankment). A memorial plaque at the Old Fort relates how, in 1827, the 15-year-old Ross, “braving the perils of an unexplored land inhabited by an unknown people and abounding in wild animals, walked with great courage from Port Natal to Delagoa Bay and back (a distance of 600 miles) in order to obtain medicines and other necessaries for the handful of pioneers at the Bay of Natal”.

But there is more to Ross than his legendary journey, as you will find out if you visit the new “John Ross” exhibit at the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre which finds its origins in Britain’s commemoration of the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807.

“Prior to 2008 the ‘John Ross’ Fraserburgh heritage exhibit focused mainly on the ‘young Ross’ story and his experiences living among the Zulu people,” says Malcolm McKillop, project co-ordinator at the centre. “There was little reference to the ‘adult Maclean’ and his lifelong devotion to emancipation, and his humanitarian efforts in the West Indies, and in England, where the Victorian London press portrayed him as a ‘Liberty’ man.

“The new, enlarged ‘Ross’ display now highlights the ‘forgotten’ story of Maclean’s adult life. Visitors can now appreciate more easily why Maclean had strong feelings of injustice for the Zulu people.”

The “forgotten” story of Maclean was brought to light by South African writer and academic Stephen Gray who first encountered Ross/Maclean via a friend who was involved with the 1987 SABC production The John Ross Story — An African Adventure. “I went along to Eshowe to watch the filming,” recalls Gray, whose subsequent research found the SABC version of the story “rather fanciful and incorrect”. Gray was invited to write an epilogue to the series “and so I was able to bring it down to the actual facts”.

Gray’s novel John Ross: The True Story presented a more accurate version of Ross/Maclean’s life but then Gray took his research further, visiting the places with which Maclean was associated, including Fraserburgh, Saint Lucia in the West Indies and his final resting place in Southampton cemetery. The result was his definitive book, The Natal Papers of “John Ross”, which collates the articles written by Maclean for The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle in the 1850s and for which Gray provided a biographical introduction and an extensive commentary.

Gray’s book is the acknowledged source for the information contained in the Fraserburgh exhibit which boasts another link to this province. While setting up the exhibit McKillop contacted Jenny Hawke, curator of the Zululand Historical Museum in Eshowe, for assistance in providing authentic artefacts for the exhibit. Hawke and colleague Dennis de Agostini acted as a conduit for the Fraserburgh Heritage Society to purchase Zulu beadwork and ornamental shields made by craft workers in the Eshowe district for sale at the centre while Thomas Fakude from Kwa Bhekitunga in the Nkwalini valley was commissioned to make a set of traditional clothing worn by a Zulu warrior for use in the centre’s “Ross” display.

Hawke and De Agostini travelled to Scotland to attend the official opening of the exhibit on April 1 this year.

The renewed interest in Maclean looks to have a further sequel. When Gray visited Maclean’s grave in Southampton Old Cemetery in the early nineties he found it “covered in lilies of the valley and wild bluebells” but otherwise unmarked. According to McKillop, the Friends of Southampton Old Cemetery, Rotary and the Fraserburgh Heritage Society have now set up a special fund. “We will ensure an appropriate memorial plaque will be placed on the unmarked grave by the end of [the English] summer 2008.”

• The Natal Papers of ‘John Ross’ by Charles Rawden Maclean, edited by Stephen Gray, is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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