The event was the unveiling of a headstone for Stephanus Ramsden, a coloured soldier serving in the 1st Namaqualand Border Scouts (NBS) on the side of the British during the Boer War (a.k.a. the South African War) of 1899 to 1902. Ramsden was killed while on a mission for the NBS in 1902, and the headstone was laid in commemoration on the site of the original grave.
Von Zeil, who as part of his research on the 1902 siege of Okiep, helped locate the grave, then secured funding for the headstone and – cautiously navigating sensitive local politics – got disparate sections of the Namaqualand community together to honour the fallen soldier. Family members, schoolchildren and local council members were among those at the graveside.
For Von Zeil, the gathering was the highlight of his scholarly delving into the area's history. He ascribes this "passion" to his maternal grandfather who, aged 16, had the distinction of picking up the first "official" diamond in Port Nolloth.
"As a young child, I spent a lot of time with him in the bundus of Namaqualand, and he instilled in me a love for the region, its nature, its history and its people," he recalls.
Von Zeil's first "real" research project came along in standard eight, but it was while doing a major in history at UCT that the bug truly bit. This was when he was asked to edit a 50-page handwritten diary by one Jane Henwood.
This document, Von Zeil says, gave a women's perspective on the siege of Okiep, whose copper mines was one of the things General Jan Smuts was after when he ordered his forces into the northern Cape in 1901. Lieutenant-Colonel W Shelton, dispatched by Sir Alfred Milner to protect the region, recruited local coloured and white men from the mines to supplement his meagre troops, many eventually serving in the NBS.
Under siege for a month from April to May 1902, Okiep became the only town in Namaqualand not to surrender to the Boers.
The unveiling of the headstone in 2001 was an important event for Namaqualand, bringing together as it did a divided community, says Von Zeil. "One of the comments made to me by both the coloured and white people was from a headmaster, who told me, 'You've dropped a pebble in a pool of water and you've created a positive ripple'," he reports.
As part of his research – he's pored over materials in museums, archives and homes across South Africa and in London – Von Zeil has begun to collect medals awarded by the Cape Copper Company to the coloured soldiers who helped protect Okiep (the British conferred war medals on white soldiers only).
In addition to contributing in a variety of ways to numerous projects, books and articles, he also offers regular presentations to schools and other groups in Namaqualand and elsewhere.
"I want to get people excited about their own history," he notes of his regular visits to the region. "And, I like to think of it as my way of putting something back into the community."
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