The seven Zulu prisoners who died at St Helena

Of the 25 Zulu leaders who were imprisoned at St Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean, from 1907 to 1910, 7 died on that island. There are no graves to show. Little is known about them. I have begun doing some research . . . Published in The Sentinel – 16 April 2020...

Mr Cyril ‘Ferdie’ Gunnell and Mrs Barbara B. George have written a number of articles in this newspaper (The Sentinel) about the 25 Zulu prisoners who were exiled here at St Helena from 1907 to 1910. It is probably because of those articles that today most islanders know that out of that group of 25 prisoners, seven of them died here on the island. This article is about those seven prisoners: their names and some other related information.

Out of all groups of prisoners held at St Helena in the past, this was the most unlucky group; it was tough for them both in South Africa and here at St Helena.

In one of his books the South African historian Professor Jeff Guy quotes the Durban’s newspaper called The Natal Mercury as it reported that on June 1, 1907, when the prisoners left South Africa for St Helena, they were  “. . . Dressed in drab, ill fitting gaol clothes, liberally besprinkled with broad arrows, and with numbers and sentences imprinted on their sleeves”. The report continued informing that “The majority of the prisoners were middle-aged or eldery men . . . One man, whether from fright or illness it was impossible to say, collapsed almost immediately he got outside the gaol, and had to be supported by two of his comrades.” That report by the Durban newspaper was echoed by the island’s newspaper. The St Helena Guardian of June 13, 1907, reported that when the prisoners arrived at St Helena and disembarked from the ship, “they seemed in a half-starved condition and could hardly walk.”

It did not take long for the prisoners to start dying. The first death struck just eight months and eleven days after the prisoners’ arrival. During the following three and a half years that the prisoners spent on the island, seven of them died: two in 1908, another two in 1909 and, three in 1910.

Deaths in 1908

According to correspondence between St Helena and Natal, Hlangakeza (Thobazi) was the first to die on Feb. 22. But as per death records housed in the island’s archives (entry number 5718), Hlangakeza died of natural causes on Feb. 20, aged 40. The second death followed four months later. Lunyana died on 8 July. According to entry number 5731 in death records, he died of a heart disease, aged 70.

Deaths in 1909

In 1909 two prisoners died nine and a half months apart: Fokoti on March 9 and Ndhlekeza (Mdlekazi) on Dec. 26. In the register of deaths, entry number 5776, Ndhlekeza died of cerebral haemorrhage, aged 45.

Deaths in 1910

On May 13, 1910, before deaths occurred during that year, St Helena wrote and updated Natal on health conditions of Macwaneka, Mcondo and Ntelezi. The letter reported that Macwaneka was hospitalised, dangerously ill and his death imminent. Indeed, Macwaneka died just thirteen days after that letter was sent to Natal. Mcondo was reported to be practically insane, that even during his calm moments he could not be understood when talking. Mcondo died four months nine days after the letter to Natal. It seems Ntelezi had already been sick for some time because the letter was reporting that his illness had worsened. Ntelezi succumbed to death just 28 days before the prisoners’ repatriation. Like the rest, he too died having not known that they were about to be pardoned and returned home. According to correspondence located in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository in South Africa; Macwaneka (Magcwaneka) died on May 26, Mcondo on Sept. 22, and then Ntelezi on Nov. 1. To confirm these dates and get information on what were the prisoners’ ages and specific causes of deaths, further research still requires to be done at the island’s archives.

High Knoll Fort, St Helena Island.

The exit of prisoners from St Helena was abrupt and hurried. The island was least expecting it when a telegraphic despatch dated Nov. 22, 1910, arrived and informed that as a special act of clemency to mark the establishment of the Union of South Africa, the remainder of the prisoners’ sentences were remitted. In a week’s time, on Nov. 29, St Helena put the prisoners in the mail-steamer that returned them home.

Until further evidence emerges, it seems it was only at that point that St Helena revealed the deaths of seven prisoners. When on Nov. 25 the island’s Governor & Commander-in-Chief Henry Lionel Gallwey wrote to the Governor-General of South Africa, Viscount Gladstone; he absolved the island stating that “the cause of death in each case was organic, in no case was the illness contracted in St Helena.”

The repatriated eighteen prisoners arrived back in South Africa on Dec. 11, 1910. Two of them were so critically ill they were carried from the ship on stretchers. Dr John Langalibalele Dube, the founder and editor of Natal’s isiZulu newspaper called Ilanga laseNatali, who later in 1912 famously became the first president of the political organisation that is today known as the African National Congress; he remarked that on their return from St Helena, the prisoners looked very wasted and old and could not even be recognized, that “in fact they no longer looked like chiefs at all, but looked like commoners”.

See page 13, here.


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