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The curious case of the headless statue and a 40-year monument mystery

In 1939, a beautiful but badly mutilated marble statue was discovered in King William's Town.

The figure of a tall woman in a flowing dress, the statue was missing its head, left arm and right hand. And while it was clearly a work of significant skill and artistry, it was not immediately recognised for its great historical significance.

Then, authorities identified the statue as the long-lost Burgersdorp Taalmonument - the very first Dutch language monument erected in South Africa, which is recognised as one of the oldest language monuments in the world.

But how did it end up in King William's Town? Why was it transported over 300km - no small feat over 100 years ago - while authorities claimed it had been destroyed? And how did it remain undiscovered and unrecognised for 40 years?

Celebration and mutilation

Commissioned to celebrate the Dutch (later Afrikaans) language in South Africa, the Eerste Taalmonument was a five-metre marble and granite structure erected in Burgersdorp, 300km north of King William's Town, in 1893.

The monument was mired in controversy from the start: While it was a symbol of pride for Dutch- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, the British saw it as an insult and an affront. Almost immediately after it was erected, it started being vandalised - first an index finger was broken off, then the nose and finally an arm. Finally, on Christmas Night 1901, at the height of the Anglo Boer War between the British Empire and two independent Boer states, the statue was toppled from its plinth.

In the aftermath of the incident, Lord Alfred Milner, then governor of the Cape, ordered the statue to be destroyed. Later, reports quote officials as saying the statue had been "crushed to dust" and the dust "thrown into the sea".

Chance discovery

Except, she wasn't. Almost four decades after being toppled, the once-majestic Taalmonument statue re-surfaced in King William's Town - largely intact.

Sadly, details of where and when the discovery was made, and the exact circumstances surrounding it, have remained largely murky. According to some reports, the statue was discovered abandoned in an unremarkable ditch, while other reports claimed that she was found on a rubbish dump, or discarded in a workyard.

In another account - the mostly likely, perhaps - the monument was unearthed by the Department of Public Works during routine building excavations.

Whatever the circumstances of her recovery, once authorities realised her true identity, plans were immediately made to return her not only to her home town, but to restore her to her original stature.

There was a slight snag, however.

Lady No. 2

Such was the outrage over the Christmas Day destruction of the monument that authorities eventually agreed to replace it. In 1907, an exact replica of the monument was erected on the very spot she originally stood.

What to do with two Eerste Taalmonumente?

Unwilling to remove the 40-year-old replica, but mindful of the historic significance of the original, civic and cultural leaders reached a compromise: The long-lost returning lady would be re-erected - but alongside her replacement.

Thus, the two statues - one still missing her head and arm - now stand side-by-side in Burgersdorp's historic Burger Square.

Just where she was from 1901 until 1939 - and why! - remains a mystery.

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