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History / Page 1

The Beginning

Devil's Peak Canon overlooking the city. © S Corner

By the beginning of the Christian era, human communities had lived in the Cape Peninsula and Western Cape by hunting, fishing and collecting edible plants for many thousands of years. They are the ancestors of the Khoisan peoples of modern times - the Bushmen (San) and the Hottentot (Khoikhoi). The Bushmen were hunter-gatherers while the Hottentot were mainly herders. Both groups were thought to have migrated southward, ahead of the Bantu-speaking peoples whose ancestral home lay well to the north.

In historic times the Bushmen south of the Orange River may never have exceeded twenty thousand. They lived in small, loosely knit patrilineal bands of about 20 to 22 persons. They were highly mobile on account of their dependence on game, and for the same reason widely dispersed territorially. Their political organisation was very rudimentary. Chiefs, about whom little is known, had ritual importance in rain-making and in various other ways, and were respected as the leaders of kin-groups, but had almost no institutionalised authority.

The Hottentot were mainly located along the Orange River and in the coastal belt stretching from Namibia to the Umzimvubu River in the Eastern Cape. It seems that before the arrival of the Dutch, they conducted trade with their Bantu-speaking neighbours in cattle and dagga (marijuana), and to a lesser extent in iron and copper. After the arrival of men from Europe, they traded their cattle for tobacco, and began to act as brokers in developing trade between the Europeans and the Xhosa tribes to the east.

The European advance eventually cost the Hottentot their land, stock, and trading role. Twice defeated in battle and decimated by smallpox in 1713 and 1755, they ultimately lost their identity as a distinct cultural group and intermarried with slaves and others to form the Cape Coloured people. In the middle of the seventeenth century, when Europeans began to settle in the Cape Peninsula, the Bushmen and Hottentot were still in sole occupation of this region.

The 'Ancients'

Nearly all the stories of travel in and around South Africa that have come down to us are about journeys that were made less than five hundred years ago. But these were not the first visits of 'foreigners' to this country, and though scarcely anything is known of earlier travellers, just enough record remains to help us realise that the stories which were never written, or of which the accounts have not been discovered, may have been more interesting than those of which we know.

About 2500 years ago, Pharaoh Necho was ruler of Egypt. He prepared a number of ships and manned them with Phoenician sailors, the most daring and resourceful explorers in the world. They left Egypt, by way of the Red Sea, and sailed to explore the east coast of Africa. With such small ships and with no chart to guide them, they did not venture out of sight of land and landed frequently to collect food and water, and sometimes to plant and harvest crops. They sailed around the Cape where they were most likely to land, and onward up the west coast of Africa.

Three years after their departure they entered the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) and headed back along a well known track to Egypt. This story is told by Herodotus, a famous Greek historian, who lived about 400 BC. After telling this story he adds an interesting remark. On their return they declared that in sailing round Libya they had the sun upon their right hand. This tells us that, as these daring voyagers sailed around the southern coast of Africa, the sun at noon was on their right hand side, and though the thinking men of their own time found this hard to believe, we know that it is highly probable that these sailors were among the earliest visitors to the land we call South Africa.

The Portuguese

From the time of the first recorded discovery of the Cape Of Good Hope by Portugal's Bartholomew Diaz, seafarers looked forward to the sight of Table Mountain, like a gigantic sign of an inn promising hospitality, it could be seen by approaching ships from over 150 km away. It served as an unmistakable beacon and a major landfall on one of the busiest arteries of world commerce. But the sudden knowledge of the Cape was not immediately followed by settlement.

One hundred and sixty years after its discovery in 1488, the Peninsula was still a part of primeval Africa, almost unaffected by the tide of commerce which ebbed and flowed around its southern shores. Outward bound from Europe, the early navigators were too eager to reach the East. Homeward bound, they were too impatient to reap the profits in the European ports. Passing ships would leave postal matter under inscribed stones for other ships to find and carry forward. These so-called post office stones are still found in excavations and there is an interesting collection of them in the South African Museum in the Company's Gardens.

Portuguese sailors encountered such ferocious storms around the Cape Peninsula that they christened it "Cabo Tormentosa "(Bay of Storms). In 1580, Sir Francis Drake sailed around the Cape in The Golden Hind and the ruggedness and breathtaking beauty of the peninsula caused him to write - "This Cape is a most stately thing, and the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the earth". The unsurpassed beauty of Cape Point where the winds have blown relentlessly for generations, marks the meeting place of two great currents, one from the equator (Agulhas Current- the strongest north-south current in the southern hemisphere) and the other from the Antarctic (Benguela Current), causing turbulent seas and monstrous waves.

Antonio de Saldanha was the first European to land in Table Bay. He climbed the mighty mountain in 1503 and named it 'Table Mountain'. The great cross carved by the Portuguese navigators in the rock of Lion's Head is still traceable. Table Bay became known as 'Saldanha' until 1601 when the dutchman van Spilbergen named it 'Table Bay'.

The Dutch

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company, yielding to repeated petitions and recommendations from their ships' officers, at last decided to establish a post at Table Bay. They sent three small ships, the Dromedaris, the Reijger and the Goede Hoop under the command of the 23-year-old Jan Antony van Riebeeck, a ship's surgeon, to establish a stronghold on the shores of Table Bay. Their objective was to grow vegetables, barter for livestock, with the Hottentot tribes, and build a hospital and a sanctuary for the repair of ships. Jan van Riebeeck's first fort, subsequently replaced by the existing Castle of Good Hope, was Cape Town's first building.

The seventeenth century was the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Its merchants were the most successful businessmen in Europe; their Dutch East India Company was the world's greatest trading corporation and had sovereign rights in the East and the Cape of Good Hope, and by mid-century was the dominant European maritime power in southeast Asia. Its fleet, numbering some six thousand ships totalling at least 600 000 tons, was manned by perhaps 48 000 sailors.

The Cape became an outstation of the Dutch East India Company's eastern empire, based in Batavia in Java, and fell directly under the Governor-General of the Indies. From 1672 the Cape had a Governor of its own, but remained under eastern control until the end of the Company period in 1795.

From Table Bay the Cape Peninsula extends southward, a long narrow mass of highlands varying in width from three to seven miles, until it tapers to the high narrow promontory of Cape Point, nearly 48 kilometres away. Only in the neighbourhood of Table Bay and along the eastern flank of the mountains as far as False Bay were there large areas of relatively level lowland favourable to early settlement. The Cape Flats, which links the Peninsula to the mainland of Africa, was then covered by sand dunes and dune vegetation. Hollows between the dunes were flooded every winter by the rains. Some of the larger ones, such as Princess Vlei, persisted as lakes throughout the year. These were the haunt of the hippopotamus, as the name Zeekoevlei still reminds us.

The wagon road used by the woodcutters to the tree-covered mountain slopes of Newlands and Kirstenbosch was the first road to be opened by the European settlers. The patches of forest in Orange Kloof were preserved a little longer by their inaccessibility, but the woodcutters were soon at work in the moist valley bottom below. From the nearby anchorage near Orange Kloof, which was named Hout Bay (Wood Bay), the wood was shipped around the Mountain to Table Bay. The forests of the peninsula, never extensive, lasted barely a generation. Though trees now cover large areas of the mountain slopes once again, they are mostly exotic species.

Trial crops of wheat, oats and barley succeeded admirably on the deep, loamy soils of the Liesbeek River valley, and this led to the Company's grain-farming enterprise being transferred there in 1657. A large granary, De Schuur, was built near a round grove of thorn trees known at first as Rondedoornbosjen (modern Rondebosch). The residence Groote Schuur, reconstructed in 1896 on this site is a beautiful example of old Cape architecture. It was formerly the residence of Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes and was bequeathed by him as the official residence of the Prime Minister of South Africa.

To supplement the Company's crops, a number of its servants were given their discharge and settled as independent farmers along the valley in the area now known as Rondebosch and Rosebank. Van Riebeeck himself acquired an estate farther upstream, a wooded hillside known as Bosheuvel (now the Bishopscourt Estate) on whose granitic soils he established, in 1658, the first extensive wynberg or vineyard in South Africa. Van Riebeeck handed over the government of the Colony in 1662 to Zacharias Wagenaar and returned home to his native land.

During Wagenaar's term of office a site was chosen for a stronger fortress. In 1666, the foundation stones of the Castle of Good Hope were laid. Its plan was pentagonal and the Company garrisoned its soldiers there from 1674 onwards. In about 1667 the Company established a new cattle-post on the other side of Table Mountain, in the Hout Bay valley.


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