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The History of Cape Town

Human communities had lived in the Cape Peninsula and Western Cape long before the beginning of the Christian era, surviving by hunting, fishing and gathering edible plants and roots. They were the ancestors of the Khoisan peoples of modern times - the Bushmen (San) and the Hottentot (Khoikhoi).

Early Trade
Early Trade in Cape Town
The Bushmen were hunter-gatherers who lived in small, loosely knit groups of about 20 persons. They were highly mobile on account of their dependence on game, and for the same reason widely dispersed territorially. The Hottentot, in comparison, were mainly herders along the Orange River, the boundary river between South Africa and Namibia, and the coastal belt stretching from Namibia around Cape Point to the Eastern Cape. Both groups were thought to have migrated southward, ahead of the Bantu-speaking peoples whose ancestral home lay well in the north.

Before the Dutch came to the Cape, the Hottentot conducted trade with their Bantu-speaking neighbours in cattle and dagga (marijuana) and, to a lesser extent, 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 trade. Twice defeated in battle in 1713 and 1755, and decimated by smallpox, they ultimately lost their identity as a distinct cultural group and intermarried with slaves and others to form the Cape Coloured people.

The Portuguese

From the time of the first recorded discovery of the Cape, seafarers looked forward to the sight of majestic Table Mountain, this unmistakable beacon of promised hospitality along one of the busiest arteries of world commerce. However, the sudden knowledge that the Cape existed was not immediately followed by settlement.

Bartholomeus Dias
Bartholomeus Dias

In 1487, the Portuguese sailor Bartholomeus Dias set out to find a sea route to the East. Sailing along the west coast of Africa, his ships encountered a ferocious storm, which drove them out to sea and away from the coast. Once the storm had passed they resumed their journey in an easterly direction, expecting to reach the coast, their guideline, again soon. After a number of days' sailing without any sign of land, they changed direction and headed north, eventually landing at the mouth of the Gouritz River on the east coast of Africa on 3 February 1488. Dias and his crew were the first Europeans on record to round the Cape, albeit unwittingly.

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 that the Portuguese navigator carved in the rock of Lion's Head is still traceable.

It is widely believed that it was Dias who named the peninsula Cabo Tormentosa (Cape of Storms). This name was later changed to Cabo da Boa Esperanca (Cape of Good Hope) to signify that the rounding of the Cape brought hope that a sea route to the East was possible. Fully ten years later, Vasco Da Gama completed the sea route from Portugal around the Cape to India, thus finally opening up the trade route between Europe and the East.

Jan Van Riebeeck

Jan van Riebeeck
Jan van Riebeeck

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 23-year-old Jan Antony van Riebeeck to establish a stronghold on the shores of Table Bay. Their objective was to grow vegetables and fruit, 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; the 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 was manned by perhaps 48 000 sailors.

Simon van der Stel

Simon van der Stel, who arrived as Governor in 1679, was destined to exercise marked influence on the Colony for the next 20 years. He enlarged and beautified van Riebeeck's garden and built a slave lodge (today the Cultural History Museum) at the entrance. It was during Simon van der Stel's governorship that the Huguenots, who had been driven from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, arrived from Holland. There were some 200 of them, so small a number that they were quickly absorbed in the Dutch population. The lands given to Simon van der Stel by the Dutch East India Company, stretched from Muizenberg to the Steenberg Mountains, right across to Wynberg. He turned this vast region into rich farmland, planted some eight thousand trees and designed and built the stateliest of the Cape's historic mansions, Groot Constantia (named after his wife, Constance) in 1685, where he lived until his death in 1712. Groot Constantia remains one of the most favoured destinations for visiting tourists to the Cape. The Estate gave its name to the Constantia area, and its wines won the praise of even such connoisseurs as Kings of France. Simon van der Stel is also the founder of Stellenbosch, Drakenstein and Franschhoek, and is responsible for the construction of many of the famous homesteads in the Cape. More farmers soon settled in the Constantia area, along the little streams pretentiously named the Spaanschemat and Diep Rivers and on the soils so well suited to the vine. West of the mountains, Kronendal in the Hout Bay valley was granted to another enterprising settler in 1681 and a wagon road into the valley was opened over Constantia Nek twelve years later.

Architectural Heritage

It is indeed fortunate that three men of outstanding architectural talents were brought together at the Cape. Anton Anreith, a young sculptor and woodcarver from Freiburg, arrived as a soldier in the Company's service in 1777. Four years later Louis Michel Thibault, a Parisian architect, appeared on the scene as an officer in the French garrison.


In 1789 they were joined by Hermann Schutte, a young architect and builder from Bremen. The trio settled at the Cape, and it is due to their influence that the period of prosperity and building activity in town and country, which marked the late 18th and early 19th century, has left us such a rich heritage of architectural beauty.


British Rule

During the war between Britain and Holland (1780-1783) a British fleet sailed to take possession of the Cape, but was attacked and disabled by the French. The French then landed two regiments at the Cape to assist the Dutch in the defence of the Colony. Part of the large hospital on the outskirts of town was assigned to them as barracks. After 1795 the building was wholly occupied by troops and in time the adjoining Ziekenstraat became more appropriately known as Barrack Street, a name it still bears.

When the revolutionary armies of France invaded Holland, William of Orange escaped to England and issued instructions that the Cape should temporarily be handed over to the British for protection against the French. Accordingly, in 1795, a British force arrived at the Cape. The Dutch resisted and, after a brief battle (the Battle of Muizenberg), retired before superior forces. The change of authority brought with it other changes that many felt were long overdue. Many of the monopolies and other restrictions on trade, by which the Company had promoted its own pecuniary interests at the expense of the colonists, were swept away. A large garrison again provided a ready market for farm produce and thirsty patrons for the houses that had already given Cape Town its reputation as The Tavern of the Seas.

The British remained in possession until 1803, when the Colony was relinquished to the Dutch by the terms of the Treaty of Amiens. Within three months of the restoration of the colony, war had again broken out between Britain and Holland. In 1806, a British fleet of sixty-one ships dropped anchor at Robben Island and landed 6 000 troops at Blaauwberg. The Battle of Blaauwberg followed and Dutch resistance crumbled. In 1814 the Cape Colony was formally ceded to Britain by a convention under which Dutch vessels were to remain entitled to resort freely to the Cape of Good Hope for the purposes of refreshment and repairs.

In 1814, Lord Charles Somerset became Governor, and the following year he inaugurated the first mail-packet service between England and Cape Town. This was the beginning of the Union-Castle Company's connection with South Africa. The Union and Castle lines amalgamated in 1900.

New Age

Cape Town became a municipality in 1840. A liberal constitution was granted to the Cape Colony in 1853 and the first elected Parliament met on 30 June 1854. On 28 November 1872 a complete self-government for the Cape Colony was promulgated by a proclamation of Sir Henry Barkley, who laid the first foundation stone of the present Houses of Parliament in 1875.

Old Pier - Year 1900
Old Pier - Year 1900

In the second half of the century the building of railways, the opening of diamond and gold mines in the interior, and all their manifold and far-reaching economic consequences added enormously to the commercial importance of Cape Town. The sleepy settlement awoke and began to grow as never before. A railway was completed to Stellenbosch and Wellington in 1863. The discovery of diamonds in Griqualand West a few years later demanded its extension to the distant diamond fields. In 1885 it had barely reached Kimberley when the Witwatersrand goldfields presented a still more distant goal. Within the next decade the opening of gold mines in Southern Rhodesia lured the railhead still farther northward. Cape Town was transformed within a generation from a roadstead on Table Bay, to one of the major ports serving a rapidly developing sub-continent. During the mid 19th century, harbour improvements were urgently needed. The port in Table Bay possessed only four jetties, and recurrent wrecks in the bay were grim reminders of its exposure to north-westerly gales. The storms of 1857 and 1865 accounted for 24 shipwrecks off the Cape coast. The work was started in 1860 and was completed in 1870 when the Alfred Dock was inaugurated by Prince Alfred. Completion of the Robinson Graving Dock twelve years later equipped the port to repair the largest vessels of the time, and the extension of the harbour works to form the outer Victoria Basin by the end of the century endowed Table Bay with a commodious modern harbour. The waterfront became increasingly cluttered with a miscellaneous collection of skin-drying, wool-processing, fish-smoking, soap making and boat-building establishments.

War & Apartheid

South Africans fought alongside the Allies in both world wars, but Afrikaner opposition to British support continued throughout. The opponents of involvement were very much in the minority and whites from both language groups volunteered in large numbers, as did those of mixed descent. South Africans fought in German South West Africa (now Namibia) during the First World War. Other areas of operation were East Africa and western Europe where, at Delville Wood, 3152 South Africans held their positions against massive bombardment and counter attack. 755 survived unwounded. During the Second World War, South Africans again fought against the Nazis in East Africa, in the Western Desert and in Europe, forging a path up the spine of Italy in one of the toughest campaigns of the war.

The years between the forming of the Union in 1910 and the historical parliamentary election of 1948 witnessed the growth of South Africa into a powerful industrial nation. The National Party won its first election under the leadership of D. F. Malan in 1948. Its rise to power marked the beginnings of the apartheid era. For the first time Afrikaners were in the driving seat and legal segregation on racial lines became the main thrust of policy.

Apartheid stunted the economic growth of the country. The world shunned it and sanctions brought South Africa to its knees. Cape Town suffered enormously as ships no longer docked at the port, and instead, by-passed the Cape. Many Capetonians emigrated to other parts of the world, taking with them the expertise so desperately needed in a growing economy.

During the last decade, violence and bloodshed have brought a nation to the turning-point of reconciliation. The 1994 election saw the inauguration of the first black State President, Nelson Mandela, who headed a government of national unity.