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History

Proposals for a Lighthouse at L'Agulhas
South Africa's first "modern" lighthouse was built at Green Point, celebrating its 175 anniversary this year it was commissioned on the 12th April 1824, soon followed by the Mouille Point lighthouse (1842), the Roman Rock Lightship off Simon's Town (1845) and then the Cape Agulhas lighthouse (1849). Around the coast of South Africa there are 45 lighthouses the last being built in 1988 at the Groenriviermond in the Western Cape, of these 15 are manned the remainder being unmanned. So if you're looking for a lighthouse keepers daughter, the chances are slim. In addition to this, there are 12 fog signals and 24 radio beacons.

A lighthouse at Agulhas was requested by the surveyor-general and civil engineer at the cape. Colonel CC Michell, in March 1837. He visited the area in March 1839 reporting back that "nature has, it would seem, provided an isolated hill, the height of which above the sea is about 270 feet at the extreme end of the promontory," he also reported that the hill consists of excellent quality limestone which when dressed and quarried was ideal for building purposes obviating the expense of transport. Furthermore, the Hon Michiel van Breda (after which the nearby town of Bredasdorp is named) who owned the farm Zoetendalsvlei, agreed to donate as much land as was required for the purposes of erecting a lighthouse on the proposed site, which was part of this farm. Named after a ship wrecked in 1673, he became the co-owner of the farm in 1817. The farm was first granted in 1714, after the Company Gardener, Hartog, and the acting fiscal, Van Putten, were directed to explore the wooded kloofs of the Zonder End mountains in April 1711, the Gouritz River also became, in 1714, the forerunner of many of the boundaries beyond which trekkers were forbidden to settle. Van Breda also expressed surprise to those who objected to the erection of a lighthouse on this coast, on the grounds that captains ought to be sufficiently vigilant and acquainted with the route along the coastline.

A public meeting was held in the commercial Exchange in Cape Town on the 11th July 1840 to discuss and adopt measures for the erection of a lighthouse at Agulhas. The Financial Secretary of the Cape W Porter, chaired the meeting. Mr. Van Breda, of the farm Zoetendals Vlei was present. " I feel called upon to come forward on this occasion, as most of the disasters referred to have occurred on the coast in the neighborhood of my own dwelling; and I have been painful called upon to witness, with my own eyes, ship after ship cast away, valuable cargoes strewed along the beach, and hundreds of human beings at a time washed up dead upon the shore. There was the Arniston on 30 May 1815, a total wreck, when out of 378 persons on board only six escaped…women and children were washed ashore and what is more, they lay there a whole week before any man knew their fate…torn and partly devoured by preying vultures. Had a lighthouse been near, this incident would probably not have happened, as the Arniston went ashore in the night" he expressed the hope that a lighthouse would be built, "that I shall be relieved from the painful sight of dead bodies, so frequently washed up on my property."

At the meeting a number of resolutions were put forward for the erection of lighthouse, the third resolution put forward by Henry Sauerman, proposed, that in order to cut down on expenses of erecting and the running of a lighthouse a fund should be created and be subscribed by all those chambers of commerce in maritime ports trading eastwards, " in furtherance of this desirable object." A subscription list was opened at the meeting, with promissory notes to the value of £250 being collected. On 3 February the South African Commercial Advertiser announced that a further Rs 5400 had been received from the Chamber of Commerce in Bombay towards the fund. Further contributions were received from Calcutta, Madras, manila, St Helena and London and by June 1843 the total had reached £1,479.3.9.

However grateful the Cape and those involved in maritime traffic might have been for these contributions they were nowhere near sufficient enough for the erection and equipping of a lighthouse. In July 1841 Major Michell announced that he had obtained ministerial approval from London to look into the safety of the Cape's coasts and bays and was preparing plans and estimates for lighthouses to be erected at Cape Recife and Cape Agulhas as well as minor ones at Simon's Town and Mouille Point. " Major Michell is now in France.

Preparing the apparatus for the lighthouse or Mouille Point, which will be sent out as soon as it is ready." However the urgency was great, as more ships continued to flounder off these dangerous reefs. Captain W Drake disgusted with the British Governments apathy, and after the wreck of the Gentoo in April 1846 with the loss of a number of lives, wrote the following. "…if England be too poor to erect and maintain one (a lighthouse), perhaps France, Holland and even America might be induced to pay their share toward the accomplishment of an object that would be alike beneficial to all and each." The Madras Circular on the subject, mentioned the following, " and our only hope of having a lighthouse at L'Agulhas is the melancholy one of waiting until the shipwreck of a Colonial Governor shall prove to the Queens ministers the urgent necessity of its erection."

The L'Agulhas Lighthouse, a start is made.
In September 1847 the Cape Legislative Council met to consider the estimates for erection of the new lighthouse at Cape Recife and Cape Agulhas, which totalled £25,000 of which about £1,600 had already been banked through private subscriptions. Her Majesty's Government would advance half, the final total cost of the Agulhas lighthouse being in those days £15,871,

Progress at last seemed imminent, but there were still some differences of opinion to its positioning, and after extensive surveys of the coastline by Astronomer Royal Thomas MacLean, Michell and a number of Commanding Officers of Here Majesty's Ships, gathered on 11 June 1847 at Struys Bay, to spend the day finalising the exact position for the lighthouselighthouses. They unanimously agreed upon the following. 1. That Cape Agulhas itself was the fittest spot for the lighthouse. 2. That the site should not be on top of the hill but on a part of the under feature of the same, which by shelving gradually down to a point, forms Cape Agulhas. The site so selected is 180 yards due north of the nearest point of the beach.

Building operations started on 1 April 1847 and were completed in December 848. On 8 January 1848 the foundation stone was laid in the presence of the governor Sir Harry Smith, Michell and the 90 odd workmen who had laid over 18,000 cubic feet of cut-masonry. As was the custom of the day a sealed bottle carrying the news of the day was buried with an inscription recording the time, event and glorifying Her majesty Queen Victoria, who was in the twelfth year of her reign. With great generosity, the workers were given a "1/4 day holiday, which act, I trust, Colonel Michell will sanction, " by the foreman.

The building was designed by Michell using the ancient lighthouse of Pharos, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the world, for his inspiration. Standing on the island of Pharos in the harbour of Alexandria, Egypt, this structure built in 280 BC and destroyed by an earthquake around the C13, stood 144m tall. From there, wood fires were lit, warning Egyptian ships to steer clear of the treacherous coastline. Agulhas lighthouse standing 27m is a dwarf by comparison, although it retains many of the features intrinsic to early Egyptian architecture such as the broad base, the placing of the towers, the pylon shaped mock windows, temple of Isis type frieze and cornices.

Local limestone, obtained from a quarry 200m west of the lighthouse was used in its construction, however this was insufficient and large blocks weighing up to 800 kg (with the blocks at the base of the tower measuring 3m thick) having to be transported by ox-wagon from a quarry on the Van Breda's farm Zoetendalsvlei. A nearby cave shows signs of its having been used by the labour force as living quarters. There are also the remains of an old well, which was built by the light keeper after 1848, which for many years also supplied the first residents of L'Agulhas. If one climbs the tower one will spot the remains of a tidal pool, which was frequented, by the family of a former lighthouse engineer, it can be assumed that it was built on the foundations of an earlier fish-kraal which was built by the Chosen (Strandloopers or Watermen) who lived on food gathered off the coastlines of the Cape. These tidal pools are found dotted around the Cape's coast, the incoming tides bringing in shoals of fish, which were trapped as the tide receded.

In December 1848, the Commercial Advertiser newspaper described the lighting apparatus in vivid detail, at that stage it was the most advanced light of its kind operational in South Africa, although strange as it might seem by modern day standards, the burner which consisted of four wicks was fuelled by oil obtained from the melting of sheep's tail-fat On the 15 December 1848 a notice was published stating that the light would be first lit on the 1 March 1849, accompanying this notice was a comprehensive " General Sailing" guide by the Astronomer royal at the Cape, Thomas MacLear, giving precise distances when rounding the Cape to avoid running aground.

On 25 January 1905 H C Cooper installed a new incandescent burner, replacing the tail-fat burner with an oil burner increasing the beam intensity from 4,500 to 18,000 c.c. this had a remarkable effect on the surrounding veldt, much as the same effect that the lights illuminating Table Mountain do, where the veldt grows twice as quickly with its increased daylight hours. It also attracted flying insects. " During the night an intrepid beetle visited the lighthouse and flying straight into the mantle met an untimely death by cremation without even leaving his ashes as a memento. A gauze is being fitted to the ventilator to warn similar adventurers" A further improvement was made on 5 February 1908 when the burners were altered to use white rose oil.

In 1906 a lighthouse commission made inter alia, the following observations. 1. That the existing light reached the required distance of 17½ miles only on the clearest of days. 2. That the drift sand at the back of the lighthouse obscured vision when the wind blew, this was overcome by the planting of maram and other stabilising grasses, first planted in 1905 and completed in 1921. 3. The affect of a sea-spray obscuring the beam during stormy weather. This was not the case. 4. That a higher site at a point known as Northumberland Mountain standing 455 feet above sea level would be more suitable. This was turned down as at Cape Point due to its higher elevation it was often covered in fog and a number of other lighthouses had to be re-sited due to similar problems. Eventually they decided to erect a light of over 400,000 c.d. on a steel tower alongside the existing one with a focal length of 180° flashing every 21/2 seconds. The estimated cost of this scheme was £10,000, which included the tower, lighting apparatus and lantern. This scheme presented by H C Cooper, was turned down as being too expensive, opting for the retention of the existing tower and lantern, with introduction of a first-order flashing light, the new apparatus was supplied and fitted and operational in March 1910 from the time the order for the new optic was placed with Chance Brothers in England, its manufacture, shipment to Cape Town and then to Agulhas by ox-wagon, its erection on site by Cooper, the lighthouse keeper, assistants and a handful of labourers took a mere 9 months a remarkable feat. This was acknowledged by the report recorded in the official visitors book of 10 March 1910. " New light erected despite the many surrounding difficulties redounding to the credit of the engineer in charge, supported by a small but efficient staff. The workmanship in this erection is a masterpiece and will serve as a lasting memento of a capable officer and engineer in the Lighthouse Service of the Public Works Department"

Cooper installed a change Brothers petroleum vapour burner in 1921, and it was during this visit that he had the unfortunate experience of seeing his motorcar destroyed by lightning. The incident was recorded by the Cape times newspaper. " He put it (his motor car) in a shed belonging to the lighthouse, and after a glance around was about approaching the car to examine if when a flash of lightning came through the doorway and struck the car, igniting the petrol, with the result that the car and the whole place burst into flames, and in five minutes the place was gutted and the roof was down on top of the charred remains of what had once been natty car."

In 1935 a new building was built at the base of the southern side of the tower to house the diesel generating plant and for the erection of a radio beacon which was installed in 1939, code signal ZUY. Switched on in 1936 the new 4 kW electric lamp had a capacity of 12,000,000 candlepower. This alleviated much of the work, which had to be done by the two light-keepers, who until then had to keep shift throughout the night in the lantern. A daytime observation platform was also built, as strangely enough the entrance faced away from the seaward side. It was in 1960 after an inspection by the Civil Engineering department was taken, that the limestone structure, due to excessive weathering would have to be replaced. Although it was in no immediate danger, demolition seemed the only answer.

Routine examination in 1962 showed that the limestone of the building had deteriorated to such an extent that there was a danger of the building collapsing. The estimated costs for restoration were high and it was decided to place the light on an alumium tower.

In 1968 the lighthouse stopped working after 119 years of service.

In 1973 the lighthouse buidling was declared a national Monument and restoration work began in 1983. On the 25th March 1988 the lighthouse was again taken into service.

Deputations' from interested parties and the Member of Parliament for Bredasdorp were sent to the minister of parliament requesting that local organizations take over the responsibility of the maintenance and running of the lighthouse, this was agreed to on 1st May 1971. The structure was declared a national monument on the 2nd March 1973.

Finally after many proposals and changes of plans between officials of the transport Services and the local council agreement was finally reached in the early 1980's, whereby the Lighthouse Department restored the workings of the lighthouse, and the local council restored the tower, replacing badly worn blocks with newly quarried ones. Finally on the 25 march 1988, the building was reopened. A ceremony was held at which the Deputy Minister of Transport, Mr. Myburgh Streicher, recommissioned the light. The Lighthouse now serving the dual purpose of lighthouse museum as well as its original function. Mainline electricity was only connected early in 1987.

The museum has over the last decade become a popular destination point for visitors to the Cape, both local and overseas. It's interesting to note that in the USA lighthouses are revered in the same way as the British do their Castles.

 The Lighthouse   History   |   Inside   |   Outside   |   Specifications   |   Old Photos   |   Letter