Cape Town History


"a city born of the sea and moulded by a mountain" - J. Mabbutt

Cape Town is a unique city—a blend of Asia and Europe in Africa. It is dominated by, and owes its existence to, the steep and coarse grizzled and gnarled slopes of Table Mountain that tower 1,000m above the sea, surrounding it on three sides. A sandstone soil and small mountain streams gave life to prehistoric peoples and animals living on its slopes. The City also attracted sailors and farmers of the trading nations and today has a population city of 3 million people descended from every corner of the world.

Long before the Himalayas or the Rockies were formed, Table Mountain began to rise out of the sea (by isostacy) at the South-Western tip of Africa. The emerging relief has been checked and scarred by the erosion of sea, wind, rain, fire and ice. Today Table Mountain is a fantastic array of buttresses and ravines, most famously evident in the "Twelve Apostles." Homo Erectus saw similar sights 750,000 years ago—and left abundant stone tools for our museums. The fossilized footprints of "Eve," 117,000 years old, are one of the finest relics found near Cape Town.

Relatives of the Bushmen, the Khoi, were maintaining a hunter/gatherer and herding economy around the mountain when in 1503 the first European saw, and then climbed Table Mountain. He was a Portuguese Admiral, Antonio de Saldanha, and he was navigating the route to India bravely pioneered by his compatriots Bartolomeu Diaz (1488) and Vasco de Gama (1497).

As the new route from Europe to the East flourished, so more sailors saw the Mountain and its peninsula. Francis Drake in 1580 described it as "the Fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the globe." The British, in particular, developed trade with the Khoi but no European settlement was developed. However, in 1647 a Dutch ship, the Haarlem, was wrecked in Table Bay and its large crew marooned for a year. Their survival convinced the Dutch East India Company that it was safe enough, and the land sufficiently fertile, to justify building a permanent supply station at the Cape. Thus, on Christmas Eve 1651, Jan van Riebeeck, a commander in the Company (out of favour following allegations of fraud), was dispatched from Amsterdam with three ships and a daunting task to establish a station at the Cape capable of supplying passing ships with fresh food and wine.

Van Riebeeck arrived in April 1652, constructed a wooden fort and laid out the Company gardens, part of which remain to this day. He set to work on vine growing and produced wine within four years (February 2nd 1659). Work soon began on a stone Castle and a parade ground that can still be seen. Subsequent Governors, in particular, Simon van der Stel (1679-1699), expanded the settlement dramatically. Huguenot refugees from France helped to develop the areas of Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Wellington as notable wine growing regions.

The Company provided slaves from the East to help with the work; indeed, slaves sometimes outnumbered Europeans in the settlement. The influence of Asia can be seen in the architecture of Cape Town, the taste of its spicy food, the style of its music and festivals, even in the grammar of the Afrikaans language that evolved in Cape Town from Dutch. Asian blood is also evident in much of Cape Town's population.

Cape Town became known as "the tavern of the seas," a welcome half-way house on the long journey between North and East. Her strategic importance was (and remains) crucial to world trade and with the threat of Napoleon seizing the settlement, the British garrisoned the elegant Dutch town in 1795.

Under Imperial British rule the city grew. Among the whitewashed Dutch buildings large colonial, neo-classical buildings were arranged. The old farmlands became suburbs and, with the discovery of diamonds in the hinterland, the docks and city expanded rapidly. Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) made his home in Cape Town, buying vast tracts of the mountains slopes that today are public forests, the Botanical Garden at Kirstenbosch and the highly acclaimed University of Cape Town.

Following the formation of the modern South Africa in 1910, Cape Town became, and remains, the nation's Legislature. The iniquitous apartheid laws drafted in that Parliament limited black migration to the city and divided white people and those of mixed racial descent. The mountain slopes became leafy "white" suburbs while the townships on the sandy plain were variously designated for "coloured" and "black." The racial division of suburbs ended in 1990, but racial and socio-economic differences between areas remain marked. A huge migration of black people followed the easing of racial laws, and the city has grown vastly in the last decade and is now one third Xhosa (Mr. Mandela's tribal group).

The city centre has changed too, particularly the reclamation of land and subsequent development of the foreshore in the 1940s. The highly successful development of complexes such as the Waterfront, followed in the 1990s. Many new hotels and the refurbishment of traditional attractions such as the Cable Car, Kirstenbosch Gardens and Cape Point have positioned the city as one of the world's emerging prime tourist destinations and an important growth point in Southern Africa.


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