Cape Town History

1652: before, after and everything in-between

Before the arrival of Dutch settlers (led by Jan van Riebeeck) in 1652, the Cape was home to groups of Khoi people (also known as Hottentots). The Khoi were semi-nomadic, cattle-owning people related to the San (Bushmen) hunter-gatherers of the interior.

  • The first European to reach the cape was Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, who named it the "Cape of Storms".
  • It was later renamed “The Cape Of Good Hope” to stimulate optimism about creating a sea route to India and the East via the Cape.
  • Dutch Settlers set-up a supply station in Table Bay on 6 April 1652.
  • The British took control of the Cape in 1806 and it remained a British colony for just over 100 years.
  • Table Mountain is one of the oldest mountains on earth, six times older than the Himalayas and five times older than the Rockies.

Beginning of Colonisation in the Cape
Jan van Riebeeck and a small group of Dutch Settlers established the Cape supply base in the mid 1600’s. He was ordered by the Dutch East India Company to construct a fort for defence and a produce garden which would supply passing company trade ships with fresh fruit and vegetables.

The first wave of Asian immigration to South Africa started in 1654. These Asians helped to form the foundation of the Cape Coloured and Cape Malay populations, as well as bringing Islam  to the Cape. The first slaves were brought to the Cape from Java and Madagascar in the following year to work on the farms. The first of a long series of border conflicts between the inhabitants in the European-controlled area and native inhabitants began in 1658 when settlers clashed with the Khoi, who realised that they were losing territory.

Work on the Castle of Good Hope, the first permanent European fortification in the area, began in 1666. The new castle replaced the previous wooden fort that Van Riebeeck and his men built. Finally completed in 1679, the castle is the oldest building in South Africa.

Simon van der Stel, after whom the town of Stellenbosch is named, arrived in 1679 to replace Van Riebeeck as governor. Van der Stel founded the Cape wine industry by bringing grape vines with him on his ship, an industry which would quickly grow to be important for the region. He also promoted territorial expansion in the Colony.

The Huguenots
and the British
The first non-Dutch immigrants to the Cape, the Huguenots, arrived in 1688. The Huguenots had fled from anti-Protestant persecution in Catholic France to the Netherlands, where the VOC offered them free passage to the Cape as well as farmland. The Huguenots brought important experience in wine production to the Cape, greatly bolstering the industry, as well as providing strong cultural roots.

By 1780, France and Great Britain went to war against each other. The Netherlands entered the war on the French side, and thus a small garrison of French troops were sent to the Cape to protect it against the British. These troops, however, left by 1784. By 1795 the Netherlands was invaded by France and the VOC was in complete financial ruin. The Prince of Orange fled to England for protection, which allowed for the establishment of the Dutch Batavian Republic. Due to the long time it took to send and receive news from Europe, the Cape Commissioner of the time knew only that the French had been taking territory in the Netherlands and that the Dutch could change sides in the war at any moment. British forces arrived at the Cape bearing a letter from the Prince of Orange asking the Commissioner to allow the British troops to protect the Cape from France until the war. The British informed the Commissioner that the Prince had fled to England. The reaction in the Cape Council was mixed, and eventually the British successfully invaded the Cape in the Battle of Muizenberg. The British immediately announced the beginning of free trade.

Under the terms of a peace agreement between England and France, the Cape was returned to the Dutch in 1802. Three years later, however, the war resumed and the British returned their garrison to the Cape. This period saw major developments for the city, and can be said to be the start of Cape Town as a city in its own right.

Cape Town’s Robben Island
Robben Island (Robben Eiland in Afrikaans and Robbe Eiland in Dutch) is a small island in Table Bay just 12km off the coast of Cape Town. The island was named by the Dutch settlers and means 'Seal Island'. It's similar in many ways to Alcatraz in San Francisco.

Robben Island was first inhabited by Stone Age people thousands of years ago when the sea levels were much lower than they are today and you could walk to it from the mainland. The melting of ice caps in the last Ice Age caused the land around the island to be flooded by the rising sea levels and hence the formation of Robben Island.

Since the arrival of Dutch settlers in Cape Town in the mid 1600’s the island was used primarily as a prison and is now synonymous with the political leaders who struggled for freedom from the Apartheid system who were imprisoned there.

Dutch rule in the East Indies and the Cape caused a great deal of resistance and local Khoi leaders were some of the islands first prisoners. Muslim activists who protested against Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) were also exiled and transported to Robben Island.

Although Cape Town’s Robben Island remains most famous for its political prisoners it was not only used as a prison. In the 1840’s the island was chosen as a place to house leprosy patients and the mentally and chronically ill. Robben Island was chosen for this purpose as it was secure and therefore isolated dangerous disease but ironically since there was no cure for leprosy, mental illness and other chronic illnesses in the 1800’s, Robben Island was a kind of prison for hospital patients too. During World War 2 (1939-1945) it was used as a training and defence station by the British. The island was fortified and guns were installed as part of the defences for Cape Town

Robben Island is, however, most famous for its use as a political prison by the Apartheid government of South Africa and for being the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. The prison housed hundreds of other political prisoners who were fighting for freedom and justice in South Africa, many of whom spent more than a quarter of a century there.

The aim of the prison at this time was to suppress political opposition to the Apartheid regime and completely isolate political prisoners from the outside world in order to destroy the African National Congress (ANC) and other political parties’ fight for freedom. The prison was known for its brutality and orders to crush the fighting spirit and morale of its inmates.

However, the prisoners succeeded on a political and psychological level in turning this cruel prison into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation. Prisoners on the island after the 1960’s were able to overcome opposition from the prison authorities and organise educational programmes, sporting events and political debates. Nelson Mandela’s personal account of his relationship with his Robben Island prison warden (as can be read in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom) is both heart warming and testimony to this great man’s stature, humility and his enormous ability to forgive and encourage smooth transformation.

The political prisoners held on this island would be fundamental in the creation and running of the ensuing political changes after the freeing of political prisoners and abolition of the apartheid system in 1990 by then president F.W. de Klerk.

Between 1961 and 1991, over three thousand men were incarcerated on Cape Town’s Robben Island. The island is now a World Heritage site and the prison has been turned into a museum which can be easily reached by scheduled boat trips from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.

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