Cape Town History

Early History of Cape Town South Africa

Statues of Jan van Riebeeck and his wife Maria de la Quelare
in Adderley Street Cape Town

Most of the history we learn about in our schools starts at the time of Jan van Riebeeck who arrived in Cape Town in 1652 in five small ships to set up a replenishment station.

What happened in the Cape before the arrival of Van Riebeeck? It is interesting to find that the Cape might have been inhabited for 10000 years and not just the 500 odd years that our history records. How does one know that people lived here that long ago?

Carbon dating is one of today's modern techniques where things are analysed and their ages can be determined. Some of the archeological evidence in the form of ash from old fireplaces discovered in caves have been dated and found to be 10000 years old.

Skeletons found in Peers Cave in Fish Hoek were dated at about 11000 years old. Middens ie huge piles of shells have been found in places where people would have stayed, i.e. caves etc. It is thought that these were prehistoric rubbish dumps of the people who lived here then.

Stone age tools covering a period of over half a million years have also been discovered here. Well that means that the Cape has been here a lot longer than we thought.

Portuguese explorers such as Bartholomew Diaz started visiting our shores in the 1480's and a steady stream of explorers followed him. Most of them looking for the sea route to India. Most of the explorers came from Europe and followed the west coast of Africa south until they reached the Cape .

Bartholomew Diaz missed the Cape altogether after sailing away from land for 13 days. When he turned his ships northwards he came ashore on the south coast of South Africa hundreds of miles east of Cape Point near the mouth of the Gouritz River. (near what is today called MosselBay)

Diaz' Cross in the Nature Reserve at Cape Point

It was on their homeward trip that Dias entered False Bay and landed at a small bay near Cape Point and set up a cross. He named it the Cape of Good Hope.

There is some evidence that the Phoenicians rounded the Cape long before the Portuguese arrived.

Read the article on the Borobudurship

Some 2000 years ago according to Herodotus the Greek historian, Necho the Egyptian Pharoah instructed his sailors to sail around Africa and then return to Egypt via the Straits of Gibralter then known as the Pillars of Hercules. A journey that took them three years to complete. It slays me, if they knew the way why did they not tell others about it.

Anyway the next explorer to arrive was Vasco da Gama in 1497. He also sailed from Portugal and landed in Natal on Christmas day.

In 1503 Antonio da Saldanha after making a navigational error entered Table Bay where he found fresh water and explored Table Mountain.

For more than a century Table Bay was known as Aguada de Saldanha. In 1601 Joris van Spilbergen sailed into Saldanha Bay which is 105 kilometres north of Table Bay and named it Saldanha bay as he thought it was the bay that Saldanha had found. Obviously this caused a problem so Table Bay was renamed.

Many French and British ships had followed the first explorers and the route to India was well known by then. In 1647 a Dutch ship De Nieuwe Haerlem ran aground in Table Bay and its 60 crew members had to spend a year fending for themselves.

On returning to Holland the commander of the wrecked ship Leendert Janszen put in a report to the Council of Seventeen of the Dutch East India Company where he recommended a halfway station for ships to replenish themselves before sailing onto India. The recommendation was accepted and on the 24th December 1651 Jan van Riebeeck sailed for the Cape with his wife and their 4 month old son. He arrived in Table Bay on the 6th of April 1652 with his fleet of ships. The ships were named Drommedaris, Goede Hoope, Reijger, Walvis and the Oliphant.

Van Riebeeck's commission was to establish a fort to house 80 men and to establish a replenishment station for ships passing Cape Town on their way to the east.

That he did and the company gardens that he started are still here for all to see. Unfortunately the fort that he built was badly built resulting in it being rebuilt after he left the Cape. The Castle of the Cape of Good Hope stands in the centre of Cape Town for all to see.

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Cape Town History
Page updated 12.5.2015

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