The Castle of Good Hope turns 350 this year – and to mark the occasion, the Independent Media group, owners of Cape Community Newspapers which owns Athlone News, will take readers on an intriguing journey of discovery, with South Africa’s oldest existing building as its focal point.
Over the years, the Castle has been many things to different people, a place of pleasure and pain. To the first white settlers it was a refreshment station for ships from their home country. To the indigenous people it eventually became a symbol of dispossession – of land, livestock and, ultimately, dignity.
But back to the Castle
Perhaps appropriately, it had its origins in something that was commonplace along the southernmost tip of Africa: a violent storm followed by a shipwreck.
On March 25, 1647, a Dutch Indiaman, De Nieuwe Haerlem, on its way to Holland from the East Indies, ran aground in the vicinity of present-day Milnerton – and although there were no casualties, its sinking was destined to change the course of history.
A junior merchant named Leendert Janszen was instructed to stay behind with about 60 crew to look after the cargo while fellow crew members boarded other ships in the fleet and continued their journey to Holland.
While waiting to be picked up, Janszen and other members of the party grew vegetables, caught fish and bartered fresh meat from indigenous inhabitants. It proved to be a trial run for something more permanent.
On his return to his homeland, Janszen and a fellow officer, Nicolaas Proot, were asked by their employers, the Dutch East India Company, to compile a report on the suitability of the Cape to serve as a refreshment station. Their report, known as the “Remonstrantie”, highly recommended the idea. They were supported by Jan van Riebeeck, a member of the fleet that picked them up.
In 1651, Van Riebeeck, accompanied by 79 men and eight women, set sail for the Cape – to set up a refreshment station.
The first commander of the Cape built the first “permanent” structure – a fort – on the site of the present-day Grand Parade.
It was built out of clay and timber, and it was not very secure, making the word “fort” seem like a misnomer. Van Riebeeck was well aware of the need to have something more secure, and he called on his principals to give the go-ahead for the construction of something more suitable.
The Dutch East India Company eventually did say “Yes”, but four years after Van Riebeeck’s tour of duty had ended.
The Castle had other faces too.
Over the course of time it was the administrative centre of the Cape, a garrison, a prison (its dungeons served as temporary holding cells for troublesome chiefs of indigenous groups from the Cape and much further afield). Some of its purposes, though, were even more sinister
For example, it – or rather a section of it – served as a torture chamber (Die Donkergat) and a place where people were executed. And it also housed a gallows.
In this regard, one of the more fascinating stories associated with the Castle involved the ghost of an 18th century governor, Pieter van Noodt, who had been cursed on the gallows by one of seven men he had condemned to death for desertion.
The curse did not take long to kick in. Van Noodt died on the same day he was cursed. Legend has it he died with a look of surprise on his face. One of the earliest “hangmen” was married to a slave “owned” by one of the Cape’s best-known 18th century socialites, Lady Ann Barnard.
Barnard was most impressed at the way the hangman performed his duties, but she felt nothing but contempt for his wife.
As part of the Castle’s 350th anniversary celebrations, the Department of Defence has commissioned statues of four African leaders who fought to maintain the independence of their people during various eras of dispossession.
The earliest of these featured leaders will be a Goringhaiqua Khoikhoi chief named Doman, whose relationship with the Dutch shifted from watchful collaboration (he was regarded by the Dutch as a highly skilled interpreter) to open hostility when he realised that the stay of the colonialists was likely to be permanent. On a cold, wet day in May 1659, Doman launched the first “war of independence” by indigenous people in southern Africa against colonial invaders.
Doman had waited for rainy weather, knowing that the Dutch match lock muskets could not be fired in the rain with damp powder.
Zulu King Cetshwayo also spent time as a prisoner at the Castle. This was after he had been captured in the Ngome Forest (near Nkandla) after his forces had suffered horrific losses against the British at Khambula and Gingindlovu. Despite angry protests from whites in the colony of Natal, he was granted permission to travel to England to plead his case to British politicians.
Dubbed “The Ladies Man” because of his striking good looks, even more so in tailored European clothing, he inspired what was described as “some very bad verse”:
“White young dandies get away-o,
“Clear the way for Cetshwayo…”
Another “guest” of the Castle was Sekhukhune, the king of the Pedi, who like so many other African leaders throughout southern Africa was forced into war by land-hungry white invaders. In his case, it was strife with the Boers in the 1870s that proved to be the beginning of his downfall.
Although he was able to hold his own against the Boers, the British proved to be a different proposition.
Theophilus Shepstone, the administrator of the Transvaal (after the first Anglo-Boer war), was scathingly critical of the Boers for not being able to defeat the Pedi.
This, he said, had seriously undermined the authority of the white man in Africa. The notoriously cynical Shepstone pushed Sekhukune into war by instituting a series of taxes and fines that the Pedi were unable to comply with – until the only option open to them was war.
Also to be featured will be Langalibalele, chief of the Hlubi, who was also forced into a war he didn’t want by the white authorities.
The Hlubi people were driven into conflict because they proved to be much more successful at farming from their base in the foothills of Natal than their white counterparts.