The Castle of Good Hope turns 350 this year — and to mark the occasion, the Independent Media group will take readers on an intriguing journey of discovery of South Africa’s oldest existing building.
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, their dignity.
Perhaps appropriately, the castle 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 his party grew vegetables, caught fish and bartered fresh meat from indigenous inhabitants.
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.
The first commander of the Cape built the first “permanent” structure – a flimsy fort built from clay and timber – on the site of the present-day Grand Parade.
Over the course of time the castle was the administrative centre of the Cape, a garrison, and a prison for troublesome chiefs.
It also had more sinister purposes, for example, it housed a torture chamber, a place where people were executed, and 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.
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 colonialists were likely to stay permanently.
On a cold, wet day in May 1659, Doman launched the first “war of independence” by indigenous people in Southern Africa against colonial invaders.
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, he inspired what was described as “some very bad verse”:
“White young dandies get away-o,
“Clear the way for Cetewayo”
Also to be featured will be Sekhukhune, the king of the Pedi, and Langalibalele, chief of the Hlubi, who was also forced into a war they didn’t want by the white authorities.