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Brief History of the Western Cape

History of the Cape Peninsula

100 000 BC

The Southwest Cape was inhabited by people who hunted, used stone tools and fire.

18 000 BC

Even though the World Ice Age had reached its peak the Cape was in all likelihood not covered with ice, but the temperatures in winter were possibly 10°C lower than presently experienced. The sea was about 120 metres below its current level as a result of large parts of seawater being frozen elsewhere. As a result of a wetter climate, the Cape Flats was home to rich forests, and the Cape's inhabitants at this time also used stone tools, but these were of lesser sophistication than their predecessors.


8 000 BC

The inhabitants of the Cape had progressed to hunting with bows and arrows.

2 600 BC

Phoenician mariners circumnavigated Africa, on a mission by Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II. Their interaction with the inhabitants of Africa were not recorded.

2 000 BC

Migration of Bantu-speaking tribes occurred. These tribes brought agricultural skills to the Cape.

300 AD

Some of the Cape inhabitants owned fat-tailed sheep, which could have originated in East Central Africa.


Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese explorer, discovered the Cape. Vasco da Gama, also from Portugal, rounded the Peninsula in 1497. The goal was to find a trade route between Europe and the East.


Jan van Riebeeck and other employees of the Dutch East India Company were sent to the Cape to establish a halfway station to provide fresh water, vegetables and meat for passing ships travelling to and from the East. Jan van Riebeeck's party of three vessels landed at the Cape on 6 April 1652.
Jan van Riebeeck and his men erected shelters and laid out vegetable gardens and orchards. The Company Gardens are part of the original gardens and are situated at the top of Adderley Street in Government Avenue. Water from the Fresh River which descended from Table Mountain was channelled into canals to provide irrigation. The settlers bartered with the native inhabitants for their sheep and cattle. Forests in Hout Bay and south and east of the mountain provided timber for ships and houses. The Dutch East India Company had the monopoly on trade and prohibited any private trade.
The people encountered by the settlers were short and fairly hairless with yellow-brown skin, and the females of the tribes had prominent buttocks. Some people had sheep and cattle, which are also though to have originated in East Central Africa. The pastoralists were named "Hottentots" by the settlers. The people found along the beaches who subsisted on shellfishing were named "Strandlopers" and the groups of people restricted to hunting and gathering were named "Bushmen".
From as early as the mid-seventeenth century many animals were encountered in the Cape Peninsula. Some of these include the Cape Buffalo, elephant, hippopotamus, black rhinoceros, leopard, brown hyena, spotted hyaena, hunting dog, black-maned Cape Lion, black-backed jackal, silver fox, baboon, red hartebeest, eland, grysbok, klipspringer, duiker, bushbuck, aardvark, steenbok, rhebok, mongoose, genet, wildcat, hyrax and seal. Large birds found here were ostriches, secretary birds, black eagles and penguins.



The first Asians arrived at the Cape. They were banished here by the High Court in Batavia. These Asians contributed to the enlargement of the Cape Coloured population as well as the spread of Islam in the Cape.


Farms were granted by the Company to a few servants in an attempt to increase productivity. The farms were situated on farmland along the Liesbeeck River and the Company still retained financial control of them. The first slaves were imported to the Cape from Java and Madagascar.


Conflict erupted between the settlers and the Hottentots, who had begun to realise that territory previously theirs had been lost to them.



Jan van Riebeeck left the Cape on promotion to a position on the Council of Justice in Batavia. He later went on to become a Commander in Malacca.


Work commenced on a fortress, known as the Castle, which replaced the previous wooden fort built by Van Riebeeck and his men. The Castle was completed in 1679 and is the oldest building in South Africa. It originally stood on the beach, and it is only since reclaiming the Foreshore begun in 1943 that it is now a distance from the sea. It is star-shaped and has bastions at each point, which were named after the titles of the Dutch Prince of Orange, as follows: Oranje (south west), Leerdam (west), Buren (north), Catzenellenbogen (east), and Nassau (south east). Aside from being used as a fortress against invasion from the sea, the Castle also served as headquarters of the Dutch East India Company and was the residence of the Governor of the Cape. In 1917 it was handed over to the South African Defence Force and is still used as the headquarters of the Cape Command. In 1936 the Castle was proclaimed a National Monument. Some famous prisoners incarcerated in the Castle over the centuries include rebel burghers Adam Tas and Van der Linden (who had incurred the wrath of Governor W A van der Stel for opposing his autocratic rule). Lady Ann Barnard, a liberated woman before her time known for being an intrepid explorer and famous for her love of bathing, also resided at the Castle during the British occupation of the Cape. An elegant reminder of this period is the De Kat balcony designed by sculptor Anton Anreith. The Castle is filled with many art treasurers, including furniture, VOC china and glassware, and a collection of paintings assembled by William Fehr which includes 22 oil paintings by the famous artist Thomas Baines.


Simon van der Stel arrived to govern in the Cape. The beautiful town of Stellenbosch is named after him. Simon van der Stel was the founding father of the Cape wine industry. He was a dynamic commander promoted colonial-style expansion, as per his instructions from the Company..


Simon van der Stel was granted a 900-morgen property by the Company. This home and winefarm was named Groot Constantia, and was built by Louis Thibault, an architect whose name is associated with many early Cape buildings. Groot Constantia is thus the oldest wine estate at the Cape. It has been rebuilt after a fire and is a prime example of Cape Dutch architecture. The cellar is renowned for its sculptures by Anton Anreith.


The Huguenots arrived at the Cape. They had fled from anti-Protestant persecution in Catholic France to Holland where they were offered by the Company free passage to the Cape and farmland. The Huguenots made an important contribution to the Cape's wine industry.


Serious friction developed between the Huguenots and the Dutch. The Huguenots had not been recognised as a separate group and felt dissatisfied that they had been randomly placed among the Dutch.


The road to Hout Bay via Constantia Nek was completed.


William Adriaan van der Stel (son of Simon) was appointed Governor. His rule was harshly corrupt and discriminatory.