Today, 24 September, marks South Africa’s annual Heritage Day – a day when we all come together and celebrate the things that make us unique. From pantsula to potjie, labola to Leon Schuster, koeksisters to kwaito and bokke to biltong – South African tradition is as diverse as its people.
South Africa’s coastline and peoples are inextricably linked - let's take a look at some of the curious tales of the Cape's past and how they were shaped by our coastline's weather, ecology and geology.
Earthquakes and a Circle of Saints
It may come as a surprise to many Capetonians, but our city lies directly over the Milnerton Fault Line – historically, earthquakes occurred on this fault in 1620, 1695 and 2004, but the largest by far was in 1809 - at magnitude 6.5 it was similar in strength to the one that shook Christchurch in 2011.
From the early 17th Century, Islamic leaders and nobles from Dutch colonies in Indonesia and Malaysia were exiled to South Africa. These leaders played a significant role in building the non-European communities of Cape Town. No mosques existed in the Cape, and Muslims at the time were not allowed to know which direction faced towards Mecca. Another plan was needed.
Over a 250-year period, Muslim leaders in the Cape were entombed in "kramats" on the outskirts of Cape Town - from the slopes of Lion's Head and Camps Bay to Robben Island. As these men could not be laid to rest facing Mecca, they were buried to encircle Cape Town. Legend has it that they watch over the Cape now and protect it from major natural disasters.
The Graveyard of Ships
The “Cape of Good Hope” has gone by many other names, but one of the most appropriate is “Graveyard of ships”. The Cape lays claim to over 3000 shipwrecks, including: The Arniston – wrecked in 1815 with 372 lives lost; The De Jonge Thomas – wrecked near Paarden Eiland in 1733 and leading to the incredible story of Wolraad Woltemade, and the MV Seli 1 wreck of 2009 – famously creating both an eyesore and surf spot off Bloubergstrand.
One of the most interesting stories is of the SS Waratah, a luxury Australian steamship, nicknamed "The Titanic of the South", that vanished without a trace in 1909 while rounding the Cape from Durban to Cape Town. The entire ship, and all 211 crew and passengers, have never been found.
The Cape of Good Hope's geographic location, and the turning point for the "long-route" between the East and West has made it a vital strategic point throughout modern history. Massive oil tankers, First World War sailors, bulk cargo ships, World War 2 ships hunted by Nazi U-boats and even modern, hi-tech warships have faced the might of Cape's seas - and met their end.
Blaauwberg - The hill that changed the world
On the afternoon of 8 January 1806, the once quiet slopes of Blaauwberg Hill were shaken by cannon fire as two small, but diverse armies clashed. Men of many cultures and backgrounds met their end that day. Defending the Cape, two and a half thousand men stood their ground - Khoe, Batavians, Malays, Afrikaaners, San, French sailors and Dutchmen. They stood against the overwhelming forces of the British Empire and their Hungarian and German allies, who had landed at Melkbosstrand to take the Cape away from Napoleon.
The defenders lost - the British army reached Blaauwberg Hill first and had the advantage of the high ground, and the mercenaries that were supporting the Cape army fled. The French and local soldiers stood their ground long enough for the Batavian leader, General Janssens, to retreat to Tygerberg Hill with the majority of his supplies and soldiers.
Thanks to this bravery of the Cape's militia and French allies, General Janssens had enough troops to force the Cape's new British rulers to meet some of his demands, rather than to just surrender. The freed slaves of the Cape would remain free, property of non-Europeans would remain their own and the Cape would continue to allow religious freedom. This treaty, laying the groundwork for the Cape's present-day Malay, Cape Coloured and Afrikaaner cultures, was signed under the 400 year old Treaty Tree in Woodstock - still standing today.
Robben Island's first postman and prisoner
Autshumato was a member of the Goringhaicona tribe – a group today commonly referred to as the Strandlopers. He quickly learned to trade with passing European ships, even boarding a ship to Indonesia where he learned to speak English and Dutch. In 1632 he moved part of his tribe to Robben Island and set up a trading post and South Africa's first post office to assist passing ships. He knew this would benefit the Strandlopers.
In 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch colonists arrived to found Cape Town, Autshumato facilitated trade and good relations between the Dutch and Khoe tribes. Unfortunately, concepts of trade and ownership did not translate well to the local Khoe who believed in shared ownership, and this relationship gradually deteriorated. Autshumato was blamed for this breakdown and banished to Robben Island.
Despite this, he was able to escape the island and returned to the Cape Colony, becoming chief of the Goringhaicona and a Dutch interpreter again – he could see the mutual benefit that could be gained from cooperation.
The transcontinental traders of Klipgat Cave
This archaeological find indicates that even southernmost Africa had trade links to the Middle East, likely via other tribes across Africa. This community around Klipgat Cave would have enjoyed fertile gazing lands as the sea level was lower at the time - exposing fertile coastal flats that we cannot see today.
Interestingly, other finds at the caves near Gansbaai hold the first evidence of beads made from shells over 75 000 years ago. The making of these beads, with drilled holes indicates that twine had been invented by this civilisation - strongly suggesting that the ancient ancestors of the Quena people may have been the first humans to easily make fire using a bow-and-drill (they weren't the first to make fire though).
Pinnacle Point and "The Cradle of the Human Mind"
Pinnacle Point, near Mossel Bay, was home to the world's first modern human civilisation - a people that had culture beyond simply the need to survive. Buried in the cave's sediments, stockpiles of ochre, a pigment used for body painting were found - dated to be as old as 200 000 years!
This evidence of artwork, as well as improved methods of refining and using ochre in more recent archaeological sites strongly indicate that the ancient inhabitants of the Southern Cape coast may have been the basis for all modern human society.
It is speculated that the presence of a rich ocean and abundant resources could have allowed these ancient cave-dwellers the free time to develop arts and culture, and that the need to plan fishing excursions to align with the tides may have led to more complex language and thought processes in our ancient human ancestors in the Cape.
The Two Oceans Aquarium is a proud partner of the Sea-Change Project , an incredible international collaboration, bringing together the world's leading experts to shed light on our most ancient coastal peoples. Like the ancient people of Pinnacle Point, our human minds and society are closely linked to the ocean, which brought about the "sea-change" in our most primitive ancestors. Follow Sea-Change's efforts to bring to life the complex ancient societies that inhabited our coasts hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Countless landscapes have shaped South Africa’s people - our heritage is intertwined with nature. What's your nature story? How has nature shaped your life or your families? Are there any stories, historical or legendary, of how the ocean shaped your heritage? Feel free to share!