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.

This cave painting from Kammanassieberg records a therianthrope - a half-man-half fish that shamans drifted as when in a trance. From Posiedon to Aquaman, humans have long felt the call to visualize our connection to the oceans this way. Photo by S. T. Bassett, courtesy of Sea-Change Project.

“Even San shamans living deep in the Kalahari, who have never even been underwater, have experiences of being underwater during trances or altered states. This suggests that water has great symbolic relevance and power in our collective unconscious.” – Sea-Change Project

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.

Image courtesy of Love Cape Town.

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.

“Near the Kraal I found rents and fissures in the ground, one of which I followed for about the extent of a mile. In some places they were more than an inch wide, and in others much less.” – Von Buchenroder, naturalist who surveyed the present Royal Ascot area after the 1809 earthquake

The Milnerton Fault is an ancient structure, related to the breakup of the Gondwana Supercontinent. Image courtesy of C. Hartnady.

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.

“Religious tolerance is still one of South Africa's strongest traits – and a story we don't tell often enough.” – Shubnum Khan, South African author

The Kramat of Shaykh Mohamad Hassen Ghaibie Shah on Signal Hill. The Image courtesy of Love Cape Town.

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.

The wreck of the MV Seli 1 burns in the waters of Table Bay. Image by ER24 EMS.

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.

After leaving Durban, the SS Waratah was never seen again. Image courtesy of

“I'm not a superstitious man, but I know my seafaring lore. The rig of the strange vessel immediately brought to mind the legend of the Flying Dutchman... the phantom ship held me spellbound. It disappeared in the direction taken by the Waratah, and I had a feeling it was a sign of disaster for the liner.” – C. G. Phillips, chief officer of the SS Clan MacIntyre - the last ship to see and signal the SS Waratah recounting a passing "ghost ship"

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 shipsWorld 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.

The 1852 wrecking of the HMS Birkenhead at Danger Point, off Gansbaai, was the first time that "women and children first" was called when loading lifeboats. Almost 400 soldiers stood on deck, eventually drowning, so that the women and civilians aboard could survive. Image courtesy of Hermanus Online.

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.

Image courtesy of Chavonnes Battery Museum.

“No time was lost is effecting a landing on the beach near Blaauwberg, Blue Mountain, with the loss of thirty-six men ... killed by the fire of the Dutch sharpshooters, posted on the commanding height [of Blaauwberg Hill]. On the morning of the 8th the army ... marched towards Cape Town. The sharpshooters were easily dislodged from their position, and the ascent of Blaauwberg accomplished.” – Colin T. Campbell, British South Africa (1897)

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.

The 400 year old Treaty Tree stands tall on the corner of Spring and Treaty St, Woodstock. Image by Dolores Coullie.

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.

Capetonians of all races gather to reenact the Battle of Blaauwberg - these men represent the Javanese Artillery, defending the Cape. Image courtesy of Islam Here.

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.

When Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape in 1652, he was greeted by Autshumato and his people who already spoke Dutch and were familiar with European customs. Painting by Charles Bell. 

“Actually people like Harry the Strandloper whose real name was Outarmiyo (sp) he was one of the first freedom fighters to go to Robben Island. I addressed a meeting of coloured intellectuals in Pretoria when I was President. A retired teacher said 'we know why you are so close to the coloured people, because you are a coloured yourself'” – Nelson Mandela upon hearing that DNA tests showed he had Khoisan ancestry

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

Sheep originated in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). So it may come as a surprise to you to hear that 2000 year old sheep skeletons were found in caves near Gansbaai! 

2000 years ago, sheep farmers would have looked out across grasslands when the sea level was lower. Image courtesy of Boardsoon.

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.

Modern "Afrikaner sheep" are the descendants of the original stock herded by the Khoe people over 2000 years ago. This breed has been exported to Australia and the Middle East - because it's tough as nails, just like those who bred them. Image courtesy of Roy's Farm.

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!

Excavations near Mossel Bay have revealed the earliest evidence of art - almost 200 000 years old! Image courtesy of Point of Human Origins.

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

“These ochres were an important part of human life, and they are telling you that the human mind was not just concentrating on getting down and trying to find some food every day; that the human mind was almost as advanced as we are today.” – Prof. Chris Henshilwood, Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour, University of Bergen

Beneath this golf course, within the cliffs of Pinnacle Point lies the evidence for the world's most ancient civilisation. Image courtest of Platinum.

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.

Our ancient ancestors were more advanced than we give them credit for - and that advancement began here in South Africa. A long movie, but an amazing one.

“The leap in our evolution to become Homo sapiens is arguably the greatest “sea-change” in the 250,000 year history of our species. The phrase “sea-change” was first coined by Shakespeare in The Tempest, and it means a profound transformation wrought by nature. It appears that this transformation was wrought in part by our relationship with the sea, as it is believed that the high nutrient content in seafood harvested from the abundant rocky shoreline and kelp forests fuelled the brain and upgraded the architecture of our minds. Because we all share the same ancestors, the southern tip of Africa is quite possibly the original home of everyone alive today.” – Sea-Change Project

Human society originated in the Cape, high-nutrient foods, social interactions the absence of stress set the groundwork for human development and awareness on levels similar to what we see today. Image courtesy of Sea-Change Project.

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!

Image courtesy of Super Stock.

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