The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 17 No 2 - Dec 2016


By Commander Leon Steyn
South African Naval Museum

Cape Town, a city steeped in military history, gives locals and visitors a glimpse into the past. The abundance of museums and memorials ensure that the city's military past is remembered. 'The military history is an integral part of the story of Cape Town. Being the oldest city in South Africa, Cape Town has a rich history and the military plays a large part in that story. We cannot erase this history but, instead, need to preserve it as part of our heritage and that of our inclusive city. It is interesting to see where and how it all started,' said the City's Mayoral Committee Member for Tourism, Events and Economic Development, Councillor Eddie Andrews. The launch of the Military Heritage Route is a part of the City of Cape Town's culture and heritage strategy.

The Military Heritage Route, which includes the Castle of Good Hope, the South African Naval Museum in Simon's Town, and the Chavonnes Battery Museum, showcases the rich military heritage that Cape Town has to offer Capetonians and visitors.

Uncovering the Cape's military history

The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest surviving building in South Africa's colonial era and has been the centre of civilian, political and military life at the Cape since 1666. It was initially erected as a fort and, about thirteen years later (1679), was turned into the Castle of Good Hope. It has survived many challenges in its time and in its current state the Castle possibly represents one of the best preserved 17th century buildings.

Castle Board CEO, Calvyn Gilfellan, says the history of the Cape, South African and Africa is one of armed colonial conquest. 'But even before the Europeans came, the indigenous people had been warring over cattle, water holes, women, children and the like. In the case of the Cape, the first recorded historic 1510 battle at Table Bay, where indigenous Khoi warriors defeated Portuguese viceroy Francisco d'Almeida and his army of 60 men because the latter stole cattle and abducted children, set the scene for military heritage that is complex, intricate and multi-dimensional' he says.

The South African Naval Museum pays homage to the country's rich naval history. There is also some very dramatic naval artwork on display in the museum, recalling, in particular, some of the sea battles fought during the Second World War (1939-1945). If tales of naval battles and heroism on the high seas are of interest, then the South African Naval Museum should be on everyone's itinerary.

In the mid-1600s, Table Bay was the main docking point for ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The little seaport of Simon's Town became the preferred harbour during the winter months in the Cape as it was less exposed to the hazardous storms. In 1971, Simon's Town officially became the winter anchorage and the town was developed to accommodate the busy naval port.

Launch of the Military History Route in Simon's Town (Middle North Battery),
Heritage Day, 24 September 2016.

The Chavonnes Battery Museum showcases archaeological ruins that were buried for over 140 years. Originally built in 1724 using rock from Table Mountain and cement made of sea shells, guests are able to step below sea-level among the ribs of this old VOC Fort. Here visitors are able to touch the sand of the original shoreline of the Cape of Storms/Good Hope. The VOC Fort was ripped apart and buried in 1860 and, since 2008, has become a visitor attraction in piecing together the early history of Cape Town.

'One of the main challenges that we face is the seasonal nature of tourism in our city, with high demand in the summer season and low demand during winter. The Military Heritage Route can be explored year-round. Each of the three sites along the route has been in existence for a number of years and all have something unique to offer the visitor. It is quite fascinating to learn where it all started and how the city we live in has evolved from over 300 years ago,' added Councillor Andrews.

Flag Officer Fleet, Rear Admiral Mhlana,
Director of Tourism City of Cape Town Mrs Nombulelo Mkefa,
and Dr Theuns Vivian (CCT)
Photos: By courtesy L Steyn)

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