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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Cape Town Before 1900

What's left of the roughly 150 years of Dutch rule and 100 of British?

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A handy museum model of Cape Town in 1800 highlights in red (1) a bit of coastal fortification, (2) the prominent Amsterdam Battery (shaped like an amphitheater), (3) the tiddly-tidy street grid, and (4) the pentagonal Castle of Good Hope, which when completed in 1679 was on the beach but which reclamation has now left almost a mile from the salt chuck. The museum in question is the Chavonnes Battery Museum, at the red pointer.

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A bit of masonry survives there.

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Moat to the left, battered wall to the right. For generations, local schoolchildren have had the founding of Cape Town, in 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck, battered into their brains. He ordered the construction of a fort, but it had walls of sod; when the settlement was a dozen years old work began on this heavy-duty replacement, able to withstand attack, presumably from the British. The castle became a national monument in 1936 and now gets the full tourist-amenity treatment.

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From 1674 to 1795 this was the local headquarters of the VOC, the Dutch East Company. (You don't want the full Dutch name unless you speak Dutch, and if you speak Dutch you already know it.) Then the British moved in. In 1917, a few years after the formation of the Union of South Africa, the British moved out, taking the soldiers of the Imperial Forces with them and leaving the place to the new Defence Force of the Union.

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The pediment (a replica) carries the coat of arms of the United Netherlands, below it are the six coats-of-arms of the cities that had united to form the VOC (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, Zeeland, Hoorn, and Enkhuizen). These six panels are flanked by two with the VOC logo.

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The interior of the fort is a courtyard divided by a line of buildings into two halves. One of those halves is further divided, by the building on the left, into two other spaces, this one much smaller than the other. In other words, this inner courtyard, the wapenplaats, (say it out loud and you won't need a translation) measures about 60 feet across, while the distance between the corners of the pentagon are almost 450. Yes, that's a sundial on the wall on the right. Above it, Table Mountain, which is level as a table but so knife-edged that you could hardly balance a soup plate on it.

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Looking out from the wapenplaats through the main gate.

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The flags are military trophies. Neptune and Mercury evidently take a break, not something you'd think gods needed.

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The governor's residence faces them from the other side of the courtyard. The German sculptor Anton Anreith and the French architect Louis Thibault (both of whom figure repeatedly in the history of early Cape Town) worked together here. The central shield carries the Lion of Holland, flanked (again) by Neptune and Mercury, this time as cherubs.

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A block away from the castle is the old government granary, dated 1814, again by Thibault and Anreith. The British had just taken over the colony, and so the handsome coat-of-arms is theirs.

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Neptune on the right. A shy Britannia ducks behind a palm.

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Originally, starting in 1680, hundreds of slaves were quartered here. The building wasn't big enough, so it got a second floor. Most the slaves were gone by 1807, when the building became government offices, with a new facade by (who else?) Thibault. A courtroom was added in 1815 and stayed in use for a century. In 1926, Adderley Street was widened so much that the building lost its front 13 meters. Thibault's facade was destroyed but then carefully reproduced on the building's new face.

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The back of the building carries a pediment sculpture by (was nobody else available?) Anreith.

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Makes you wonder if L. Frank Baum happened by and got a brilliant idea.

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Anreith did the Mercury and Neptune up top here, too, on the Tuynhuts, or "twin house," which served in the early 20th century as the town house of the governor-general of the Union of South Africa. The sculptures had been removed when the British took over the colony; so, presumably, was the railing-portrait of William V of the Netherlands. All were put back 150 years later, in 1969.

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In 1897 the South African Museum, a museum of natural history established in 1825, moved into this building on the grounds of the Company Gardens. The architect, Johannes Vixseboxse, was Dutch-born and trained, which may explain why the building appears to be a younger sibling of the Antwerp town hall.

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The nearby Parliament or House of Assembly, from 1884, is British not only in its classicism but in its materials, all imported. The architect was Charles Freeman, who also designed the nearby Standard Bank.

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Moved to one side but nicely framed in red and white, Victoria stands proudly on a spot few see. The statue, by Thomas Brock, was unveiled in 1890 in remembrance of Victoria's Golden Jubilee, which occurred in 1887. Brock later did the Imperial Memorial to Victoria that stands in front of Buckingham Palace--and lots more. Nothing but the best.

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You can't help feeling sorry for the hopelessly overpowered Koopmans de Wet House on Sea Street, once the beach drive. The land was granted to a jeweler in 1701, and he built a one-story house. The house changed hands, gaining a second floor and a classical facade. A widow named De Wet bought the house in 1806; her daughter inherited it and married a Koopman. Hence the name. The house stayed in the family until 1913, when it became a state-owned museum. That was no accident: the last De Wet was a woman who valued the past, and it is said that the Castle of Good Hope survived only because of her fighting for its preservation.

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This fanlight-to-die-for is from just before 1800. Pity the window washer.

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A split door opens into a small courtyard.

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A built-in cupboard.

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The main upstairs room, with bedrooms to either side. That ladder pretending to be a staircase heads to the attic.

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The main staircase isn't for the frail.

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Imagine walking this cupboard up. Sure, it breaks, but still.

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Slave-quarters were upstairs in the back and over a stable. Presumably one of their tasks was polishing these hitching posts.

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The Gold Museum occupies what was the Lutheran pastor's house, built in 1782 and occupied as such until 1891. The architect is unknown, but the house is unusual for having a dakkamer, or attic--the only surviving one in the province. The plaster ornaments are by Anreith.

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Another splendid doorway. It's easy to overlook how much variation occurs within this type of doorway.

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Two doors away, this is the so-called Lutheran House, now the Dutch embassy. It was built as a rent-house for the Lutheran church next door and was finished in 1787, a few years after the parsonage. Those were years when classicism was coming back into style, and the building has since lost its fluted pilasters and decorative urns.

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A still more severe version, built sometime between 1817 and 1835 at 110 Plein. Declared a national monument in 1971, the house was restored in the 1980s for use by Anglo-American.

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Several streets on the downtown grid have lots of 19th century houses, vaguely Georgian although often modified. This house, at 87 Bree, has lost its cornice but retains part of its original stoep, or stoop.

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There's more where that came from, including this lineup, also on Bree (literally "wide") Street.

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Heritage has become big business, as here at 158 Buitengracht. Recently restored, the building was flaking to bits when Hans Fransen published a photograph of it in The Old Houses of the Cape (1965). Built sometime between 1811 and 1824, by 1850 it was a hotel. Now it is again.

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Those fanlights!

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A simpler version, back on Bree. Oddly, the stoep, from the late 18th century, is older than the house.

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The same building with its neighbors.

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Pardon our paint, but we have to catch your attention.

This is Wale Street, one of the streets bounding the so-called Malay Quarter, also (and originally) called Bo-Kaap. The Dutch, short on laborers, brought slaves here from the East Indies. Freed in the 1830s, the ex-slaves became artisans and clustered in this hillside neighborhood. The houses are all one-story and flat-roofed, although the oldest one (here on the left) has a wavy parapet and dates from the 1760s, making it the oldest house in the city still in its original form. Most of the houses are from after 1820.

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The district was identifed as a slum in 1944, but a first group of 15 houses was restored in 1950.

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Warehouses survive with Amsterdam-style hoists.

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Another.

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The city's founder, van Riebeeck, ordered the construction of a garden in 1652, the year of the city's founding. A visitor wrote in 1725 that "none of the celebrated gardens of ancient times, or of modern garden-lovers could be compared with this astonishing and beautiful garden in respect of the layout and the rare trees from the four corners of the earth." (J.J. Oberholster, The Historical Monuments of South Africa, 1972, p. 13, quoting Francois Valentyn's Old and New East India.)

As the VOC's fortunes waned, so did the gardens, but the British began restoring them, no longer to grow vegetables but to create a pleasure garden. At first the garden was restricted to the governor's use, but in 1848 the public gained access, and in 1892 the municipality took over and made the garden into a park. The old trees have kept growing, and shade is not in short supply.

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The Victorians loved their statues, but a later generation equally loves to mock them, especially when the subject is a committed imperialist--and filthy rich to boot. The statue hiding under its new, mocking attire was erected in 1908; the sculptor was Henry Pegrem. The base, its rustic surface a reminder of the source of Rhodes' wealth, was by Herbert Baker.

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Baker did the stone tempietto here; the statues of Castor and Pollux were by Alfred Turner. They symbolize the unified force of Boers and Brits who died at Delville Wood in 1916. The monument is a replica of one there.

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Between 1791 and 1838 there was a zoo in part of the garden. Part of the site is now occupied by the Hiddingh campus of the University of Cape Town, but the zoo's gate survives. It's the work of... do we know them well enough to call them Louis and Anton? It's probably from 1805.

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One sleek lioness.

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There's another gate on the other side of the avenue, but in this case the lions are replacements by Ivan Mitford-Barberton in the 1950s.

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Instead of sleek, we have the leonine equivalent of a six-pack.


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