Cape’s bastion of history

04
Nov

A new project celebrates Cape Town Castle, 350 years old this year, and honours key figures in our past, writes Michael Morris.

We can almost hear Zacharias Wagenaer’s voice in the words passed down to us in the record, and a hint of a surely improbable ambition of being remembered by history as a “somebody” in his time.

“Our conquests,” the commander told a small gathering in January 1666 at the laying of the foundation stone of what would become the Cape Town Castle, “are extending further and further and all the black and yellow people are being suppressed. We are building a stone wall out of the earth that thundering cannon cannot destroy.” Holy Christendom would thus be made known and find a place “in wild, heathen lands”.

“We praise the almighty reign of God,” he went on, “and say in unison: Augustus’ empire, victorious Alexander and Caesar’s great kingdom – none of these had the honour of laying a stone at the end of the earth.”

There was nobody around to dispute the audacious sweep of Wagenaer’s oratory. Yet, as he laid that stone, so far from the salons and guilds and the mercantile sophistication of Holland, Wagenaer could perhaps be forgiven his grandiloquence.

If he could not have been expected to foresee the immense scale of historical, cultural and political consequences of establishing with such rock-solid certainty a widening European presence at the southern tip of his “wild” Africa, the commander’s “stone at the end of the earth” would prove lastingly, too often grimly, significant for growing numbers of people across the sub-continental region, for generations.

Wagenaer’s castle, the country’s oldest building, remains a potent symbol today; at the time, it was the token of a seismic episode. Three and a half centuries ago, southern Africa was poised between East and West. The region had, after all, been known for centuries, if not intimately, to Arab, Indian and Chinese cartographers, traders and travellers.

But the determination of the Dutch to settle in so soon after their first harried efforts to maintain merely a victualling station halfway along the lucrative trade route to the East placed the region squarely within the Western Atlantic world.

It is where the country remains, by and large, despite a greater involvement in Africa than at any time in recent centuries.

Wagenaer’s sturdy fort, though, isarguably more symbolically significant for particular, local South African reasons, for it stands at the centre of a long narrative of conquest and, later, repression.

In a sense, the first unintending settlers were accidental conquerors.

Though the first four-cornered wood-and-earth fort, pegged out within days of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival in April, 1652, may conceivably have been a ramshackle affair, it was the precursor of Wagenaer’s project, and was the start of something big, bigger than anyone at the Cape then could have foreseen.

Impelled by a range of complex economic and socio-political factors, settler expansion grew, and so, naturally, did resistance and contestation. With a big global player behind them, and ample slaves, the small settler community proved for the most part irresistible. It was a complex social organism which, in time, even produced a wholly new indigenous African language.

When the British took over at the beginning of the 19th century, the region embarked on a 100 years of bloody subjugation – along with continuing integration with the West, with all its attendant benefits and shortcomings. The century culminated in the war with the Boers, whose defeat produced the union of colonial territories and republics that defines the shape, and much else, of South Africa today.

Ever since that day of 1666, the Castle has remained, squat and immovable below Table Mountain, as a reminder of South Africa’s record of endeavours, follies, triumphs and tragedies.

Its meaning as a site of remembering and memorialising the complexity of our society will be evoked next month when statues of four significant historical figures are unveiled at the Castle as a reminder of their role in the national story, and the importance of the building itself in a history of tragic errors and, after so many years, an overwhelming redemptive will.

Caribbean poet and essayist Derek Walcott has warned against the temptation to “take revenge in nostalgia”, and it is doubtless important to remember that these long-dead eminences, the early go-between Doman, and the kings Cetshwayo, Sekhukhune and Langalibalele, were every bit as human, and products of their time, as Commander Wagenaer, with his thoughts about the end of the earth.

They all made our history. The challenge lies, perhaps, in acknowledging our belonging in it, and acknowledging who “they” were.

For the Argus, there’s a touching association in the case of Cetshwayo, who was a friend of the paper’s founding owner, Saul Solomon. When, in September 1880, Solomon’s five-year-old daughter Maggie and her governess Martha Burton, drowned in a reservoir on the slopes of Lion’s Head, Cetshwayo, then a prisoner at the Imhoff Battery, penned a note to him.

“I am writing to you my great friend,” he said, “to express my deep sorrow at the very great misfortune that has come down on your house. I feel so very sorry to hear that one of your branches has withered and left you. I really do not know how to express my great sorrow as touching such a great calamity.” The Zulu king, of course, was no stranger to the great sorrow of inexpressible loss; he had lost his kingdom.

Though, after his unwanted sojourn as a prisoner at the Cape, Cetshwayo was given the opportunity to sail to London to petition Queen Victoria, and was able to return to his kingdom, it was a subjugated fiefdom, and his people, along with all the other subject peoples of the region, had more than a century to wait before being acknowledged as common citizens.

Next month’s event at the Castle, in which Independent Media is a partner, is a step on that path.

Cape Argus