A Short History of the Castle of Good Hope

Obviously space will not allow us to delve into the rich, difficult history of this world-famous building. Save to say that the story of his Castle is a story of our young country.  It is a story of joy, pain, tears, laughter, disappointment, fear, hope – and all the other human emotions that characterize us as a nation…

Built between 1666 and 1679, the Castle is known as the oldest surviving building in South Africa and has been the centre of civilian, political and military life at the Cape from approximately 1679.

In its current state, the Castle arguably represents one of the best preserved 17th century DEIC architecture on the entire globe.   The 2015 – 2016 renovation of the Castle – the first in 20 years – will further enhance its appeal and position it well to become South Africa’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This historical building now houses, among others, the William Fehr Collection, an African pottery collection, the Castle Military Museum and a forge.

The Castle was, however, not the first fort to be built at the Cape. A quadrangular (four-pointed) fort was built after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 where the Grand Parade and the main Post Office are situated today. This fort was completed towards the end of 1653 and its inner structures in 1656. However, constant problems were experienced: The walls of the fort, which were constructed mainly of clay, collapsed and required constant repairs.  A model of this original fort can be seen in the Castle Military Museum.

Jan van Riebeeck left the Cape in 1662, and was succeeded by Zacharias Wagenaer. In 1664 there were renewed rumours of war between Britain and the Netherlands. Fearing a British attack on the Cape, the Lords Seventeen instructed Wagenaer to build a five-pointed stone Castle similar to other such fortifications in Europe and the East. The Castle was planned around a central point – a water-well under the “Boog” – with five bulwarks known as bastions.

The site of the new Castle was chosen in 1665 by the Commissioner and later first Governor of the Cape, Isbrand Goske. The engineer, Pieter Dombaer, was responsible for the construction of the Castle which was built by slaves, Khoikhoi, burghers, and company workers. (Anna Ras, die Kasteel en Ander Vestingswerke, p56, 57)

The foundations were dug in 1665 and the cornerstones of the first bastion, later known as the Leerdam Bastion, were laid on the 2nd January 1666, after which building started in all earnest. Three hundred sailors, commandeered from passing ships, soldiers, local Khoikhoi, women and slaves were used as workforce, breaking stone and collecting shells which were burned in lime ovens.  One often wonder what was the real human cost of building this European fortress on African soil.

Clinker bricks, also known as “Ijsel-stene”, which were brought as ballasts in Dutch ships, were offloaded at the Cape and were used as decorative features in certain parts of the Castle.

In 1667 peace returned to Europe, which caused building on the Castle to be delayed. The first bastion, Leerdam, was completed on the 5 November 1670. Buuren, Catzenellenbogen, Nassau and Oranje followed.

In 1672 the outbreak of war in Europe caused the building of the Castle to be resumed with new vigour. In 1679 the Castle was completed. It was called a Castle because, as in the case of other Castles in Europe, in addition to being a defensive structure, it comprised a small community or town on its own.

Inside the Castle walls there were among others a church, bakery, workshops, living quarters, offices, cells and numerous other facilities.

The slate used as paving in the Castle came from quarries on Robben Island. Wood was brought from Hout Bay. The cement used to build the Castle was obtained by burning shells in lime kilns at Robben Island until they formed lime. This lime was mixed with shells and sand to form extremely strong cement. (Historical Buildings in South Africa, p. 8)  This means that the Castle is intrinsically linked to two of South Africa’s icons and UNESCO World Heritage sites – Table Mountain and Robben Island.

The yellow paint on the walls was chosen because it reduces the glare from the sunlight, and reflects less heat. You may recall that former president Nelson Mandela damaged his eyes whilst working in the lime quarries of Robben Island during his long imprisonment there.  (Historical society of Cape Town, Newsletter 3, December 1986)

In 1982, a comprehensive restoration process was started to restore the Castle to its former glory. The process was completed early in 1993. Another exciting restoration and renovation is planned to proceed towards the end of 2014.

The Castle is entered through the Main Gateway from the Grand Parade and City Hall side. This entrance was built between 1682 and 1684 to replace the original entrance which was situated between the Buuren and Catzenellenbogen bastions. There are also two smaller entrances to the Castle.

This gateway offers a window on the past. The pediment above the entrance bears the coat-of-arms of the United Netherlands, portraying the crowned lion rampant with the seven arrows of unity in its paw. On the architrave below are carved the arms of the cities of Hoorn, Delft, Amsterdam, Middelburg, Rotterdam and Enkhuizen. These were the Dutch cities in which the United East India Company had chambers. The company’s monogram, VOC, flanks the carvings on either side.

The two pilasters, the entablature and pediment above are built of a grey-blue slate from Robben Island.  Built of small yellow bricks, called “Ijsselstein”, the entrance is a unique example of 17th century Dutch classicism in South Africa.

Looking at the Main Gateway from the courtyard, a baroque gable is seen above the entrance.  The gable is typically Cape-Dutch and dates back to the early eighteenth century.  A painting of the gable by Lady Anne Barnard (painted between 1797 and 1803) was traced to Britain and the colours scheme of the gable was chosen accordingly. The correctness of this bright colour scheme has been confirmed by the Netherlandse Monumenten Zorg. (Dutch Monument Care) (Ref: Mr Green, Restoration Architect, Dept. of Public Works).  The relief work is a replica consisting of four basic military elements, which are unusual features in gable decoration namely a flag, a regimental banner, drum, mortar and a pyramid of cannonballs. It is crowned by the helmet of a knight and various weapons of a knight are also shown.  On either side of the entrance are the statues of Mercury, the god of commerce and Neptune, the sea god (with the trident).

The look-out tower on the roof is known as the Captain’s Tower. The latter used to be the tallest building in Cape Town for many years to come.  The inner courtyard of the Castle is divided by a wall. The wall is approximately 116 metres in length, 12 metres high, three and a half metres wide at the bottom, and two metres wide at the top.  Buildings were erected on either side of the wall.

The part of the Castle formerly known as “De Kat,” was the office of the governor and arguably the first seat of political power in our country.  The course of history was determined in what are today very humble chambers.  In 1674 the Council of Policy and the Council of Justice and the church used the same chamber. The Council of Justice was responsible for hearing all cases at the Cape.

From these chambers, the Council of Policy controlled all facets of early colonial life; where they could live; what they could plant and produce; the prices of their produce and many other aspects of their lives in order to ensure order in the settlement. The new governor’s house became known as “Het Nieuwe Kat” and the transect wall, “Het Oude Kat”.  This is where the Castle’s chapel is situated and where one of the great indigenous figures of the time, Cratoa or Eva was buried.

The right-hand entrance in the wall was the entrance to the governor’s residence. His living quarters were on the top floor.  The governor’s sleeping quarters were above the arch linking the front courtyard to “Het Wapenplaatz”.  On the left of the arch was the residence of the Secunde, who was the second-in-command of the settlement.  The bottom floor was mainly used for wine cellars and storage space.

This building currently houses the William Fehr Collection of artworks depicting aspects of cultural life at the Cape from the VOC era until the end of the 19th century. The private collection of Dr William Fehr was exhibited at the Castle at the tri-centenary celebrations of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1952. This valuable collection has special relevance to the Castle and was bought, on public demand, to be on permanent exhibition in the Castle. (300 Years of the Castle at Cape Town, p. 109)

On the top floor, one finds the Lady Anne Barnard Banquet Hall. The hall originally consisted of four rooms, which were converted into a reception hall in 1930’s.

The well-known porch or stoep (frequently and wrongly referred to as De Kat Balcony) is an outstanding feature of the transect wall. The first porch was built in 1695 and known as “De Puij”.  It was rebuilt between 1786 and 1790. From this stoep proclamations were read, announcements made and laws proclaimed to soldiers and civilians at the Cape.  All legal sentences were announced from here and here official visitors to the Castle were welcomed (The Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, p. 124).  This remains a great reference point to explain how the announcements affected the lives of indigenes and slaves and in fact the shaped modern South Africa.

In 1936, the stoep which had become derelict was threatened by demolition. This was prevented, however, by an architect by the name of James Morris, who offered to restore it at his own expense.

Sundials were used to tell the time in the early years at the Cape.  The sundial on the eastern side (above the ceremonial office) was used to tell the time in the morning.  In the afternoon, the sundial next to the balcony was used. The time of the sundials was the official time for the entire Cape settlement. The settlement was kept informed of the time by the ringing of the bell in the bell-tower every hour on the hour. At night, or when the sun did not shine, time was kept by means of an hour glass. The “rondeganger” (guard on duty) turned the hour glass and rang the bell.

The Castle represents, in its restored form, Dutch, English and French building styles. In certain parts the flat roofs favoured by the Dutch were rebuilt during restoration. In other sections the pitched roofs and stone work of the British era can be seen. The original slate roof tiles were replaced with replicas.

The building on top of the roof between the bastions Leerdam and Oranje, is known as the Captain’s Tower. For 150 years, the Captain’s Tower was the highest building in Cape Town.

Sections of the moat around the Castle were restored. The original moat was 25 metres wide and filled with water from the streams of Table Mountain. The building of the moat started on 26 November 1677. Unfortunately, the moat quickly became foul-smelling because the drainage system was inadequate and the residents used it as a rubbish dump. In 1896 the moat on the seaside of the caslte was filled up to make way for the railway line. Later the whole moat was filled up.

From the Buuren bastion, the advantage of the pentagonal shape of the Castle is evident. The range and angle of attack of the cannons on the bastions overlapped, thus providing an impenetrable wall of cannon fire in the event of an enemy attack.

The Castle formed part of a formidable defensive system at the Cape that discouraged attacks. It has never been attacked.

The five bastions were built in the order Leerdam, Oranje, Nassau, Catzenellenbogen and Buuren. The bastions were named after the main titles of Willem, the Prince of Orange. The height of the walls of the bastions on the sea side was 10 metres, and those on the land side were even higher, apparently so that in the event of an attack from the sea, the cannons on the landward bastions could be turned around to fire across the seaward bastions.

The sections of the walls built in stone by the Dutch are evident. The brick sections date back to the British era. During British rule, the walls were made higher. During Dutch rule, the slate roofs were flat. The pitched roofs were erected by the British in the 1830’s (Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa, Vol. 3 p. 123).

From the Catzenellenbogen bastion, it is possible to imagine how close the sea came to the side of the Castle, before the land as we know it today was reclaimed between the years 1930 and 1945 with the help of Dutch engineers. The original entrance to the Castle, the “Waterpoort”, used to be in the wall between the Buuren and Catzenellenbogen bastions. This entrance was unsuitable from the outset because at high or spring tide the water level made access to the Castle impossible.

On Catzenellenbogen you also see the mountings of 4 six-pounder rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons.  These cannons were removed from the Castle at the beginning of the Second World War. While these guns were still on the bastion they were used to fire gun salutes on special occasions (The Argus 27.10.88).

The Garrison jail was built by Louis Thibault (1786). (300 Years of the Castle at Cape Town, p. 101).

The double cell to the right of the door was used for locking up drunken soldiers. The large cell with two doors was used for a maximum of 20 prisoners. The holes through which the prisoners received their food are clearly visible.

On the left hand side there are two cells designed for a maximum of ten prisoners.

The double cell to the left of the entrance was the ablution cell or bathroom. Here you can see a primitive stone bath which was used by the prisoners.

On the doors are inscriptions made by the prisoners. It is said that the prisoners used nails which they pulled from their shoes to make the inscriptions; this is probably only partly true.  They also had access to other instruments such as cutlery.  All these inscriptions were made during the British era. The inscriptions on the outside of the doors were probably made during daytime when the doors of the cells were open and the large entrance locked. The cells were used for the last time during the Second World War to detain prisoners from passing ships on their way to the East.

In these cells we find the first, physical evidence that British military regiments were stationed at the Castle. The inscription that remained intact makes mention of 61 Regiment and dates back to the years 1840-1845.

It is said that the names above the doors of two of the cells are names of well-known Cape taverns at the time.

When you move out of the cells you will see, on your left hand side, the jail warden’s office. The fireplace and safe box for keys can still be seen.

The engraved ship on Robben Island slate may have been placed above the original Castle entrance or Waterpoort.

It is believed that this dungeon or so-called “dark-hole” was used as ammunition store and gunpowder magazine. The room was, however, too damp and was later used as a coal store.

Research has revealed that the two rooms in the corner of the Old Recruitment Building were the original interrogation chamber and dungeon of the Castle. There was a good reason for the interrogation chamber being next to the dungeon. According to Dutch law, a criminal had to confess to his crime before his sentence could be executed. The sound of torture coming from the adjacent room certainly facilitated this process.  Prisoners were not supposed to be detained here for longer than 24 hours.

Horseshoes were sometimes put on doors for “luck”. It is interesting to note that the horseshoe on this door is hanging upside down indicating that in this room luck had run out.

The second courtyard of the Castle is known as “Het Wapenplaatz”. The name is evidently derived from the weapon inspections and drill exercises which regularly took place here. The well which is found here, formed part of the water supply system inside the Castle.

The soldiers’ quarters were situated on the top floor between Catzenellenbogen and Nassau. The middle floor was used as storage space. The hooks and large doors behind the hooks are still in evidence. Supplies were hoisted by rope, and swung through the doors. The workshops of tradesmen, as well as stables and storerooms were situated on the ground level.

From this courtyard the other two entrances to the Castle, which were mentioned on your arrival, are found. The larger entrance is known as Sally Port (an opening in a fortification through which to make “a sally”, in other words a sudden charge from a fortification up its besiegers (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).

The lawn on Het Wapenplaatz has been planted according to a Dutch garden design.

The paint used on the walls during restoration, is whitewash mixed with a coloring agent.  The condition of the paint is not due to bad workmanship, but to the lack of moisture-resistant methods used during the construction of the Castle.  Walls such as these must allow moisture through, which is necessary to bind the clay bricks. Whitewash ensures that enough moisture is allowed through and retained without the wall appearing wet.

The woodwork is painted in different colours. Tradition has it that the windows painted in a reddish-brown colour were the windows of rooms used to store arms. Another possible reason was that this was the only available paint at that time.

“Het Wapenplaatz” faces the back of the Governor’s quarters. The large doors to the left of the arch were three coach houses for the use of the governor. The last smaller door was the Governor’s fuel-wood store.

The date on the stone above the arch is probably the date on which this part of the Castle was completed (show stone to visitors).

“Het Bakhuys” is a modern replica of a building which was built in 1706 during the era of Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel. The original bakery was converted into a u-shaped building around a pool. The building was demolished by the British in the 19th century to make place for a parade ground. During the restoration of the Castle, excavations exposed the foundations of the original building and revealed the existence of the original Dolphin Pool. The balustrades and decorated walls of the pool were thrown into the pool during demolition, and covered up with soil. It was thus possible to determine exactly what the original pool looked like.

The original pool was named after the impressive fountain in the form of a dolphin in the middle of the pool. It was possible to make a replica of the fountain by examining sketches and descriptions made by Lady Anne Barnard during the late 1700’s. The replica was created by the artist Jan Corewijn. The original fountain was never traced. The dolphin resembles a fish that is found in the Mediterranean. A similar fountain at “Het Loo”, the palace of Willem III, in the Netherlands inspired Willem Adriaan van der Stel to build this fountain.

From May 1797, Lady Anne Barnard, wife of the British Colonial Secretary, acted as first lady to the Governor of the Cape, Lord McCartney whose wife did not accompany him to the Cape. Lady Anne Barnard and her husband lived in the Governor’s residence because he found it far too large for his purposes. She made an everlasting impression on social life at the Cape. From sketches and documents which she left behind, much is learnt about life at the Cape during the period in which she resided here. (Lady Anne Barnard at the Cape, p. 1, 133)

The wooden blocks used as paving under the arch, were installed with the aim of dampening the sound made by the horses’ hooves and coaches when they moved underneath the Governor’s sleeping quarters.

They also ensured that people walking through the arch did not have to walk in mud and water.

The wooden cross found in the arch, was made of wood from the forest at Delville (France), where many South African soldiers lost their lives in the Battle of Delville Wood. As part of the 9th (Scottish) Division, 1 SA Brigade took part in the Somme offensive and in particular the Battles of Trônes Wood, Berfnay Wood, Longueval and Delville Wood, at the beginning of July 1916. The SA Brigade was almost entirely eliminated in these battles, lasting from 5-20 July 1916. After the bloody battle, the brigade had 29 officers and 751 troops remaining out of a total of approximately 4000 that started the battle. (SADF Review, 1991)

The well was originally in the centre of the large courtyard inside the Castle, before the dividing wall was built.   According to research, it was the centre spot from where the Castle was measured out. Today we find the well in this small room (show the room).

From the archway, the width of the original dividing wall before the buildings were added can be seen.

The granary is one of the driest rooms in the Castle. Originally it was the governor’s granary. It was later used as a gunpowder magazine, because the previous gunpowder store had become too damp.

Today the room houses an archaeological museum. On display is, among others, one of the two lions which were originally seen on the pillars at the entrance to the Castle. Initially it was thought that they were the work of the German sculptor Anton Anreith. When layers of whitewash had been removed, however, it was found that they were made from baked clay and of Eastern origin, probably dating back to the 13/1400’s.

An example of the archaeological excavations done during the restoration of the Castle found here (the tourist guide will point out the excavation).

Today the Castle stands not only as a bastion of our colonial past but as a beacon of our unsure but bright future.   More and more South Africans (and foreigners) are embracing and accepting this citadel as part of their collective heritage and history.  Through events, festivals, celebrations, commemorations, concerts, workshops and exhibitions, the Castle of Good Hope is positioning itself for survival over the next 350 years…

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