When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) settled on the shores of Table Bay in 1652 to establish a refreshment station, Jan van Riebeeck, the first Commander of the Cape, had a clay and timber fort built. With tensions rising between the British and the Dutch in 1664, it was time for a more permanent structure. Even though the VOC was reluctant to invest in the project, the pentagonal stone fortress was built between 1666 and 1679, close to where the previous fort was standing along the coastline of Cape Town. On stormy days, waves were crashing against the strong walls of the northernmost bastions of the Castle of Good Hope while the others were guarding the mountain sides.
During Dutch colonial times, the five-point star fort became the Cape headquarter for the VOC. Military, political, judicial and economic life was centred here. There were barracks for soldiers and sailors, apartments for high-ranking officers and officials, workshops and stores, a church, prison cells, and a torture chamber. A wall, built to protect citizens in case of an attack, was erected to divide the inner courtyard. This additional building housed the De Kat Balcony leading to the governor’s residence from where announcements were made to Capetonians. From 1811 under the second British occupation it became a purely military entity that was also used as a prison during the Second Boer War (1899–1902).
Today, after land reclamation, the Castle stands almost a kilometre inland in the Central Business District. It is the oldest existing colonial building in South Africa and world’s best preserved example of a VOC fort.
It is yellow!
The Castle was built by soldiers, volunteers, slaves and Khoisan people undergoing punishment with local materials – granite rock from Signal Hill and blue slate and shells from Robben Island. The yellow paint on the walls was originally chosen because it lessened the effects of the sun in terms of heat and glare.
Each bastion is named – hard to pronounce though!
The bastion is the angular-shaped fortification at each corner of the fort. At the completion of the edifice in 1679, each of the five bastions was named after the main titles of the Dutch king William III of Orange-Nassau: Leerdam to the west, and the clockwise Buuren, Katzenellenbogen, Nassau, and Oranje. Each of the bastions housed its own garrison, ammunition and store rooms, and specialized production centres like forges and bakeries.
The oldest bell in South Africa still resonates here on a daily basis
Located above the main entrance, the bell tower houses the oldest bell in South Africa. It was cast in Amsterdam in 1697 and weighs just over 300 kilograms (660lb). It was used to announce the time, funerals, as well as warning citizens in case of danger and fire since it could be heard 10 kilometres away. It was also rung to summon residents and soldiers when important announcements needed to be made. The nostalgic sound of the bell still resonates daily during the 10 o’clock key ceremony.
The Castle was never taken
Actually, the Castle of Good Hope was never attacked. The fortifications of the VOC were very deterrent and the British generals decided to bypass them: battles against the British were fought and lost by the Dutch at Muizenberg in 1795 and Blaauwberg in 1806. The Castle was surrendered peacefully each time and not a single gun was shot at it.
The Castle was part of an ingenious defence system
The wars the Netherlands was fighting in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were bound to have repercussions in the colonies. If the Castle of Good Hope was self-standing, it was part of a solid defence system. Lines of communication and fortification branched from the fortress into various directions, along the coast and inland. An efficient signal system was implemented using fires, a secret flag code or canons. The flag code was a way of letting the Castle know whether a friend or foe ship was approaching, and for the ship to ensure the Cape was still under Dutch control. The 35 signalling cannons on hilltops and mountains were used to warn the inland inhabitants of potential threats and call them to action.
Between its completion in 1679 and today, 6 flags have flown over the Castle:
- 1679 (actually since 1652): the Dutch flag
- 1795: the British flag after the battle of Muizenberg and to mark the first British occupation.
- 1803: the British leave the Cape in accordance with the Treaty of Amiens signed with the French, and return the Castle to the Batavian Republic – the name of the Netherlands as a French vassal under Napoleon. The Dutch flag is back.
- 1806: after the battle of Blaauwberg, the second British occupation starts and the Union Jack is back.
- 1922: for the first time, the flag of the young Union of South Africa flies over the Castle.
- 1994: after Mandela is elected, the new South African flag is raised on the Castle.
Marcella & Claire
- To visit the Castle of Good Hope, click here.
- The Cape Town City Pass includes the visit of the Castle of Good Hope and is a good way of checking out Cape Town’s most iconic sites.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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