I’ve probably walked past it a hundred times over the years I’ve lived in Cape Town.
Overshadowed by the clamour of crowds at the Amphitheatre and the spinning capsules on the Cape Wheel, a plain stone pillar with weathered brass plaque marks the spot in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront where 150 years ago the fortunes – and face – of Cape Town were changed forever. And, while locals tired of the incessant cold fronts may not like to hear this, it was all thanks to the Cape’s tempestuous winter weather.
June 1858 and a series of fierce storms had sent dozens of ships to the seabed. The shilling-counters at Lloyd’s of London were none too impressed and sent a missive: because there was no safe harbour, vessels wintering in Table Bay would no longer be insured. Something, the city fathers would have said, had to be done.
And so, back to the present-day and that simple plaque: “At this spot H.R.H Prince Alfred tipped the first truck of stone for the breakwater on the 17th of September 1860”
A teenaged royal and a truckload of Malmesbury Shale: before long the Alfred Basin was dug, the breakwater was built and Cape Town’s future as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’ was cast, quite literally, in stone.
The plaque is among dozens of historical sites that are hidden in plain sight throughout the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Millions of tourists and shoppers visit here each year, and yet most wander right past, over and under some of Cape Town’s most engaging history.
It’s a history easily explored thanks to the V&A’s complimentary walking tour map that leads you past 22 of the most important historical sites, but is perhaps better enjoyed in the company of Thandikhaya Tsondwa.
He’s one of the walking tour guides from the Chavonnes Battery Museum: tours last around 90 minutes and start at the Battery; built in 1725 it’s one of the oldest Dutch colonial sites left in Cape Town.
“Right here, this was a battlefield!” exclaims Tsondwa, as we stand alongside the 36-pound cannons that kept a beady eye on ships passing Table Bay. Indoors, the excellent museum is a mix of excavated Battery walls and informative displays and dioramas that are a reminder of just how fortified the Cape was back in the 1700s, and how nasty, brutish and short life was for many of its inhabitants.
Outside, the colourful Clock Tower was built in 1883 for the Port Captain and remains hard to miss. Regardless, most tourists waltz right by the Gothic-style tower without peeking at the tidal gauge on the ground floor, or imagining the cosy reading room for ship’s captains and the mirror-bedecked top-floor office that allowed the Port Captain to keep a close eye on proceedings.
Sadly the ‘Penny Ferry’ no longer runs across the entrance to the Alfred Basin, so we step across the decidedly less romantic swing bridge and wander towards the Two Oceans Aquarium. On the quayside, the Victoria & Alfred Hotel – the first hotel to open in the V&A – has done time as a cold store and baggage warehouse for passengers on the Union Castle line ships.
A few steps away two ships have run aground, if only for a short spell in the Robinson Dry Dock. Few tourists can resist a peek into the belly of this engineering masterpiece: opened in 1882 by its namesake, Governor Sir Hercules Robinson, it was for decades the largest dry dock south of the equator and proved crucial for ship repairs during World War 2. At the turn of the 19th-century it was used for rather more frivolous entertainment, explains Tsondwa, with swimming galas conducted in top hats a highlight on the Cape’s social calendar.
The stone for the breakwater and dry dock didn’t quarry itself though. On the hillside the Breakwater Prisons are a stark reminder of the convict labour that did the bulk of the work. Although today the buildings house the respectable Graduate School of Business and a hotel, the iron framed doors and heavy bars are a clear reminder of the 2000 convicts who laboured here.
Equally disturbing is the cruel treadmill around a corner: for punishment, errant convicts would spend hours on the rotating wooden staircase where a moment’s rest meant shins left battered and bleeding. Look carefully in the outer wall nearby and you’ll also see crude graffiti from 19th-century inmates, including a caricature of Paul Kruger.
On a promontory overlooking the harbour the stylish Dock House was built in 1870 to house the Harbour Master, but is today a boutique hotel. Alongside is the striking Time Ball Tower, a relic from the days when ships would set their chronometers by the daily drop of the bright red ball. Built in 1894 it was used, remarkably, for over 40 years.
From the Dock House the Waterfront is at your feet. The Iziko SA Maritime Museum with its cosy stash of model ships and homage to the SS Mendi, the tunnel that delivered stone from quarry to breakwater, the pier where inmates were dispatched to Robben Island, the cannons of the Chavonnes Battery.
And there, amid the throng of camera-toting tourists, is the stone pillar and bronze plaque; the place where all of this began. And still, nobody’s stopping to look.
Maps for the self-guided historical walking tour available from V&A information desks.
Guided tours depart from the Chavonnes Battery Museum. R100/R20 adult/child
www.chavonnesmuseum.co.za/021 416 6230