Angela, a slave woman from Bengal India, landed in Cape Town by sea in 1658 (approx. 200 years before Indian indentured labourers arrived in Durban). She had been bought by the Cape Magistrate and then like a commodity sold a few times from one person to another, as usually happened in the slave trade of those days. What’s unusual about Angela’s story is that she got “liberated” within 4 years of her arrival “out of pure goodwill” by her new owners. Angela started making a living by selling vegetables mainly to passing ships. So many ships stopped at Cape Town port that her business grew. Soon she became wealthy, started speaking Dutch, attended church and got integrated into the Afrikaans community. She went on to marry a wealthy Dutch and bore him sons. After her husband died, she took over business and doubled the joint estate! She even bought her own slave! An amazing story? Well that is Cape Town for you! A city that’s not just incredibly beautiful, but packed with intrigues and fascinating stuff…
It’s as if the Creator created Cape Town with special care to make it into a masterpiece. He started with the mountains. Around 300 million years back during ice age, the mountain was at sea level when ice sheets flattened the layers of sandstone, levelling the plateau on top to make the famous Table Mountain – one of the oldest mountains in the world. This done, creator placed the Devil’s Peak on the east and Lion’s Head to the west to create a dramatic backdrop. Add to this the Signal Hills and the broad majestic sweep of mountainous heights is complete creating a natural amphitheatre of the City Bowl and the harbour. Then he placed a river (called Fresh River) to flow down it’s slope and another river that runs underground (called Camissa meaning “place of sweet waters”). Next he decorates the plateau with unusually rich biodiversity. More than 2200 species of plants are confined to only the Table Mountain – more than what exist in the whole of United Kingdom! Then he populated it with a range of animals – but the most popular one is the dassie. These are cute little creatures, resembling guinea pig with short ears and tail, clustering in areas visible to the tourists, almost as if they are on a job deployed by the tourism board. Finally to add “icing to the cake “ he covers the “table” with a table cloth – orographic clouds formed when wind is directed up the mountain slope to meet colder air, where it condenses to make up the “table cloth” . No wonder Table Mountain has been voted recently as one of top seven natural wonders of the world!
The wondrous beauty spreads across the city and on to the entire Cape region. Let us start with the one thing that defines beauty to perfection – flowers. World is divided into 6 floral kingdoms with every kingdom spread across countries and continents with one exception. The Cape Floral Kingdom has 9,600 plant species, 70% of which are not found anywhere else in the world! No wonder they have Kirtsenbosch Botanical garden in Cape Town as the first botanic garden in the world devoted exclusively to indigenous flora. Not just flowers, fruits grow in abundance as well – helping make South Africa 2nd largest fruit exporter in the world in addition to having the longest and prettiest wine route in the world.
In such a sylvan setting, it’s natural that animals flourish as well making exotic sights, commonplace here. There is, for example, a penguin colony, which thrives thanks to the cold Antarctic currents on the west coast near the Cape. Hundreds of penguins can be seen walking around the beach or just lazing on the beach. Or consider the Seal Island, so named due to the large number of Cape Fur Seals that occupy this small island, rising not more than 6 metres above high tide mark. You can spend hours watching the social interaction among the seal and sea birds, but the fascinating aspect of the island is that it allows you a unique opportunity to watch Great White Sharks, (seal’s main predator) attacking the seals. The island is well known for the interesting ways the sharks grab their prey. Frequently you see them come from underneath and literally launch themselves out of the water with the seal in their mouth!
What is spectacular about Cape Town is not just the natural beauty, but man made as well. A harmonious blend of architectural styles exists reflecting the tastes of the past as well as today’s more functional requirements. Between high-rise office blocks, Edwardian and Victorian buildings have been meticulously preserved. Cape Town has designer home of the rich and famous. It is also a preserve to important historical sites. Robben Island is an example, a former penitentiary island 10 kilometres from the city, where many famous political prisoners were held for years. The other one is the District Six Museum. This is an inner city residential area made famous by the forced removal of more than 60 000 inhabitants during the 1970s to make this place for white only by the then apartheid government. Finally we have the V & A Waterfront – rated most popular destination in Africa – ahead of Table Mountain and ahead even of the pyramids of Egypt. The Nobel square at the V & A waterfront has something special, it features statues of South Africa’s 4 Nobel Peace Prize winners: Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F W de Klerk and of course Nelson Mandela
No wonder if you live in Cape Town you earn “bragging rights”! When foreign tourists find that the local population are even called “coloured” it adds to their suspicion that they must be this typically loud, brash, big talkers especially when they have so much to show off! Far from it, a typical Capetonian is actually a gentle soul, speaking Afrikaans (world’s youngest national language) in a typical sing-song accent. They are not dark skinned either – so after a couple of days of arriving in cape town tourist begin to wonder if they are still in Africa ! They are descendent of slaves who were bought to Cape from Malaysia & Indonesia around 1650’s, since the white Dutch settlers could not find labourers to work on farms and mining activities they had started. Over the years they created their own unique culture and identity. An example is their own unique mix of indigenous music called Ghoema that they developed. They also help introduce Islamic faith in Cape Town culture. They have their own unique celebration like the one called Tweede Nuwe Jaar, meaning “Second New Year”, in the form of a parade of singing and dancing. This tradition has its origins almost 200 years back when the Cape Malay slaves who celebrated the ringing in of a New Year on the only day they were offered leave from work each year – 2nd January.
However Cape Town is not just the coloured, but every race group can be found in large numbers today, to make this into one of the most cosmopolitan city of the continent. African history is obviously the oldest with the San and the Khoikhoi people being the first recorded people of the Cape. The San were hunter-gatherers while the Khoikhoi were mainly herders. History of the whites started with Bartolomeu Dias in 1486 when he called Cape Town as the Cape of Storms since he endured a terrible storms when reached Cape Town waters. In 1497, it was renamed as the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco da Gama, to please the king of Portugal and give the impression that the cape provided hope for a sea route to the East, especially India that had all the spices that west was craving for. In 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck and other settlers from Dutch East India Company landed at the Cape on April 6, 1652 to establish a supply station for ships travelling to the Dutch East Indies. That gave birth to a society that brought in the 1st Indian to Cape Town, Angela, whose story I alluded earlier. Records show many other Indian slaves had come at that time and all had to endure terrible times . It is only in the early 1900’s that Indians Gujarati’s and Muslim started coming to Cape to establish business. And second and third generation of the Indians migrated from Durban in search for better jobs. Today, Cape Town boasts of a vibrant Indian community with Indian restaurants, groceries, Temples, Mosques and even a Gurudwara. Generally speaking Indians in Cape Town live a good life, a lot like what Angela did so many centuries ago..