The history of Cape Town prior to European settlement is somewhat unclear. The region’s earliest archaeological artefacts, discovered in Fish Hoek’s Peers Cave, are believed to be up to 15,000 years old. Written history begins in 1486, when Bartolomeu Dias, an accomplished Portuguese sailor and explorer, made his first remarks about the area as he became the earliest European to sail round the Cape of Africa.
By the late 16th century, vessels from throughout Europe often docked at Table Bay to receive fresh meat from the Khoikhoi tribe, in exchange for goods such as iron, as popular trade routes from Europe to the East Indies were created. However, it was the Dutch East India Company who established the area’s first permanent European presence in 1652.
Many of the slaves brought in from Madagascar and from Indonesia during this time are the ancestors of today’s Cape Coloured population. The Dutch East India Company also introduced potatoes, orchards, vineyards and orange trees to Cape Town. Jan Van Riebeeck became the first governor of the Cape and his legacy lives on today at Groot Constantia. While France constantly invaded the Netherlands during the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain continually invaded Dutch colonies, including Cape Town. The city changed hands between the Dutch and the British at least four times between 1795 and 1814, the year that Cape Town became the capital of Great Britain’s new Cape Colony. The Cape Colony’s rapid growth sped up even more after an 1867 diamond discovery and the Witwatersrand gold rush just under 20 years later. The neo-colonial Town Hall and a number of other ancient buildings still stand, dating from this era.
The immigrants who came to Cape Town in search of gold and diamonds soon found themselves in the middle of the Second Boer War, in which Great Britain was victorious. A gradual influx of British settlers from the 1820s onwards forced the isolated Dutch farmers to move further inland, setting up wineries in the lush Paarl and Stellenbosch valleys, although many also joined a Great Trek north to form an independent republic near present-day Pretoria. Cape Town first became the capital of the Union of South Africa in 1910, before achieving its current status as the Republic of South Africa’s legislative capital in 1961. After apartheid was implemented in South Africa, in excess of 60,000 people were forced out of Cape Town’s formerly interracial District Six in the mid-1960s. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on nearby Robben Island for several decades, is without question the most famous of all the anti-apartheid leaders in the history of Cape Town. This city was also where Mandela gave his first speech after his 1990 release from prison, ushering in a new era for both the city and all of South Africa. Today, statues of Mandela, FW de Klerk, Albert Luthuli and also Desmond Tutu stand in Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront’s Nobel Square, honouring their contributions to the country. While Cape Town has always been the most laid-back of South Africa’s main cities, it lacked commercial dynamism and its tourism potential went unfulfilled, that is until the opening up of South Africa in 1994. Very quickly this became a hugely popular world destination, thanks to its remarkable scenery and a gentrification of the Victoria and Albert Waterfront as an entertainment precinct. Soon, this was Africa’s most popular tourist destination, and property prices shot up as expats moved in. The local economy has since been transformed as it forges forward as an ethnically harmonious and creative city. Today, the city hosts the official residence of the President.