The Port of Cape Town may not be the largest, busiest or even oldest anchorage in Africa, but it certainly is the most historically famous and strategic of them all. Yet the irony is that Table Bay, the marine basin in which the harbour is located, was, in its natural state, actually a poor harbour and far from a safe anchorage.
Firstly, in its natural state, the bay was lined by a relatively shallow beach, the shore of which ran along what is today Strand street. This meant that ships had to anchor far from the shore and have goods and passengers conveyed to land by means of smaller boats.
Secondly, and most importantly, while the Cape Peninsula can experience some of the most glorious weather in the world, it is more often exposed to heavy south- easterly winds in summer and notorious gale-force north-westerlies, heavy rain and rough swells in winter. With no real shelter in the bay, anchored vessels were highly vulnerable to strong gusts and rough swells, which were capable, particularly during the winter months, between May and July, of breaking anchor cables and driving ships onto the beach, where they would be pounded to pieces by the surf. Such vulnerability is evidenced by the fact that, over the last three-and-a-half centuries, more than 200 vessels are known to have been wrecked in the Table Bay area.
Such was the notoriety of Table Bay as a poor anchorage that the Dutch East India Company (DEIC), for many years, toyed with the idea of moving its victualling station from the foot of Table Mountain to either Saldanha Bay, further up the west coast, or Simon’s Town, in False Bay. While both are natural harbours and would have proved much safer anchorages, the major drawback was that neither location had a supply of freshwater, one of the company’s chief requirements.
Thus, being bound to Table Bay, the colonial settlers were compelled to pioneer the development of infrastructure to not only make it more accessible as a port facility but also a safer anchorage. Such an exercise in civil engineering has been pursued almost continuously for the last three centuries – to the extent that the Port of Cape Town, as well as the city’s foreshore, as we know it today, has completely transformed the physicality of Table Bay.
The foundations of the harbour were first laid shortly after the arrival of the Dutch colonists in the middle of the seventeenth century.
While the DEIC never aspired to establish a commercial port at the Cape, regarding it merely as a convenient provision depot, company officials, on settling at the base of Table Mountain, realised that some kind of jetty would be needed to convey goods from shore to ship.
Thus, in 1654, two years after having established an outpost, Jan van Riebeeck commissioned the construction of the first wooden jetty. It was located where the current V&A Waterfront stands today, being a short distance west of the fledgling fort and freshwater source, as well as directly below the company’s gardens, where all the fresh provisions were cultivated.
Such a jetty served the logistics needs of the company fairly adequately. The only real challenge then was the lack of any protection from the heavy swells and strong winds during rough weather.
While this proved to be a challenge from the very earliest days that ships anchored in Table Bay, it was only in the late 1690s that an attempt was made to provide any kind of maritime shielding. In fact, it was in 1696 that the first attempt to construct a rudimentary breakwater was pioneered. The scheme involved filling the hulk of an old frigate with boulders and sinking it off the end of the jetty. Needless to say, such a primitive type of breakwater did not survive long and was destroyed, along with some of the vessels it had been designed to shelter, in a winter storm the following year.
The colonials were sufficiently unenthused by the results that they let the ambition lie fallow for the next quarter of a century. It was only with the induction of Dutch military engineer and one-time director of fortifications Pieter Gijsbert van Noodt as governor of the Cape, in 1727, that the possibility of constructing a breakwater was again considered. While Van Noodt was enthusiastic about the project, company officials were less so, citing the enormous expense as the chief obstacle to commissioning such a venture. However, the situation came to a head in the winter of 1737, when a vicious north-westerly gale caused such havoc that almost the entire return fleet was wrecked, 208 people were killed and an immense amount of cargo was lost. The company then had little choice but to commission the scheme.
The design that was subsequently approved involved the construction of a stone breakwater projecting 2 160 ft off Mouille Point (just west of the current breakwater). The actual construction was delayed, however, as officials haggled over how such a project should be financed. Initially, it was decided that the breakwater should be paid for by means of a special tax, known as the Mouljegeld, levied on Cape Town residents (in much the same fashion as Sanral’s Gauteng e-toll system). Needless to say, that proposal was soon abandoned, amid heavy protests from the citizens.
It was only once another scheme was devised and approved, which compelled every farmer who deposited produce at the market to convey, with the assistance of convicts and slaves, one cartload of stone from the local quarry to the breakwater, that work started in February 1743.
The person commissioned to oversee the construction was Dutch national Jacobus Müller. Unfortunately, he had no experience in building such a structure and had neither even seen a breakwater on which to model the Cape one. The dimensions he opted for were a mere 100 ft at the base and 24 ft across the top, which, as time would prove, were entirely inadequate to withstand the onslaught of the north-westerly storms. By 1747, the breakwater, which then extended just 350 ft, was having no impact in quelling the might of the rough swells, and the project was abandoned.
No more improvements to Table Bay would be pursued until the arrival of the British.