Being strategically located halfway between Europe and the lucrative spice route of the East, the Cape of Good Hope was certainly a jewel in the crown of any maritime trading empire. This was especially the case in the era prior to the opening in 1869 of the Suez Canal, an engineering marvel that made shipping between Europe and the East far more convenient and quicker than having to navigate around the entire African continent.
Indeed, it was precisely for its location at the southern tip of Africa that the Cape was annexed by the British, a nation that was firmly focused on extending its domination over global mari- time trade and expanding its territorial posses- sions at the turn of the nineteenth century.
When it was annexed in 1795 and then again in 1806, Cape Town had experienced little develop- ment and could hardly be regarded as anything beyond a glorified victualling station. Despite having been colonised for a century and a half, the Cape was both physically and economically more underdeveloped than any of the other greater colonies of settlement around the world. This was largely due to the Dutch East India Company’s (DEIC’s) attitude towards the outpost. It had never been its intention to establish a permanent settlement at the Cape and, as it considered it a mere convenient pitstop, the DEIC was loathe to invest in infrastructure or even industries that did not directly benefit the town’s primary objective of servicing the needs of its maritime fleet.
In the 150 years that the Dutch occupied the Cape, the only infrastructure development undertaken within the bay area was the erection of a single wooden jetty and an attempted breakwater off Mouille Point, which extended just 350 ft into the ocean.
While it is certainly true to say that the British were much more commercially orientated and far more willing to plough money into developing their new outpost’s infrastructure and even new industries than their Dutch counterparts, no real effort was made during the first years of its administration to make any improvements to Table Bay, where ships anchored. This could partly be explained by the fact that, despite its notorious reputation as Cabos das Tormentas, or the Cape of Storms, ferocious storms that had the capacity to inflict maritime disasters in Table Bay tended to be sporadic. In fact, a decade or more might go by without a signifi- cant incident. Even then, everything would depend on the presence of a fleet at anchor in the bay during a storm.
As the first few years of its administration were relatively without incident, the incumbent British were lulled into a sense of complacency when it came to constructing a proper breakwater that could transform the bay into a safer anchorage.
Such complacency was shattered in July 1822, however, when two particularly severe storms wrecked seven ships anchored in the bay.
The severity of the damage compelled one sea captain, Robert Knox, who happened to be sojourning at the Cape at the time, to request permission to undertake a survey of the bay with a view to ascertaining the practicality of constructing a breakwater. He described the bay as “in the winter season, the most dangerous loading and delivery port and anchorage in the world”. After a survey of the weather patterns and the wrecks that had occurred in the bay, Knox, who was also a marine surveyor and amateur civil engineer and has been described as a “sensible, cautious and scientific man”, concluded that a breakwater extending from the western shore, close to the abandoned Mouille Point breakwater, would provide adequate protection for anchored vessels in rough weather. The administration acquiesced and Knox busied himself with a full survey of the bay.
Meanwhile, merchant trade at the Cape was flourishing rapidly under a much more commercially minded administration. However, because the bay still had only one jetty – built by the Dutch – on which to land all cargo and people, there were, inevit- ably, mounting delays in the movement of shipping goods. Thus, while a safer anchorage was certainly a concern for the Cape merchants, they were more interested in developing a harbour or, at the very least, building more jetties that could improve the logistics of moving goods from ship to shore.
Taking into account the needs of the Cape merchants, Knox’s plan included the construction of a proper harbour with jetties as well as a breakwater. The scheme he submitted to the new government involved the construction of a semicircular stone harbour, which would encompass the existing jetty and provide much more landing facilities and be protected by a breakwater on its western flank. Knox realised that his scheme would be no small feat and estimated that construction would take nine to ten years and cost about £3 200 a year (about R4.5-million a year in today’s value).
While the cost may not necessarily seem that daunting, it was certainly excessive for a fledgling colonial administration that had already invested in other much-needed infrastructure projects, such as the Franschhoek Pass, which was still under construction. It was for that reason that Knox’s plan was not accepted.
However, agitation for improvements to the harbour, both from safety and logistical perspectives, continued unabated. Just three years later, government finally acquiesced to public demand – it agreed to appoint a British civil engineer to provide plans for a stone pier and breakwater in Table Bay and submit cost estimates for the project. The individual appointed for the job was Henry Reveley and it is he who holds the distinction of being the Cape of Good Hope’s, and, indeed, South Africa’s, first civil engineer appointed in an official capacity. Reveley arrived on the shores of Cape Town to undertake his new assignment in 1826.