The Khoikhoi, an uncomplicated tribal community in southern Africa, had many peaceful and brief encounters with passing Portuguese explorers from the mid 1400s. It is not entirely clear why the Portuguese never considered laying a claim to the territory. The French, Dutch and British empires were expanding, and Europe was hungry for exotic goods from the East.
The trade route around the Cape became very busy. It wasn’t until the mid 1600s that a proposal was put into the senior officials of the Dutch East India Company to set up a small stopover port in Table Bay. Over 600 sailors were dying per season on the ships heading for the East. This was mainly due to scurvy (an illness from a lack of vitamin C). Sailors were also suffering from complications which developed as fresh water and fresh supplies ran out on board ship. The idea was to have the ships spend a few days in Table Bay, replenish their supplies, get medical attention if they so needed and rest the sailors on terra firma. This meant that ships could pack more goods on board and not have valuable space on the ships taken up with large volumes of fresh water, supplies and even dead bodies.
Jan van Riebeek, who had had some experience sailing around the Cape, was given the job of setting up the station. He ensured the company it was not going to be costly as he would involve everyone, including the local Khoikhoi in the development for the station. He only accepted the role in hope of using it as a stepping stone to a higher position in the company in the Far East.
On the 6th April 1652, three impressive ships arrived and anchored in Table Bay – The Drommedaris, The Reijger and The Goede Hoop. Van Riebeek took his duties on with vigor. He set about building a fort, planting fruit orchards and vegetable gardens and ensuring there was a good supply of fresh meat from the local cattle-herding Khoikhoi tribe.
From a simple rest stop the settlement developed into a well-equipped harbor with a pier, a hospital and a shipyard. The community grew, families joined their fathers and husbands, and so the story of the Europeans on the southern tip of Africa began.
Today van Riebeek’s Cape is also known as ‘Tavern of the Seas’ and Cape Town is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. It is beautiful and rich in history as it has welcomed the arrival of not only passing sailors, but French, Dutch, Malay, British and many more eclectic cultures. Each culture has remained evident in Cape Town with place names, architecture, foods and is felt in the spirit of the Mother City of this Rainbow Nation.