Cape Town

Article and pictures by David Flintham, all rights reserved.

Close by Cape Town's main railway station is the Castle of Good Hope, an excellently preserved mid-17th century bastioned'fort, built by the Dutch to support and protect its spice trade with the East Indies.

The 16th Century spice trade was dominated by Portugal. But with Portugal 'united' with the Spanish crown and Spain at war with the Dutch from 1580, the Portuguese empire became an appropriate target for the Dutch, both militarily and from a trading perspective.

The resulting trading ventures were high risk - not only because of the dangers of piracy, shipwreck and disease, but also due to the very nature of the spice trade itself. The best way to manage these risks was to merge such ventures into a cartel.

With the formation of the English East India Company in 1600, the Dutch were faced with the prospect of ruin if they didn't do similar. So in 1602 the Vereenigde Ost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) - literally "United East Indian Company" was formed.

By the middle of the 17th century, the Portuguese had been expelled from much of East Asia and the VOC was a dominant force in the region1.

The voyage from the Netherlands to the East Indies was long, involving passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the India Ocean via the often-treacherous Cape of Good Hope.

The need for some sort of settlement at the southern end of Africa to act as a refuge and replenishment station was obvious and it was this need that led Jan van Riebeeck to be given the command of an expedition to the Cape in 1651.

Van Riebeeck's fleet comprised of five ships: Drommedaris, Reijger, Goede Hoop, Walvisch and the Oliphant. The first three ships landed at what was to become Cape Town on 06 April 1652, whilst the Walvisch and the Oliphant arrived later, having lost 130 of their combined compliment en-route. Van Riebeeck was commander of the Cape until 1662.

He was charged with improving the natural anchorage at Table Bay, planting fruit and vegetables (in Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens there survives a wild almond hedge that was planted on his orders) and obtaining livestock from the indigenous Khoi people2.

But from the perspective of this essay, Van Riebeeck's most important contribution was the building of the Fort de Goede Hoop, the first fort at Cape Town. Fort de Goede Hoop was square, demi-bastioned earthwork, built of mud, clay and timber. From a plan held in the Dutch National Archives3, the fort contained several buildings. It was located close to the site of the current castle4.

Heavy rain in 1663 caused the near collapse of the fort, and with tensions between Britain and the Netherlands increasing and war looming, in 1664 the then commander, Zacharious Wagenaer, was instructed to build a new fort, this time from masonry.

In 1665 slaves were put to work at a site on the shoreline, a site selected to ensure that the fort's guns could cover the anchorage. What was constructed was the present pentagonal stone castle. On 26 April 1679 the five bastions were named after the main titles of Willem, Prince of Orange. The western most bastion was named Leerdam, followed (clockwise, in order) by Buuren, Catzenellenbogen, Nassau and Oranje.

The sea-facing entrance was replaced in 1682 by current the gateway and two years later, the bell tower, situated above the main entrance was built. It contained a 670lbs bell cast in Amsterdam in 1697 by Claude Frémy.

The bell, which could be heard some 10km away from the castle, struck the hours and was used both to warn citizens of danger and to call residents and soldiers to the Castle for important announcements.

Contained within its confines where a church, bakery, workshops, living quarters, offices and cells. The yellow paint on the walls was chosen due to its ability to reduce heat and glare from sunlight.

A wall divided the inner courtyard of the Castle and was initially intended to provide protection to the inhabitants of the Castle in the event of an attack. The Katbalkon (Kat Balcony) is an outstanding feature of this wall. The original was built in 1695, then rebuilt in its present form by the VOC between 1786 and 1790. From this balcony proclamations and announcements were made to the soldiers, slaves and civilians at the Cape (this balcony now leads to the William Fehr Collection of historical paintings and period furniture)5.

The castle enjoyed a fairly quiet history - there is even a reference from 1747 describing the poor state of the castle's gunpowder, as it had been stored for so long without being used (it was subsequently re-ground)6.

More recently, the castle was the headquarters for the South African Army in the Western Cape and its distinctive shape appeared on the flag of the South African Defence Force, formed the basis of some rank insignia from major upwards and was used on South African Air Force aircraft. The design appears again as the South African memorial at Delville Wood on the Somme.

Today, outside the entrance to the Castle fly the six flags that have flown over the castle during its history, ranging from the Dutch to the current flag of South Africa.

Declared a national monument in 1936, from the 1980s the Castle of Good Hope was the subject of an extensive, ongoing restoration programme. It remains the oldest building in Southern Africa and is the best-preserved VOC-built fortification anywhere in the world.


  1. For a history of the VOC see De Vries and Van der Woude, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500-1815, Cambridge University Press (1997).

  2. For a general history of the development of Cape Town during this period see Stevens, Ursula, Cape Town on Foot: A Walk Through Town and History, Wanderlust Books (1997). Also see and

  3. Dutch archives: Another map is in the collection of the Inventories of the Orphan Chapter, Dutch East Indian Company Archives (see

  4. For a contemporary map of Table Bay indicating the location of Redout Duijnhoop see

  5. The official web site for the Castle is

  6. TANAP:

Article and pictures by David Flintham, all rights reserved.

Back to the "Fortresses" page