Travel Review: Freedom Day Visit to the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town (Part 3)

(To see Part 1, please go to: http://tamlynamberwanderlust.com/?p=1012 and for Part 2: http://tamlynamberwanderlust.com/?p=1173)

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Just after 11:00 a.m., the English group gathered around our great and rather humourous tour guide (I have to admit I didn’t catch his name and couldn’t get a chance to ask him it afterwards but I am sure he’s one of the regulars… so keep an eye out for this cool dude! 🙂 ) at the entrance to the Inner Archway.

He started asking random people (I would hazard a guess that there were around 40-45 of us on the English tour, including a few tourists, so a pretty fair turn-out) where we were from; I was one of the people chosen as I was standing close by.

Then, he began by giving us a condensed and easy-to-understand (there were quite a few small children present) account of the Castle’s history and – for better or for worse – some of its more important figures.

My account might not be as amusing in places and enjoyable but I hope it paints a fair picture of the Castle’s colourful past.

As it was built in 1666 and 1679 by the Dutch East India Company (in Dutch, it is the: Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), the Castle of Good Hope “is the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa” and up until 100 years ago, it was the tallest building in Cape Town.

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Upon Leendert Janzen’s advice, it was agreed that Jan van Riebeek be sent to establish a “formal refreshment station at the Cape” and so, when he landed in Table Bay on 6th April 1652, one of his first tasks was to build a fort to aid the Dutch East India Company on their trade voyages to and from the East.

Two days after his arrival, van Riebeek began working on the Fort de Goede Hoop, which was situated near the shoreline where the present-day Grand Parade lies (yes, the ocean has receded that far back).

Although it faced no attack from local or foreign enemies for several years, as our guide explained, because the original fort’s outer walls were built from clay (as are many old Cape buildings and farmhouses still standing today), sods (or turf) and brushwood (the interior was constructed from timber and brick), the harsh Cape winter clime eventually started to cause damage.

However, it was only when war in 1664 broke out between England and the Netherlands that Zacharias Wagenaer – van Riebeek’s Cape successor – was sent to build “a bigger and more comprehensive defence structure.”

(The Company’s Gardens, another of my favourite spots in the CBD, was also planted around this time to provide the necessary victuals (or fresh produce) for sailors – travelling to and from this point – who would spend months abroad sailing vessels and who ran the risk of contracting diseases such as scurvy; in fact, sailors back then referred to Cape Town as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’.)

The design of the original Castle seems to have been attributed to renowned French fortress engineer, Sebastian Vauban and Dutch artillerist and military engineer, Menno, Baron van Coehoorn was “associated with the final design.”

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The Castle was designed in the shape of a pentagon with a bastion – that contained its very own gunpowder magazine – at each of its corners. Each of the five bastions* were named after one of the Prince of Orange’s official titles, they are: Leerdam (which I passed as I entered and later got up close and personal with), Oranje, Buuren, Catzellenbogen (apparently a German word that, according to our guide, roughly translates into the ‘cat’s elbow’, I think) and Nassau.

*(The average distance from one bastion to the next was 180 m and the average height of the curtain wall was 10 m.)

The Castle today stands roughly 230 m south-east of the original fort; this location ensured that it was “close to fresh water and anchorage and within firing range of the town”. Interestingly enough, the Castle is proud to boast the following: “Over the centuries, six different flags have flown over the Castle, yet in all that time, not a single shot has ever been fired in anger at it or from it” – that fact has further endeared the Castle to me.

I also like the fact that, according to its informational Gateway Guide, many of the Castle’s materials were sourced locally. This included: wood brought in from Hout Bay (‘hout’ means wood in Afrikaans), stone, which was “cut out of Signal Hill in large blocks; it was then broken up and transported by cart to the Castle”, and the blue slate – used for the walls – and shells obtained from Robben Island (these were used for the mortar, which was one part shell lime, one part clay).

Because there was such a pressing need to see the Castle completed, the set workforce that started out as off-duty soldiers and some slaves and Khoi-na, soon grew to include free ‘burghers‘ (essentially, citizens) and eventually a proclamation was made that anyone, whether man or woman and irrespective of rank, who passed by the Castle, was required to assist with carting bucketfuls of soil to excavate the moat. It is estimated that, at any given time, 200 to 300 people would have been working on it.

On January 2nd, 1666, Commander Wagenaer laid the foundation stone in Leerdam Bastion – the first bastion to be completed.

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In 1678, the Waterpoort entrance (it is now home to the Military Museum, which I visited after my tour) was constructed on the Castle’s sea-facing side. However, because the winter swells would effectively flood the Courtyard, thus crippling the main entrance, between 1682-1684, the stunning Gateway – and accompanying ravelin* – that we find today became its permanent replacement.

*(The ravelin was constructed “as an outer entrance in front of the new gate. The design of this ravelin forces the road into the Castle at a right angle. The approach to the main gate meant that an attacking force could not shoot directly at the gate.)

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After a somewhat more concise and light-hearted historical account, our guide also explained to us about the Outer Court (the right side of Block F used to be the Castle’s social centre) and showed us the sundials. The one above the Inner Archway entrance was for telling afternoon time, whereas the vertical one across at Block B was used for morning time. Although they are no longer the same as Cape Town’s current time – I might be wrong but, if I remember correctly, they are only roughly an hour or so behind real time – this is because they run on the origin, separate Cape Town time – yes, the Mother City was cool enough to even have her own time. 🙂

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After that, we moved into the Inner Archway itself. Apparently, the reason for the partially wooden (teak) floors one can still see today was to soften the sound of the horses’ hooves in the early mornings when they would pass close to the still-slumbering Governor’s quarters. It seemed almost ridiculously excessive to me, but didn’t surprise me much.

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On a graver note, the inner Delville Cross – encased in protective glass – (and nearby navy-blue plaque mounted on the wall) is a WWI memorial/tribute to all the South African men who fought and died in the so-called ‘Great War’. Every year, their relatives come to lay wreaths at the foot of this tragically lovely Cross.

As we waited for the Afrikaans group to finish viewing the Dolphin Pool, our guide pointed out (I had already noticed this on my earlier walkabout but didn’t know if it signified anything) that the shutters and doors behind us were red, whilst the ones in front and to either side of us in the Inner Court were green.

As is so often the case in life, red was used to signify danger as this is where the explosives were stored. The green ones were generally used for the soldiers’ sleeping quarters or for storage.

Then we crossed over to the Dolphin Pool. The 1690 original was built by Simon van der Stel purely for the use of his family and in 1705, was later enlarged by his son, Willem Adriaan (who also built the nearby Bakhuys, thus making this section secluded) but during the British Occupation, it was entirely filled in.

It was only properly restored in 1987 and is still undergoing extensive restoration even today.

However, one can still find the origin steps that lead down into the pool… These were built solely for the ladies’ convenience as they used to bathe in ankle-length dresses.

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(The balcony facing the pool is where Lady Anne Barnard used to sit and do her sketches.)

After that, we filed into the Torture Chamber and, as luck would have it, Eskom struck just as we needed to enter the Castle’s darkest rooms.

I didn’t want to even lean back against the walls and pressed close to the young couple next to me. Clearly I was not the only one getting the creeps because the lady looked at her partner and me and said, “Actually, I think I am going back out.” When he asked why, she simply said, “I just can’t deal with this,” before hurriedly weaving her way back out as the last few people were entering.

It was a tight squeeze (our guide was virtually standing on the senior clerk’s desk) but we all managed to fit eventually.

Our guide very respectfully and tactfully began by asking the parents whether he could give detail about the various torture methods with the young children present. No one seemed to have any complaints and although he assured us he wouldn’t make them too graphic, if you are someone who possesses a very vivid imagination like me, then hearing this would have been enough to make your insides churn anyway – especially if you are standing in the very same room where it happened.

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Before I begin, I want to make it clear that these methods were employed by both the Dutch and the British – proving that back then, one was certainly no better than the one.

The most common reasons for confession by torture run as follows (I took notes on my smartphone during the tour to be as accurate as possible): slaves who refused to work, who practised a faith/religion other than Christianity, who committed (mainly petty) crimes or conspired against or tried to sabotage the governor.

Irrespective of the so-called crime, a confession was required first and foremost before any ‘proper’ punishment would be dished out. So, think of this as the warm-up to that.

(Even petty crimes meant having something like a thumbscrew used on you until you either confessed to your crime or were released.)

The levels of torture varied but escape or attempted escape meant direct execution; petty crimes meant ‘soft torture’; refusal to work, practising a different religion, piracy and sabotage meant the slaves would have their hands bound before they would be stripped and whipped anywhere between 40-200 times with a cat-o’-nine-tails* that had metal hooks, which would rip the flesh off the body.

*(Let that sink in for a moment… and if you don’t know what a cat-o’-nine is, read up on it.)

Another method of torture was employing the Castle horses – which were usually whipped into this, I think – to pull from the outside whilst the slave was fixed in place… This, needless to say, would result in dismemberment.

Others were left hanging, with their arms bent backwards behind them for an hour, even an hour and a half sometimes.

(Note: this method is known as ‘strappado’.) An iron ring in the ceiling, through which a rope was fed, was used to haul the slave up and then, it would be released and the poor soul would drop head-first to the hard floor below…

Other times, the torturers took a different route and tried to break the so-called wrongdoer’s spirit or mind… They would lock them in the ‘Donker Gat’ (loosely translated into English as the ‘dark room’) for up to 13 months sometimes. To say that it is pitch black – even in the gaping hole that is the smaller room’s entrance – is an understatement.

Once we had all been suitably horrified (I would hope) by these gory details of the darkest elements of the Castle’s history, we proceeded to the even more constricted Grainary and Arsenal rooms.

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The Arsenal room – which was used as a gun powder magazine storeroom (I felt for the poor soldiers who once used to have to enter the room with flaming torches…) – has a glass panel in the centre of the floor. The rather hilarious tale behind this is that, because water used to penetrate from the Strand Str. side, they dug a hole into the floor thinking that this would somehow cause the water to drain, when instead, it naturally only encouraged it to rise up even more.

As a result of this, the room was later converted to a wine cellar.

Our guide went back up to switch the dim lights off and the dark room (at least when I switched my smartphone off… fortunately, the subsequent darkness spared my blushes) was so intensely black that I could not even see my hands in front of me. Those places are seriously dark!

After that, our guide quickly ushered everyone back to the Outer Court just in time for the 12:00 Key Ceremony (this is when the bell – the oldest in S.A. apparently – is rung 12 times) and firing of the Cannon.

I really enjoyed the tour (I had expected it to be boring but it was anything but) and it really helped me to learn the Castle’s history in a short but pleasantly spent hour and to truly experience the Castle with its other visitors. Overall, it was a good tour, our guide was excellent and it was informative and historically accurate and as such, I would give it an easy 8/10 rating.

Because I had already seen this twice, I wasn’t interested in seeing it at ground level again, so I followed our guide’s directions and quickly mounted Block B’s stairs that lead up onto the Leerdam Bastion before the firing of the Cannon was due to go off.

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I knew that I had a few minutes to explore the Leerdam Bastion (it provides a seriously stunning, almost bird’s eye-view of virtually every part of the city, from the CBD, mountains to the skyscrapers and the Good Hope Centre and even of the harbour in the distance! I especially enjoyed peering past the cannons down at the Grand Parade and Castle grounds below.)

I forced myself to mount a few of the ladder steps but quickly abandoned that idea and crossed over to Block B’s main rooftop where a couple of people were sitting watching the Cannon crowd below (I believe there were at least 80-100 people gathered around the cannon).

 

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After I had taken some photos, I rejoined them and sat down on the walled edge, waiting to film the firing from above this time as the autumn sun beat down upon us. (I really liked the little ‘house’ up there; this was formerly the Captain’s Tower.)

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The boom of the cannon – and the smoke cloud that always follows it – seemed even worse from up there… I am convinced it gets louder every time!

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After that, I went back down and entered the Military Museum (again, the usual rules of no smoking, eating/drinking and taking photos apply… this includes smartphones!)

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Aside from the lovely, little curio shop (that I exited through), which offers unique Castle curios, the Military Museum offers a wealth of, to name but a few, featured displays such as: impressive medals, badges, military books, Cape uniforms, small arms and sword collections. It is hailed as one of “the most impressive in the country.”

It also gives a great, detailed account of the Cape military history. There’s almost too much to take in during one visit, no matter how long you spend in there. (Though somewhat unrelated perhaps, there’s also a section that offers insight into South Africa’s ties to World War II and a section on Cape nature, if I recall right.)

My personal highlights include: the old weapons that have been so well-preserved, the amazing ship- and building models and finally, the excellent account of the 1806 Battle of Blaauwberg.

After that, when I went back to the Outer Court, there were some lovely horses grazing the lawn. One was a pony and I found out from the lady that the average-sized one was half-Boerperd, half-Percheron, whilst the biggest guy of all was a beautiful gray Percheron gelding. I am used to seeing big horses but he would put most to shame both in terms of height and broadness.

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To ride him around the Court for a bit, it’s R50 (I think but you can always find out from the owners if they happen to be there when you visit) and many kiddies were very eager to have a ride! 🙂 It was adorable to see such a huge, gentle creature with a tiny child on its back.

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They are all very gentle and quiet by horse standards (and yes, by now I ought to know, given that I was around horses before I could walk) but, as the owner frequently stressed, never go too close to a horse’s hind-legs or approach it from behind… They might kick and in so doing, can seriously injure – if not kill – you.

Most of the people were too nervous to go up to the gray gelding at first so I decided to walk over to him and pat him on the neck and head to show that he was perfectly safe and honestly, more concerned about his food than he was about who was touching him. After that, people eagerly flocked around him.

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It was a pleasant surprise and one I had hoped for… Though I don’t know whether these horses are regular visitors to the Castle or if it is just on certain days/at a certain time. (It was just before 12:30 p.m. when I ‘found’ them but they might have been outdoors a while before that.)

By this time, I was itching to visit the charming nearby De Goewerneur Restaurant (note: there is lovely, sheltered outdoor and indoor seating with breathtaking Castle views and they also have a kiosk inside. They do not have a card facility, so be sure to have cash on your person or withdraw some from the Absa Cash Express ATM in the reception office before visiting), so I went there to escape the midday sun and to savour my last few moments at the Castle.

They have a nice selection of food and drinks on their menu but I decided to just order the tasty ‘cake of the day’ and a great cup of coffee (To see my review on the Restaurant, please go to: ).

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Just as I was sitting indoors, quietly and peacefully finishing off my meal, the cannon went off for the fourth and final time during my visit sometime around or after 13:00.

After that, I went back to the Gateway where my Freedom Day visit to the Castle had begun some five hours previously and more carefully explored the herb garden/lemon grove, grassy surrounds (some visitors were sitting here relaxing by this time as crowds exited and entered in a constant stream of people) and got to see the ravelin and outer entrance with the lion posts near the Grand Parade properly for the first time that day.

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It’s really pretty there and if I wasn’t pleasantly worn-out after my explorations and had had someone with me to enjoy it more fully with, I believe I would have plunked down on the lawn and stayed a while longer too.

My first visit to the Castle was absolutely amazing… I thoroughly enjoyed it in every respect and felt I came away from that rather significant day in our country’s history, with a better appreciation for it and a deeper understanding of my city’s vibrant colonial history.

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I strongly recommend you visit the Castle and based on my experience, I give it a firm 9/10 rating. The only reason I can’t yet give it a 10/10 is because I haven’t yet seen all it has to offer… However, before 2015 is over, I will be back to do precisely that and I hope that sometime, so will you. 🙂

I stopped just around the street corner to take a few photos of the beautiful moat and much like the rest of the day, even those turned out to be special.

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Many thanks to the Castle of Good Hope site (www.castleofgoodhope.co.za) and staff, the De Goewerneur Restaurant, Iziko Museums and the excellent ‘Castle of Good Hope’ Gateway Guide for all the additional info. used in this post and for making my first Castle- and ‘free’ Freedom Day experience one to remember for a long while to come! 🙂

 

Castle Opening Times:

Monday to Sunday 9:00 to 16:00 (last entry: 15:30); it is closed on Christmas and New Year’s each year.

(Parking for visitors: Available across from the moat off Darling Str.)

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Castle Tour Info.:

(Daily guided tours conducted by professional guides; there are also “self-guiding maps available in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Spanish, German, Dutch, French and Italian and an audio-visual for and the physically challenged.”)

Monday to Saturday (not on Sundays) at 11h00, 12h00 and 14h00.

Tour Bookings: +27 (021) 787 1249.

 

Contact Info.:

 

  • Castle of Good Hope:

c/o Castle & Darling Str., Cape Town.

P.O. Box 1, 8000.

Telephone no.: +27 (021) 787 1260

Email: marketing@castleofgoodhope.co.za

 

  • Iziko Museums:

www.izikomuseums.org.za (You can also find them on social media, especially Twitter)

 

  • Gateway Guides:

www.gatewayguides.co.za (Here you will find the Castle guide, as well as their guides)

 

  • De Goewerneur Restaurant and Kiosk:

Telephone no.: +27 (021) 787 1202.

 

 

Let me know your thoughts or suggestions! I'd love to hear from you.